The Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist Is Announced, as ‘Evolved’ Booker Debate Flares Again

In News by Porter Anderson

The Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist announcement prompts criticism of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, while the Folio Prize accepts international entries—as the Booker does.

Clockwise from upper left, shortlisted authors in the 2018 Rathbones Folio Prize competition are Richard Beard, Sally Rooney, Richard Lloyd Parry, Elizabeth Strout, Hari Kunzru, Xiaolu Guo, Mohsin Hamid, and Jon McGregor. Image of Guo by Stephen Baker. Image of Lloyd Parry by Niall McDiarmid;. Image of Beard by Dru Marland. Image of Hamid by Laurent Denimal.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Startled and Delighted’ Despite Booker Backlash
This evening in London (March 27), the shortlist has been named for the Rathbones Folio Prize. This competition is unusual for its interest in “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form,” which means its jurors consider both fiction and nonfiction in English.

The prize’s three jurors—Kate Summerscale, Nikesh Shukla, and Jim Crace—say in a group statement that they read both poetry and prose, and were “startled and delighted” to find that so much good material could be published in a year.

And while the shortlist of eight titles chosen by those startled jurors includes five novels and three works of nonfiction by authors from the UK, Ireland, Pakistan, China, and the United States, the program seems to have clouded its own announcement by taking up the ongoing controversy over the Man Booker Prize’s “evolved” status since 2014. This is the policy change that now allows authors working in English from any part of the world to be eligible for submission by a UK publisher.

As reported this evening by Heloise Wood at The Bookseller, the Folio program—as it was known before signing Rathbones Investment Management as its patron in 2016—made a survey of the writer-members of the Folio “academy,” as it’s called. The academy is an invitational who’s who among writers and critics.

The majority of the academy’s 250 members are reported to have responded that the Man Booker—now enjoying its 50th anniversary—should return to its more restrictive past and limit eligibility once more to authors of Britain, the Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe.

This, although the Rathbones Folio shortlist of the evening has included Elizabeth Strout, who is an American author, born in Portland, Maine. The debate, in other words, seems hobbled by the fact that the Rathbones Folio contingent is criticizing one UK prize, the Booker, for accepting entries from beyond its original British purview, but is accepting and shortlisting such entries, itself.

Media materials about the shortlist mention that there’s a “North American” among the honored authors. That’s Strout, a US writer, not a Canadian, as some might assume “North American” implies.

Folio Members Speak Out About the Booker Prize

Publishing Perspectives readers have been keeping up with the Booker debate, at times heated. So far, the complaints seem to have had little impact on the Man Booker Foundation’s trustees. The most frequent assertion is that an American hegemony is the result of the widened eligibility, a notion confirmed for some by the fact that US writers have won the Booker for the past two years,  Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders in 2017.

Even as many in the US market have felt “startled and delighted,” themselves, to find that their country’s literature has been honored by the leading prize of the renowned literary hub that is the UK market, many in the UK seem to feel that British writings are being “marginalized” as somehow secondary to US writers’ work.

Folio Academy member Tessa Hadley is quoted by Wood at The Bookseller saying, “It’s as though we’re perceived—and perceive ourselves—as only a subset of US fiction, lost in its margins.” Another Folio member, DJ Taylor, says, “The internationalism on which the recent expansion of the prize is predicated is largely spurious.”

A countervailing comment, however, comes from Folio Academy member Sam Leith, who says, “I think that–angry though it has made a lot of UK writers and publishers—there’s a clear literary sense in the Man Booker having as its constituency the English language, rather than a territorial remit based on a semi-defunct postcolonial trading bloc.”

And Wood goes on to point out that the Rathbones Folio Prize has found it difficult to gain traction.

It was, she writes, “established in 2013 as a rival to the Man Booker Prize, and is open to writers from around the world, rewarding the best work of literature ‘regardless of form.’ It regards itself as a challenger prize, and believes it prompted the Man Booker to change its rules. But the Folio Prize has struggled to achieve widespread recognition, and did not run in 2016 as it sought a new sponsor. It returned in 2017 expanding its own criteria to include nonfiction books, having secured backing from investment company Rathbones.”

Folio Prize co-founder Andrew Kidd is quoted in press materials saying that the three jurors have chosen a shortlist that “reflects the international range that is this prize’s DNA, while also confirming that British fiction and nonfiction is in great shape.”

And in his own prepared comment, the sponsoring Rathbones CEO Philip Howell takes the highest road possible, saying that the shortlist’s quality “underscores our aim to bring a diverse range of outstanding writing to readers’ attention.”

Despite all this, there is, in fact, a shortlist produced by those startled jurors.

Rathbones Folio Prize 2018 Shortlist

Image: Rathbones Folio Prize

  • Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)
  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (Faber)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape)
  • Once Upon A Time In The East by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)
  • The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton)

As referenced earlier, the shortlist has been selected from an initial round of 80 titles nominated by the Rathbones Folio Academy members.

Penguin Random House is by far the dominant publisher represented, with six titles. Faber and HarperCollins’ 4th Estate have one title each.

The winner, who is to be named at the British Library on May 8, is to receive a £20,000 purse (US$28,328).

More from Publishing Perspectives on awards is here. And more about the Man Booker Prize and associated controversies is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.