There’s a new book prize in town, and it announced itself grandly on February 10 by issuing an inaugural shortlist ranging from debut Irish author Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, one of the most lauded titles in the U.S. market last year. Officially launched in March 2013, the Folio Prize was founded by Andrew Kidd, managing director of the London-based literary agency Aitken Alexander Associates, and is sponsored by the Folio Society, a British publisher known for its elegantly produced nonfiction and fiction. Its organizers call it the first major English-language book prize open to writers from around the world.
The scope is thus global, the focus Anglophone (books must be written originally in English), and the calendar British (candidates must be published in the U.K. in the year previous to the March awards). Most significantly, the award aims to honor fiction, considering any genre to find “the most exciting and outstanding English-language books to appear in the last year,” says Kidd. Aside from Kushner’s and McBride’s works, the eight final contenders offer a satisfying if mostly recognizable mix with a touch of surprise.
Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, for instance, is actually a full-length work of poetry in dramatic format whose nomination reveals an intriguing open-mindedness on the part of the judges. Amity Gaige’s morally nuanced Schroder made numerous Top Ten lists in America but is here getting its first chance at prize recognition. Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, third in the English author’s “Old Filth” trilogy, is a home run for the home team. Kent Haruf’s quiet Benediction, which revisits the author’s beloved small-town Colorado, contrasts with Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, a breakout debut novel in America, originally self-published, that won the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. George Saunders rounds out the list with his acclaimed story collection, Tenth of December, a National Book Award finalist, as was Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
The judges, chaired by prize-winning British poet/novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, include Pulitzer Prize–winning American novelist Michael Chabon; British novelist Sarah Hall, whose The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award; the Vietnamese-born, Australian-raised Nam Le, winner of multiple prizes for The Boat; and Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, who won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Together they winnowed their selections from 80 books, 60 nominated by members of the newly formed Folio Prize Academy—over 100 strong, a rich mix of established authors and critics ranging from John Banville and Ian McEwan to Edwidge Danticat and Anne Tyler—and 20 drawn by the judges from letters of recommendation furnished by publishers.
The winner, who will receive £40,000, will be announced on Monday, March 10, at an invitation-only awards ceremony at London’s St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. In keeping with the award’s avowed aim, a Folio Prize Fiction Festival will be held the weekend before, March 8–9, in partnership with the British Library. The panels feature the judges, shortlisted authors, and a host of Folio Academy members, including Ali Smith and Sebastian Faulks, and are organized around the concepts of voice, place, genre, structure, and context—concepts that the prize’s organizers see as defining great fiction. At £8 apiece, the panels are a bargain, but the website advises those interested to book now.
The focus on concepts like voice and structure signals the prize’s commitment to the grand tradition of practiced, polished storytelling over anything thematic, niche, or in-your-face outré. As Greenlaw comments, “The prize makes an unapologetic assertion about the value of experience and expertise, and the high expectations that come from spending much of your life investigating and testing language and form.” This year’s judges weren’t entirely risk averse, though. British newspapers report that McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was shopped around for nine years but rejected as too experimental until its purchase by Galley Beggar Press, which must now be popping champagne corks over that smart decision. The book has also won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize and will be published here by Coffee House Press in the fall.
Given its backing, the Folio Prize might have tilted toward British authors, but in fact five of the eight shortlisted authors are Americans; adding Canadian Anne Carson makes for strong representation from North America. Clearly, the judges obeyed the injunction to ignore boundaries, sticking with what rang true to them. In the future, one would wish to see non-Western authors on the shortlist and some more daring choices generally. The prize admirably puts English-speaking authors from Africa and Australia, Asia, the Americas, and the British Isles on an equal footing and could serve as a real means of discovery. But a good list honoring good fiction is always welcome, and the inaugural Folio list is a nice start.
The Anglophone mandate does raise an interesting question. Other English-language prizes, such as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and America’s National Book Critics Circle Awards, are open to books in translation and thus bring important titles to English-language readers. By not doing so, the Folio Prize seems poised to go in another direction as it brings together the entire community of authors writing in English—unlike the Commonwealth Writers Prizes, for instance, which obviously exclude the United States and have now ramped down to a short story prize only. The Folio Prize should allow us to reconsider the worldwide reach of the English language and its literature while clarifying how much both have been shaped by that reach. And it’s obviously another helpful tool for authors, publishers, and review editors eager to connect readers to good books.