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Inaugural Folio Prize surprises nearly everyone

17 February 2014

The shortlist for the first Folio Prize has caused quite a stir, highlighting various changes in the ecology of prizes. It set out to be different from the Man Booker and more literary, and seems to have achieved its intention.

In doing this it has provided a challenge to the cosy hegemony of the Booker, no doubt influencing Booker's decision to make its own eligibility guidelines the same - novels written in English published in the UK but by authors from all over the world, including the US. Many would feel that this is a change too slow in the coming - and that in this time of increasing globalisation it's no good to have a continuing approach which only admits British and Commonwealth writers.

But I can't be the only UK commentator to regret the days when the Booker did a lot more to promote British writers. The Folio shortlist has shown how easy it is for writers from the UK to be swamped by those from the US. On this first list, there is just one British writer, the highly regarded Jane Gardam, and an Irish newcomer, Eimear McBride. The list as a whole is oriented towards the new, with three debut writers, and is also more diverse in form, with one collection of short stories and a verse novel from the well-established but still rather experimental Canadian poet Anne Carson.

The UK debut is an interesting one, since it took the author nine years to find a publisher and then it was the tiny Galley Beggar Press (presumably well-named) which took a huge punt as it only publishes two books a year. It's difficult to convey how very irritating the existing highly-regarded literary publishers in the UK must have found this outcome.

One of the authors, Sergio de la Pavia, has already been quoted on this site, saying 'I didn't know the first thing about publishing, I didn't know anybody in publishing, I didn't care about having anything to do with publishing during those six years I wrote it...'

Five US authors are shortlisted. Quercus, which recently announced it is for sale, has one nomination for A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, which is published by the Maclehose Press imprint. The book was originally self-published by the author in 2008. The others in the shortlist are The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Harvill Secker); Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber); Benediction, the third book in the Plainsong trilogy by Kent Haruf (Picador); and short-story collection Tenth of December by PENSupported by eminent writers, this is the English branch of International Pen, which has centres in nearly 100 countries. It fights for freedom of expression and against political censorship. It campaigns for writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes murdered for their views. Award finalist George Saunders (Bloomsbury).
Andrew Kidd, founder of the Folio Prize, said: ‘To our mind it seemed perverse that we would have launched a prize in 2013 that was anything other than borderless. Most of the British writers I have spoken with were thrilled by the idea that they weren't receiving any special attention. I think this year this is how it turned out. Who knows how it might turn out next year. I don't think it reflects that there is any issue with writing here or anywhere else.'

The Folio Prize aims to recognise and celebrate the best English-language fiction from around the world published in the UK, regardless of form, genre or the author's country of origin, and this approach was borne out by what Lavinia Greenlaw, the Chair of the judges, said: ‘We didn't set out with a template in mind and fill it with eight books. What we were attracted to was an artistic ambition in that it wasn't just clever and was full of sharp angles that created a dynamic read. These books are utterly unlike each other. It is about authors taking risks and doing things that should fail but pulling them off.'

Perhaps Greenlaw should have the last word:

‘Our experience of reading 80 books over five months was full of surprises, challenges, frustrations, provocations, regrets and delights. The short list we've arrived at is one of which we're proud. Our deliberations were long and intense. We forgot about the authors and focused on the books. Only when we surfaced with our chosen eight in hand did we reflect on what they collectively represent: the art of fiction at full stretch and in all its forms, and the ingenious and dazzling result of form under exquisite pressure.

Our final choice will be extremely difficult. Each one of these eight titles would be a worthy winner of a prize dedicated to celebrating the best of fiction as it is now being written.'