Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Folio Prize Starts a New Chapter

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Lists of the “to-do” variety are for procrastinating over, while lists of the “best-of” variety are usually for fighting about on Twitter. On Monday, February 10, the inaugural shortlist of the much anticipated Folio Prize was announced (a little early, after the embargo was broken on social media #publicistsnightmare!) at the British Library in London. The £40,000 prize (that’s just shy of $73,000 in today’s weak Loonie) “aims to celebrate the best English-language fiction from around the world.” It’s the first borderless, genderless prize (the Women’s Prize for Fiction is open to all nationalities writing in English, but no one with a Y chromosome need apply), and we can all breathe easy, Canada, because we managed to get an author on the shortlist and thus our potential for literary podium ownership remains intact.

So what is this new Folio thing and is it a big deal and why should we care?

Floated originally as The Literature Prize in fall 2011, the Folio Prize was a response to a Booker Prize shortlist trumpeted by that year’s chair of the judges, Stella Rimington, for its “readability” and books that “zip along.” Andrew Kidd, a literary agent, lead the angry mob of literati that said if the Booker (considered to be one of the most prestigious awards for literary achievement in the English language) was no longer doing its job, then something else would need to start doing what Booker’s job used to be. People (most people) don’t like change and reactions were fierce: the new award was accused of snobbery (“Maybe they can call this ‘The Sniffy’”) and “pretentious twattery.” (It’s worth reading the comments on this Bookseller article for their hilarious Britishness as much as for their ire.) Many expected it would come to naught. And yet, two and half years later, here we are, with a shortlist of eight books. Five Americans, one Canadian, two Brits. Not by any stretch of the imagination a truly “global” list, but at least we didn’t embarrass ourselves like those Australians and South Africans and other no-shows, eh Canada?

The Folio Prize went about its early business in a very “we mean business” fashion. It put together a big prize pot (which sits, diplomatically enough, £10,000 short of the Booker and £10,000 above the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and assembled an Oscars style Academy of 187 writers and critics who would suggest books to go forward for consideration by a jury, which then calls in a further 20 titles based on publishers’ letters of consideration (there are no random publisher submissions). It chose (as Canadian fiction prizes do) to consider all kinds of fiction against one another, and not to confine itself to the novel. It got a sponsor and a new name, which it announced at en event in London at which it gave free drinks to publishers, thus helping everyone to feel warm fuzzies about the new prize in town.

And then, last fall, the Booker Prize announced that it would be removing its UK, Commonwealth and Ireland criteria for eligibility. Panic ensued as everyone formerly eligible for the Booker ran around screaming “The Yanks are coming to take our prizes! The Yanks are coming to take our prizes!” I work for a major Canadian literary award that announced its shortlist that same morning, and one of the first calls I received after our press conference had wrapped was from a radio producer asking me to comment on the Booker’s rule change. Panic over whether Canadian writers might get frozen out of a British prize that was allowing American writers into the competition encroached on the news cycle for a Canadian prize celebrating Canadian writers in Canada. How fearful of sharing our toys are we.

Now, the Folio Prize (its title sponsor makes beautiful illustrated editions of classics and modern classics) is here, and the literary world as we know it hasn’t come crashing about our ears. The Folio is, by virtue of its inclusivity of so many nations, of interest to those other nations. And though five out of eight nominees this time are American, they were (as this Telegraph article pointed out) not the Americans we might have expected. Form seems to have taken a front seat, and chair of the judges Lavinia Greenlaw spoke on the BBC about the “incredible risks” taken by all eight nominees in “putting the form [of fiction] under pressure.” And for those who worried the new prize would be a haven for literary snobs, I would point out that at least two of these boundary-pushing, risk-taking nominees (Kushner and Saunders) are already bestsellers.

Which leaves us looking at the Booker and wondering what it was thinking by changing its rules in the wake of all of this. Having prizes that are similar but different spreads the work, the news cycle, and the sales bumps. Having prizes that fix themselves in haste in the image of their yet-to-be-born competitors gives us the sinking feeling that the prize already suspected it was broken, which doesn’t inspire confidence in its decades-old, high-prestige literary brand.

The year of the egregiously “readable” Booker shortlist — the year of Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan — was also the year of the “not Canadian enough” Giller shortlist. Which was the year before the “not literary enough” Giller shortlist. Which was the year before the “Alice Munro won the Nobel so we’re all too giddy right now to feel insecure about our international popularity” shortlist (phew). Every year there will be lists. And every year there will be “the judges left off WHO?!” reactions to them. And we’ll all talk about the books and some of us will even buy them and read them and — heaven forbid — recommend them to our friends so that they buy them too. I like the Folio Prize list — Jane Gardam and George Saunders are on it together for heaven's sake! — because it has emerged with an identity that’s all its own. Booker should have stuck to its guns in my opinion, but I hope it proves me wrong come the fall.

The complete shortlist for the Folio Prize is:

Red Doc> by Anne Carson 

Schroder by Amity Gaige 

Last Friends by Jane Gardam 

Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride 

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava 

Tenth of December by George Saunders

The winner will be announced in London on March 10.

Becky Toyne came to Toronto on an adventure from London, England, and loved it so much she couldn't bring herself to leave. A books columnist, editor and publicist, she is a regular contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Freedom to Read Week. On her day off, she works as a bookseller at boutique indie Type. You can find her online at and follow her on Twitter @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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