Folio Prize shortlist dominated by US authors

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightRobin Mayes
image captionFolio Prize founder Andrew Kidd, chair of judges Lavinia Greenlaw and Folio Society MD Toby Hartwell

The inaugural shortlist of the latest literary award on the block, the Folio Prize, has been unveiled - with a strong showing by American authors.

The prize, open to English-language writers from all around the world, pre-empts this year's Booker Prize, which is also expanding to a global level.

The final eight books - out of 80 read by the Folio judges - span poetry, novels and short stories.

The winner of the £40,000 prize will be announced on 10 March.

On the shortlist are Red Doc by Anne Carson, Schroder by Amity Gaige, Last Friends by Jane Gardam, Benediction by Kent Haruf and The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner.

The list is completed by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava and Tenth of December by George Saunders.

Five of the writers - Gaige, Haruf, Kushner, De La Pava and Saunders - are American or US-based. Gardam is the only English writer on the list. Carson is Canadian, and McBride is Irish.

Several of the books have already made a splash in the literary pond.

McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013. The debut novelist spent nine years trying to get the book published. Her book tells of a young woman's relationship with a brother still afflicted by a childhood brain tumour.

Carson's Red Doc was on the shortlist for the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry 2013.

De La Pava's A Naked Singularity was originally self-published in 2008. At more than 800 pages, it follows followed the exploits of a young public defender in New York City working on the front line of America's War on Drugs.

The book was later published by the University of Chicago Press and won a PEN Literary Award.

Announcing the shortlist at the British Library on Monday, Lavinia Greenlaw, chair of the judges, said the experience of reading 80 books over five months had been "full of surprises, challenges, frustrations, provocations, regrets and delights".

"The shortlist we've arrived at is one of which we're proud," she said. "Our deliberations were long and intense. We forgot about the authors and focused on the books."

She admitted it had been "very striking when we finally laid the books out on the table to realise that we had chosen a significant proportion of North American writers".

Alongside Greenlaw on the judging panel are Michael Chabon, Sarah Hall, Nam Le and Pankaj Mishra.

Andrew Kidd, founder of The Folio Prize, said: "They were asked to disregard nationality, ethnicity, gender and lifetime achievement and to concentrate solely on the words on the pages in front of them. Thrillingly, that's exactly what they did.

"The result is a shortlist of eight amazing books that range from classical narrative to prose poetry; from a 'messy masterpiece' to a collection of effectively flawless short stories."

'Dominance of US writers'

media captionAre British authors being squeezed out?

On the issue of the dominance of North American writers, Kidd said: "This is how it turned out this year, who knows how it might turn out next year? I don't think it reflects any issue with writing from this country or anywhere else."

He continued: "It would have seemed perverse that we would have launched a prize in 2013 which was other than borderless in an increasingly borderless world.

"Most of the British writers I've spoken with... were thrilled by the idea that they weren't receiving any special protection."

Formerly known as the Literature Prize, the Folio Prize was first announced in 2011 amidst a row in literary circles over the decision by that year's Man Booker judges to focus on "readability".

The Folio Prize joins a literary awards landscape that already contains the £50,000 Man Booker, the £30,000 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and the new £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize.

In September last year it was announced the Man Booker Prize - which had only considered works from the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe - would open up to authors around the world in 2014.

Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Some welcomed the extra competition, while others felt American novelists would come to dominate the prize, robbing British authors of the sales and publicity that come with the honour.

Reacting to Monday's Folio Prize announcement, Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles web editor, said: "The dominance of American writers is the biggest talking point, as it pre-empts the widespread suggestion that opening up the Man Booker Prize to writers beyond the Commonwealth this year is likely to produce a similarly skewed longlist.

"The presence of three first-time authors is a little surprising; their lack of experience means they tend to be scarce on major prize shortlists, but all three have already been widely acclaimed as ground-breaking."

He said that while it difficult to identity a favourite, his tip would be A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. "It's become quite the word-of-mouth phenomenon since winning the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize."

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