March 14, 2013
Announcing a new prize for Jonathan Franzen to win
by Dustin Kurtz
The Folio Society announced a new literary prize yesterday. The forty thousand pound prize is to be awarded to an English language book of fiction published in the UK. It will be awarded for the first time in March of 2014, though the nominating body for the prize—they’re calling it an Academy—has already been announced, and includes luminaries like Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A.S. Byatt and J.M. Coetzee. The Bookseller has the full list of current members of this Academy.
The rules of the prize stress that it will be open to works by American authors, and that any genre of fiction could be considered.
The process by which books are nominated is interesting in juxtaposition to the Man Booker Prize. For the Booker, readers may know, publishers themselves nominate books, and are limited in the number they may nominate. Judges can and do request that other books be sent for consideration, but in practice it means that larger publishers are at a practical disadvantage.
For the new Folio, the Academy of judges all nominate three eligible books, ranked. Points are allotted to each book depending on how many first second or third rankings it earned. the top scoring books are gathered into a longlist of sixty books. To those are added twenty that have been nominated by publishers. All of those books are then judged by a panel of readers. A longlist of eighty is promising, but because sixty of those are drawn from a pool of books read in common by the Academy, not submitted, it means that the big books of the year, those with a lot of critical noise and excellent distribution, are very likely to be in that list of eighty. This is true regardless of the no doubt excellent taste of the this great body of authors included in the Academy. Lesser known authors are less likely to win this Folio prize. I don’t say it’s impossible: with a field of eighty finalists very little is impossible. And of course, this is nothing so bad as the new emphasis on popularity that the American National Book Awards have declared. It is just a small but real artifact of the way the Folio books are to be judged.
Already media is calling the Folio a rival for the Man Booker Prize. The Guardian quotes literary agent Andrew Kidd—one of the directors of the new prize—as saying, correctly, that the idea of prizes in some kind of competition is nonsense.
“We’re a complement to all prizes,” he said. “All book prizes are charitable organisations that are run for the public benefit, so this notion of prizes somehow rivalling each other doesn’t really make any sense. More initiatives that bring more great books to more people can only be a good thing.”
But the discussion about the prize before it found the Folio Society as a sponsor clearly staked it against the Booker, and even at yesterday’s announcement at the British Library, Kidd was forced to compare the two. For instance, there’s to be no hoopla of a formal banquet with the Folio.
Certainly booksellers won’t regret the addition of the prize. Prizes drive book sales in a real way, and the spacing of the Folio and the Booker—five months apart—means no competing displays in stores. The real test of the value of the Folio will be in the panel of judges chosen for the prize this summer, but I have high hopes that this might prove to be a prize worth watching.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.