March 30, 2018

Sur-prize: Another day, another shortlist causing controversy


This year’s Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist was announced on Tuesday, and guess what? Six out of the eight books on it are published by Penguin Random House. Four of them have already been listed for some other prominent literary prize. One of them happens to be by a Melville House author, so we know who we’re rooting for.

Still, this list makes me angry. Why? Because it seems to go against the very reason the prize was set up in the first place, which was to address a perceived weakness in the the Man Booker Prize’s title selection year on year. As Alison Flood nicely summarized it for the Guardian back in 2016:

The Folio prize was established in 2011 after the literary establishment rounded on the judges of that year’s Man Booker award, who overlooked novels by major names to shortlist a collection of novels that one judge said “zipped along”. The award set out to “offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”, stating that “for many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.”

The Man Booker Prize has been highly criticized by authors and publishers alike over its rule changes (which we’ve covered before) and apparent focus on the more commercial, predictable end of the literary spectrum. The Folio Prize was set up as an antidote to this tedium, promising to be more open and wider in scope. It expanded this thinking last year by allowing non-fiction entries for the first time. Melville House UK’s own The Argonauts was shortlisted, a lovely surprise… Less of a surprise was that the winning book, Hisham Matar’s The Return, was published by, oh, Penguin Random House.

In 2018, we’re faced with seven books from big publishers, and one from independent publisher Faber and Faber. The process of determining the winner is straightforward: members of the Folio Prize Academy create a longlist of sixty books, which gets whittled down by a three-member panel of judges (this year it’s Jim CraceNikesh Shulka, and Kate Summerscale). Publishers do not put forward their own books for submission. So literally any book could be selected. Why, then, do we have a shortlist that seems remarkably safe and tame? My heart sinks with disappointment.

On top of this, a festering Man Booker wound has been re-opened: should US authors be allowed to enter the prize? I’ve written about this more than once and made my opinion clear — nope. Remove those Americans, stitch up the bloody mess, and let it heal.

It seems the approximately 300 members of the Academy strongly agree. The body recently asked its members what they thought of the 2014 Booker rule change allowing any writer published in the UK in English to enter. A spokesperson told Heloise Wood at The Bookseller that ninety-nine percent of respondents so far have argued in favor of the Man Booker Prize reverting to its previous eligibility criteria. Wood goes on to speak to individual academy members, including Tessa Hadley, who says, “Now it’s as though we’re perceived—and perceive ourselves—as only a subset of US fiction, lost in its margins — and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing. And yet I don’t think the Americans are very interested in the Man Booker.”

DJ Taylor also stepped into the debate, telling Wood, “The internationalism on which the recent expansion of the prize is predicated is largely spurious. Its immediate effect has been to marginalise yet further the kind of quiet, understated, yet immensely rewarding home-grown novels which deserve more attention than they get.”

Hear hear. But here’s the weird thing… Folio Academy members are attacking the Booker over its eligibility rule, but the Rathbones Folio Prize can go to authors from any part of the world. So… same as the Booker then. As Porter Anderson puts it for Publishing Perspectives, “This, although the Rathbones Folio shortlist of the evening has included Elizabeth Strout, who is an American author, born in Portland, Maine. The debate, in other words, seems hobbled by the fact that the Rathbones Folio contingent is criticizing one UK prize, the Booker, for accepting entries from beyond its original British purview, but is accepting and shortlisting such entries, itself.”

Pot, kettle? It’s true the Booker is a huge, internationally renowned prize and the Folio has yet to find any true traction, but should that mean the rule is ok for one and not the other? Come on prizes, get a grip! And please take off those blinkers, open your eyes, and realise there is a literary world beyond Penguin Random House.

The 2018 Rathbone Folio Prize shortlist



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.