November 5, 2014
The Folio Prize adds a new string to its bow
by Zeljka Marosevic
The Folio Society announced in 2013 that it would be launching a new literary prize, and one that would be open to all books written in English, whether or not the writers originated from England or the Commonwealth. At the time, the prize was seen as a rival to the Booker Prize, and the Booker’s administrators reacted promptly by controversially changing their own rules of entry to match those of the Folio.
George Saunders was the first winner of the Folio Prize earlier this year: an American short story writer, he went against every original Booker rule (not British, not a novel).
This year the Booker ended up with a generally haphazard and disappointing long list and shortlist, and finally awarded the prize to an uncontroversial Australian. It was a prize that was finding its feet again, after decades of dominating literary culture.
While comparisons of the two prizes are inevitable, it seems a new focus should be placed on the initiatives the Folio Society is launching around the prize itself. Last year, it held its first ever Folio Prize Fiction Festival, which hosted shortlisted authors as well as writers and authors from the Folio Prize Academy (a community of authors, writers and critics, out of which a judging panel for the prize is assembled each year) in a series of events and talks. It has now announced an annual Folio Society Lecture, and giving the inaugural address will be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Adichie is a smart choice. Her 2013 TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” has been viewed one and a half million times on YouTube, and was so popular that her publishers have just released the talk as a pamphlet. But hosting an annual lecture, and holding a festival are also smart choices from the Folio. Prizes are an excellent way of drawing attention to literary fiction (and nonfiction) but they are somewhat limiting, and limited in how many authors they can champion, and for how long.
But a festival promotes many, and allows for multiple dialogues away from the usual bickering about prizes; an annual lecture has the power to set new agendas in cultural conversation. Both of these elements make the Folio Prize an instrument in fostering talent, and sustaining interest and discussion in literary fiction for longer than the usual quick burst of attention when a prize is announced. It’s not just about the prize, the Folio Society seems to be saying, and that’s what currently distinguishes it from the Booker.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.