Last week, American short story author George Saunders won the inaugural Folio Prize, a literary award established by those in the books industry who felt that the Man Booker Prize was leaning more towards so-called popular fiction than its literary counterparts (because the 800 page Victorian set stylistic experiment The Luminaries is a prime example of populism). The prize comes with a £40,000 cheque.
Saunders’s collection, Tenth of December, was widely acclaimed by critics and writers alike, and remains a favourite to win this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While it’s always good to see short story writers get their dues, especially in the aftermath of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize, the question of who this award is for looms overhead. While the Folio Prize is distinctive in that its judges are fellow writers and critics rather than a specially chosen panel, thus allowing for a certain kind of prestige in the community many writers will undoubtedly appreciate, the question remains as to whether the book consuming public will stand up and take notice.
Put aside the implied snobbery of a group of people creating a prize specifically to get away from what they see as popular fiction for a moment and let’s concentrate on the power of the award. There are certain creative fields where winning the big awards is a life-saver. The Tony Awards, for instance, reward Broadway theatre, a notoriously difficult area for anyone to break even, much less make a profit. To win Best Musical or Best Play is almost a guarantee of a show making its money back since in this economy very few shows are review proof (75% of shows fail to make any money back). With publishing becoming a more and more difficult industry for authors to make a decent living from their craft, a little recognition can go a long way, even without the prize money (although that does help). I have difficulty imagining The Luminaries, for instance, selling as many copies as it did in the UK if it hadn’t won the Man Booker Prize. I certainly can’t see it sitting on the shelves of my local Tesco without that crucial black sticker on the cover.
Another claim made in favour of such awards is that they allow the field to be more diverse in terms of the gender, race, sexuality, class of author, etc, in a field that has previously been dominated by straight white men. I question this part because the majority of prize winners continue to be straight white dudes, many of whom are American. Indeed, the majority of the Folio Prize shortlist was American, with the winner fitting the entire checklist. Women still make up the minority of Man Booker Prize winners, and women of colour even less. That doesn’t even cover the content of the novels that won in regards of representation there. Now that the Man Booker will be taking the work of American authors into consideration, one questions if the field will truly open up.
One thing I do give the Folio Prize in its favour is that it will allow self-published works to be considered, although it remains to be seen as to whether or not any of them will receive further serious recognition from such committees. After all, the giants of self-publishing in its current form are writers of romance and science-fiction, which are both probably far too “readable” for the judges of the Folio Prize.
When did readability become a bad thing? Great literature shouldn’t be entirely inaccessible to the reader. The idea that the work the Man Booker Prize rewards is inherently inferior because it “zips along” is an insult to readers and writers alike. Once again, I return to the example of The Luminaries. It’s hardly a Dan Brown thriller in terms of populist accessibility but it sold well and many readers who wouldn’t have discovered it before the awards flocked to it with great enthusiasm. The Folio Prize may claim to combat the issues of the Man Booker but at the end of the day they’re all inherently designed to fulfil the same purpose – to sell books. The industry is predicated on selling books because that’s how capitalism works. If authors really wanted to throw off these shackles then they would put all their work on the internet for free, whether it was readable or not.
The Man Booker is hardly the first literary prize to have these kind of issues. The big boys at the top – the Nobel and Pulitzer respectively – have seen their fair share of committee in-fighting & squabbles and the kind of surprise omissions that the Folio Prize seems to wish to avoid. How long before the Folio Prize is deemed to be not selective enough and another prize is created to reject the supposed readability of their shortlist? It’s all on the verge of becoming a touch Judean People’s Front. The entire idea of giving an award to something deemed the “best” in its field has been a contentious issue for many generations. Check out the fights that go on related to the Oscars or the Grammys. These days, such things are seldom awarded entirely on merit.
The squabbling will continue and everyone will fight for their chosen read. The ultimate impact of the Folio Prize remains to be seen, but whatever the case, I can guarantee that it’ll help Saunders’s book sell a few more copies.