The Folio Prize shortlist has been greeted with the kind of headlines that Literary Editors may yet be able to dust off later in the year when the Booker announces its longlist: Americans Dominate. Five of the eight shortlisted books are by US authors – along with one Canadian, one Brit and one Irish author - which sounds about right, given the numbers involved. There are a lot more Americans than Brits writing books because there are a lot more Americans full-stop. They outnumber us by about 5 to 1, as they do on the shortlist.
The Prize was set up in response to the 2011 Man Booker shortlist, which disregarded too many literary big-hitters (previous winners Alan Hollinghurst and Anne Enright were among the snubbed) in favour of a word barely spoken without a sneer: readability. It is, of course, worth bearing in mind that whatever reservations people had about the list as a whole, the 2011 Booker Prize was won by the undeniable literary heavyweight, Julian Barnes. It’s also worth mentioning that ‘readability’ is an odd insult to level at a book: do any novelists, except the very most experimental and avant-garde, ever set out to write a book which is unreadable?
Certainly, Anne Enright wrote an enormously readable book that year, in The Forgotten Waltz. It’s a glorious, racing love affair between two people who should know better, set against Ireland’s equally destructive infatuation with ever more expensive property. As the property market and the love affair spun dangerously out of control, the novel was never less than compelling. I should know: I was part of the Orange Prize judging panel which shortlisted it in 2012.
And the Folio Prize shortlist looks pretty readable too, though readability must be a subjective term. Through a combination of reviewing and prize-judging, I have read something like 300 novels in the past two and a half years, and virtually none of them was unreadable, aside from the proof copies set in the world’s smallest type (that’s my tip for publishers submitting their books: make sure the judges can read your book. Sounds easy, but for some it proved surprisingly difficult. And yes, publisher who submitted an ineligible book, taped inside the dust jacket of an eligible book, I mean you).
This year’s Folio judges have read 80 books, which is just over half of the 151 submitted to the Man Booker prize last year. The downside is that fewer books are being considered and some great ones might therefore be missed. The upside is that the judges won’t be fighting the clock every moment, and that can only help.
The real problem with every prize I’ve judged (Orange, Man Booker, and now the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) is how to get to the good stuff without becoming bogged down in the sheer, crushing number of books. On top of that is the problem of repetition. Publishers tend to submit what they think the judges may like and, unsurprisingly, many make very similar choices. One year, I read so many scenes of gang-rape by Nazis that I began to wonder how they’d found time to invade Poland.
In which case, the Folio Prize is off to a good start: by removing the submissions from publishers and relying on recommendations from their academy, they may have managed to skip some of the samey stuff. The only problem is, they might also have missed some tremendous books by authors who aren’t sufficiently well known to be read by the 200 people who have a say.
But any prize which focuses attention on the wonderful Anne Carson (whose illustrated Antigone I once gave away to a woman who told me, simply, that she longed for it) can only be a good thing. All prizes are subjective and the point of them is to bring more books to our attention. Readers and writers can ask for nothing more.