Folio prize returns with nonfiction joining novels on the 2017 shortlist
The £20,000 award established as a more literary rival to the Booker has found a new sponsor and extended its reach to cover factual books
Three years after it was born from literary-world frustrations with the Man Booker prize, the Folio prize has returned, with a shortlist that has more than a little in common with other prizes this year.
The Folio prize was created in the wake of the 2011 Man Booker shortlist, when the judges controversially emphasised “readability” and a book’s ability to “zip along”, perceived by some to be at the expense of literary merit. Margaret Atwood deemed it “much needed in a world in which money is increasingly becoming the measure of all things”.
The prize was established with the rule that any English-language writer could be considered, at which point the Booker would not consider writers beyond the Commonwealth. The Booker responded in 2014 by widening its remit to include fiction in English from across the globe, raising questions as to whether there was a need for another prize for literary fiction.
The first Folio was awarded to American short story writer George Saunders, then IndianAmerican Akhil Sharma in 2015. In 2016, the Folio had a fallow year while organisers found a new sponsor and has now relaunched for 2017, with the backing of investment company Rathbone, and a new criterion to distinguish it from the Booker: allowing nonfiction.
The 2017 shortlist is evenly split between fiction and nonfiction. China Miéville’s fantasy novella This Census-Taker is listed alongside CE Morgan’s “great American novel” The Sport of Kings, Francis Spufford’s historical romp Golden Hill and Madeleine Thien’s story of the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Hisham Matar’s memoir of his missing father, The Return, is listed, as is The Vanishing Man by Observer art critic Laura Cumming, which tells the story of the Spanish artist Velázquez and an English bookseller who thought he had found a lost painting. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s intimate account of her relationship with her transgender partner, is nominated alongside Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami.
The eight finalists were chosen from a list of 62 titles nominated by the Folio Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics including Atwood, Peter Carey, AS Byatt, Zadie Smith and JM Coetzee.
THE 2017 RATHBONES Thien’s novel was nominated for the 2016 FOLIO PRIZE SHORTLIST Man Booker, while by Laura Spufford won the Costa first book award and Cumming (Chatto & Windus) Morgan is in contention by Hisham Matar for the 2017 Baileys prize. Matar’s The Return was nominated for the Costa biography award and the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, while Cumming’s The Vanishing Man is nominated for the James Tait Black prize.
Chair Ahdaf Soueif, who is judging alongside fellow authors Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Rachel Holmes, said that the prize stood out from others in being formed by nominations from the Folio Academy, and also for allowing nonfiction. “It is interesting that there is an overlap (Viking) with other prizes … but it is not surprising,” she said. “It would be lovely to have lots and lots of new books, but it makes sense that there is a fair amount of overlap.”
From the transgender themes of Nelson’s The Argonauts, to the journeys made in Burning Country and The Return, borders could be seen as the common thread throughout the shortlist, said Soueif: “You could make an interesting case. Laura Cumming’s book is all about fudged boundaries between art and life, The Return and Burning Country are very clearly about boundaries … I guess a lot of what these books are doing is considering boundaries, then crossing them.”
The winner will be announced at a ceremony on 24 May at the British Library and will receive a cheque for £20,000. by China Miéville (Picador) by CE Morgan (4th Estate) by Maggie Nelson (Melville House) by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber) Madeleine Thien (Granta) (Pluto Press) by Robin by
Fiction and fact … Folio prize shortlistees Hisham Matar and Madeleine Thien.