Friday, March 15, 2013

What I'd Like to See from the Folio Prize

Given the Booker's long-time hegemony, I think its great that there's a new kid on the block with the Folio Prize for fiction. Literary fiction is increasingly in need of all the help it can get; and part of that, I think, is the way, over the years there's been a gap that's become a gaping chasm between the most interesting novels being published and "Booker books." I've mentioned before that any survey of 21st Century Brit-lit would surely include Nicola Barker, Magnus Mills, David Peace, David Mitchell, A.L. Kennedy, Will Self and China Mieville amongst its highlights, yet they've only occasionally been thought of for Booker long and shortlists. Any "list" of names or books is going to be partial; but I think though you could make a case that the Booker of the 80s and 90s was pretty close to the best that's been published, its for a long time lurched between various uncertainties - an underperforming old guard; a lurch to the new and shiny one off; and a penchant for either the predictably exotic, or (through Canadian and Australian nominees) a pseudo-American fiction that would otherwise be ineligible.

So what should a new prize do?

- Some consistency would be nice: recent Booker panels have lurched from populist to patrician
- Book bloggers are some of our best critics: not myself here, I barely read a dozen novels a year, but there's plenty of good book bloggers out there who are perceptive and, increasingly, taste formers for their readership. Are any in the new Folio academy?
- Small presses: here the Booker's been good of late, but partly because of the failure of the majors to publish even well known writers or excellent books by newcomers
- Novellas are nice - it seems that fiction is best served when its not in similar sized containers all the time - small books can be brilliant books (as can long books, as can sequences, as can connected-stories, as can fictional memoirs)
- Old writers are sometimes writing their best books: yes, its true - always a bit surprised by the writers consistently ignored by prizes
- Genre is sometimes okay - imagine if Stephen King's 11.22.63 was by a British writer - surely would have been worth a Booker listing. But same goes for China Mieville's The City and The City for instance, or one of Kate Atkinson's detective novels.
- Privilege the unusual: the Booker's tended to like quirky one-offs (DBC Pierre, Yann Martel) but hasn't been so kind to genuinely original constructions such as "Remainder" or "Spurious". A prediliction in favour of language and the unusual might increase the likelihood of publishers looking out for more of these.
- History is over. Well, not quite, but one of my bug-bears about the Booker is that any weighty historical novel seems to have a head start over the opposition. Seems odd to say that after the double from Mantel - but her books have a contemporary relevance as well as historical subject - some years the Booker has been like the history channel
- Ditch the commonwealth - difficult one this - literary identity and national identity are often different - but some shortlists have included a number of books that are American in all but the nuance of birth - if thats the case - then let American writers in. (I've not checked what the rules are)
- Make sure the books are available: there's an insanity about the Booker that big names and small names alike have sometimes been on the longlist before they've even published. What may have been a quirk initially seems to have lost its usefulness, with books read on Kindle or manuscript by the judges before they've made the shops.  

No comments: