Boyd Tonkin: In the war for readers' attention, good fiction needs the weaponry of prizes

The Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Do we need another major award for fiction? From a personal point of view, the question has become a little rhetorical. Along with more than a hundred others, I have signed up as a member of the "academy" that every year will nominate books for the new Folio Prize.

With £40,000 for the winner and sponsorship in place from the Folio Society, the competition will consider fiction in English from all over the globe (no US exclusions, as with the Man Booker). Annual panels of judges will be picked by lot from among "academicians". Unlike the cardinals gathered in conclave in Rome, the chosen arbiters will have the right to refuse to serve. So far as I know, the victor in a papal ballot can't say - sorry folks, but the diary's looking a bit full for the next 30 years.

For a while I doubted that the Folio Prize - driven forward by publisher-turned-agent Andrew Kidd - would come to fruition. After all, the Man Booker grandees had reacted to one proximate cause of its foundation: the aggressively populist, anti-literary approach of the panel chaired by Stella Rimington in 2011. They made sure that the subsequent judging teams had at their head writer-critics who would ensure a serious selection of books: last year Peter Stothard, this year Robert Macfarlane.

Sure enough, the 2012 Man Booker shortlist repaired the damage by playing a diverse and thoughtful hand. Selfishly, I was gratified to see on it Tan Twan Eng's exquisitely smart and subtle novel of art, war and memory The Garden of Evening Mists, published by tiny Myrmidon Books in Newcastle and first reviewed on Britain in these pages. And I'm even more delighted to learn that the Malaysian novelist has, this week, won the continent-wide Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong.

Once the Rimington row had blown over, the air cleared and - to me at least - the proposed new contest ceased to be about rivalry with, or defiance of, the Booker. Of course, it's welcome to have a high-profile addition to the awards calendar that scans the entire field of fiction in the English language. (At some point I would love to see a festival "summit" between the winner of this honour and that of our own Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.) Just as valuably, the "academy" of nominators may place on the judges' table distinguished books from any source - without the arcane rules that can govern the business of prize submission elsewhere.

But these are not the sole reasons to applaud the Folio award's arrival. Frankly, writers, readers and publishers of non-genre fiction have for years had to fight a long war of attrition. They contend with the enemies of their cherished art on many fronts: the digital upheavals in publishing that destroy value and opportunity for precisely those books that need time and care to flourish; the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar bookshops, and of passionate booksellers; the de-skilling of criticism in an age of the online rush to judgment; and the pressure on space and budgets felt by those corners of the media that still want to offer a platform for literature.

So the ruthless struggle for attention - a key battleground in an epoch of information overload - intensifies year by year. Amid this clamour, prizes have a more essential role than ever. They map the landscape. They set an agenda. They guide and inspire readers. And, crucially, they level the ground. A proper judging process will allow the advocates of (say) a Tan Twan Eng to raise their voices above the corporate hubbub.

In the middle of this war, and with so much heavy artillery in the hands of people who couldn't give a 99p download for the art of fiction, a well-managed new award can do much good. It's not a rival or alternative to anything. Who knows? The same winner might emerge in different races. Though, just now, someone might be pondering a special rule that forbade entries by any person named Hilary Mantel.

A bookish baby? Murdoch's giant ankle-biter

Could Rupert Murdoch soon swoop again on the world of books? The mogul has carved a separate publishing business - from The Sun and Times to Fourth Estate and HarperCollins - out of his News Corp empire. It starts life in June as a blessed infant, debt free and with a cash endowment of c.$2.5 billion. First, Murdoch cast a predatory eye on Penguin; the Random House merger thwarted him. Next, it looked as if Simon & Schuster was in his sights. As his giant baby lumbers into life, S&S should watch its back - and ankles.

English: the new literary Latin?

The long-list for the Women's Prize for Fiction (ex-Orange) hints at one major trend that's unrelated to gender. It features Elif Shafak for Honour and Shani Boianjiu for The People of Forever are Not Afraid - her riveting debut about three (female) conscripts. Shafak, from Turkey, wrote Honour in English before undertaking a Turkish version; Boianjiu, from Israel, writes in English, not in Hebrew. In fiction, the "Anglosphere" is expanding well beyond English-writing heartlands from Canada to India.

When a "39 under 39" list of the best younger Latin American writers came out, it included two - Junot Diaz and Daniel Alarcon - who write in English. But such amphibious careers used to be routine. In Middle Ages and Renaissance, this literary bilingualism - with Latin for long the senior language - was near-universal for writers. In the Church, it survives. Look at the Vatican.