Folio Prize: American authors dominate shortlist for new Man Booker rival

Founder of prize said nationality did not feature in judging process

The Americans are coming for the UK’s literary awards. Five of the eight nominees competing for the inaugural Folio Prize, a major literary award set up to challenge the Man Booker Prize over concerns it was dumbing down, hail from the US.

With just two British writers on the shortlist, the domination by American names has added to fears that homegrown writers will increasingly miss out in seeing their works championed in the UK. It was the establishment of the Folio that led the Booker’s controversial decision to also open up its award to authors from beyond the Commonwealth for the first time this year.

One of the Americans competing for the Folio award is Sergio De La Pava, a rising star whose debut novel A Naked Singularity, written after work as a public defender, was snapped up after he had been forced to self-publish it. 

The inaugural Folio Prize shortlist was unveiled at the British Library today. The £40,000 prize is open to any work published in the English language last year, and the winner will be announced on March 10.

The list sprung some real surprises with two debut novels, the work of an author in her 80s, as well as a novel in verse and a collection of short stories. 

Lavinia Greenlaw, poet and inaugural chair of the judges, said: “The authors are doing things that should fail. They’re taking risks and pulling them off. That’s one of the great pleasures of reading.”

The two British-based authors nominated were 85-year-old Jane Gardam for her work Last Friends and Eimear McBride, who won the inaugural Goldsmiths Award for A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing.

Ms Greenlaw said the shortlist showed “the art of fiction at full stretch, and in all its forms, and the ingenious and dazzling results of form under exquisite pressure.”

Beyond Mr De La Pava, the Americans on the list included Amity Gaige, nominated for Schroder, Kent Haruf for Benediction, Rachel Kushner, who wrote The Flamethrowers and George Saunders for Tenth of December.  Anne Carson, nominated for Red Doc, is Canadian.

Jonathan Ruppin, web editor for Foyles, said the dominance of North American writers “is the biggest talking point, as it pre-empts the widespread suggestion that opening up the Man Booker Prize to writers beyond the Commonwealth this year is likely to produce a similarly skewed longlist”.

Andrew Kidd, founder of The Folio Prize, said no one was thinking about the issue of nationality during the judging process: “This is how it happened to turn out this year. Who knows how it might turn out next year.”

“It seemed perverse that we would launch a prize in 2013 that was other than borderless,” he continued. “There was no question of putting those restrictions on it. Most of the British writers I’ve spoken with were thrilled they weren’t receiving special protection.”

Christopher MacLehose, founder of MacLehose Press which published A Naked Singularity, said he was “really impressed” that the judges were “much more about form, and kicking over the traits in the writing. These are enormously ambitious writers”.

While A Naked Singularity was written by a lawyer about the US legal system, John Grisham this is not. The Folio judges described the book as a “linguistically pyrotechnic satirical romp through the US criminal justice system”.

Mr MacLehose said: “De La Pava is completely out of this world. After reading the book, you think: ‘He can only be a writer.’ He’s not, he’s a lawyer. Every single day he’s in court – as is his central character – defending the impoverished, the weak and the vulnerable from the American judicial system.”

Mr De La Pava was rejected by close to 20 agents and his wife published 1,000 private copies to give to their friends. She then published it online where it was discovered by an editor at Chicago University Press.

The book, which stretches to 800 pages and took him seven years to write, won the 43-year-old lawyer the PEN Prize last year. It has been described as “The Wire written by Voltaire”.

The Folio Prize Academy, currently comprised of 187 writers and critics, selected 60 titles with no restrictions on country of origin, genre or form. The judges selected for the prize then added an additional 20 titles.

The write stuff: The Folio shortlist

Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)

A mix of poetry, drama, and narrative follows protagonist “G” on his travels with a war veteran and an artist.

Schroder by Amity Gaige (US)

The tale of a first-generation East German immigrant who, while attending a New England summer camp, adopts a new persona.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)

The third book in her ‘Old Filth’ trilogy focuses on the Edward and Betty Feathers’ marriage through the eyes of Edward’s friend and Betty’s lover.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (US)

Set in New York during 1975, it follows young artist Reno who falls in love with an Italian sculptor before realising all is not quite as it seems.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (UK)

The story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother and the difficulties stemming from his childhood brain tumour.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (US)

Meet Casi, a hotshot public defender working on the front line of America’s war on drugs.

Tenth of December by George Saunders (US)

A collection of short stories gathering works published in various magazines between 1995 and 2009.

Benediction by Kent Haruf (US)

The story of a family coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis on the High Plains.