Folio Season: The Final Roundup

Family LifeWell, I feel a bit bereft now that the Folio Season is over, and I have to go back to picking books to read for myself. But one major silver lining comes with the news the committe has picked a terrific winner for the Folio Prize 2015: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (Faber UK/Norton US). I read this book last June, long before the nominees list came out, and am absolutely delighted that it’s won this prize. It’s a brilliant, mercilessly compact novel – the other story building up around it is the account of its taking Sharma 13 years and endless drafts to compose what is, in its final version, a book barely 200 pages long. (Sharma’s UK editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, writes that he saw some 3,000 pages’ worth of various versions over the years.) It’s that wonderful thing, a short novel that seems to enlarge itself before your eyes (and mind) as you read: a saga in miniature, a very personal, semiautobiographical family story that blooms into something universal. It’s moving, funny, and Sharma’s writing always puts incident and character ahead of showy prose – which is not to say that Family Life isn’t also beautifully written. I can’t wait to reread this brilliant, subtle prizewinner.

That’s it – until the 2016 nominees list gets announced, anyway. There’s an index to my reviews and notes on all eighty books on the dedicated Folio Prize page (click here, or on the title bar at the head of this page.)

If you’ve enjoyed reading my experiment in Folio fiction, please consider purchasing my novel The Glasgow Coma Scale, available online from Foyles, Wordery, Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones.com, and all good bookshops.

Things I’ve learned from the project:
– World War One and World War Two remain popular topics for novelists. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North seems to me the standout among the Folio nominees that fall into this category, for bringing new information (about the ‘Death Railway’) – but I wonder if my conclusion is coloured by knowing that he’s telling his father’s story and therefore the ‘novel of research’ tag/insult doesn’t apply so much
– Great sweeping panoramic family sagas aren’t for me
– Neither are books which deploy historical incident as a kind of wallpaper: ‘Look at the television, there’s some kind of missile-related crisis going on in Cuba!’
– If you’re going to reinvent the English language from the ground up for your novel, there had better be a gripping plot to go with it, and it had preferably be a short book
– Assumed conclusion: relentlessly grim books are easier to write than comic novels
– It’s 2015, and the novel isn’t going anywhere: for me, formal innovation trumps the painstakingly realist nineteenth century-style novel (not an infallible rule – Nora Webster is realist and brilliant), but I’m glad both exist side by side.
– I lost count of how many books included their characters’ having Significant Dreams, one of my pet hates: it feels disingenuous for a novel, which is after all a platform for all kinds of symbolism, metaphor and weirdness to legitimately take place, to relate fictional dreams; it feels like a pressure valve, perhaps, for the realist novel, or a sort of cumbersome sleight-of-hand to try and distract the reader from what the author is really up to.
– Similarly, I started to become hyper-aware of the number of literary references creeping into these books. Characters are forever reading Anna Karenina, or going off to study the classics, or musing on a bit of Dickens that comes conveniently to mind. It’s understandable that the literary canon comes easily to authors’ minds, but it started to strike me as a kind of unsubtle pleading on these books’ behalf: by citing canonical works, it’s as if they want to make their case for being treated seriously, or inserted into the literary canon themselves. (Personally, I scrubbed any overt reference to real books, or indeed music, from my novel; so maybe I should rethink that.)
– Four books I’d have liked to have seen on the nominees list (but which may for one reason or another have been ineligible, of course): May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break (CB Editions), Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (The Dorothy Project), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster US/Sceptre UK), and Anneliese Mackintosh’s Green Carnation-winning, formally inventive Any Other Mouth (Freight).
– My ideal shortlist of eight, as someone asked about on Twitter, would have kept All My Puny Sorrows, Family Life, Nora Webster, 10:04 and How to be both from the actual shortlist, but substituted in Marilynne Robinson’s incredibly moving Lila, Helen Oyeyemi’s beautiful myth Boy, Snow, Bird, and Colin Barrett’s supremely assured short stories Young Skins in place of Outline, Dust and Dept. of Speculation.

 

Some stats, hastily calculated:

– 46.25% of the Folio-nominated books are by women (37 of 80)

– The 80 books comprise 70 novels, 9 books of short stories, and 1 epic poem. (Wiggle room here for books which seem to exceed or transcend the novel form, books like Dept. of Speculation, How to be both, 10:04)

– A healthy 14% of the list – 11 out of 80 – are debut books – for some reason, it felt like there were a lot more (perhaps because of the writers I was reading for the first time)

– Broadly speaking, 32 of the 70 novels nominated have a contemporary or 21st-century setting and 29 are either purely or largely historical, even if that means they’re set in the 1980s, which still to me seems like it couldn’t possibly mean its being a historical novel (some are a bit fuzzy, like Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party, which is mostly set in the 1960s but has a contemporary element later on, or Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, a contemporary book with interpolated historical stories). A few – the books by Mary Costello, David Mitchell and Matthew Thomas – are generations-spanning and occupy a third category. Typically enough, Ali Smith’s How to be both doesn’t fit in any other category, being set simultaneously in mediaeval times and the present day; the same goes for Rebecca Hunt’s Everland, which is set in both 2012 and 1911. Oh, and a last 6 are set in the future – or in some reality sufficiently unlike our own to be taken as such.

 

 

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