Second Folio

Folio 2014Last week, The Folio Society released a list of the 80 books in contention for the second annual Folio Prize, to be awarded in March 2015. The Folio Prize was established in response to what its founders saw as an especially parochial Man Booker shortlist back in 2011. That year, Booker judges chair Stella Rimington had described “readability” as one of the key factors in the panel’s decision on long- and shortlisting books for the prize. A minor controversy battled about for a while, largely between those who felt that literary prizes were elitist and Rimington’s attitude was a healthy and democratising one, and those who suggested that it meant dumbing down, and furthermore that it was a strange literary prize which consciously sought to discount more literary texts in favour of mass-market titles. The Folio Prize founders took the latter view, and proposed a prize which wouldn’t be lowest common denominator, would seek to reward excellence rather than mediocrity, and wouldn’t be abashed about any of it. It’s not elitist if it’s meritocratic.

In the event, the 2011 Booker went to Julian Barnes, which satisfied neither camp: all that fuss and then the most “literary” title on a populist shortlist bags it anyway? A low point for the Booker in more ways than one: Barnes, like the other onetime titans of 80s and 90s British letters (McEwan, Amis, Rushdie and Ishiguro), is well past his best; to resignedly keep on rewarding him, well into the 20th century, shows an establishment failing to move with the times, a tastemaker prize bottling it. “Well, we have to give the prize to someone…” (That said, I waded — well, paddled — through five of the six on the shortlist and you can at least say that on a technical level Barnes’s is probably the least worst of them. No power on earth, meantime, could compel me to read Jamrach’s Menagerie.)

Anyway, out of all this, The Folio Prize, whose publicity is at pains to point out that the 80 titles selected do not form a longlist, exactly: they’re books the Academy which administers the prize has nominated. With no rule stating that books have to be from particular territories, nor be novels per se, it’s an excitingly diverse list: there are debuts and books by long-established prize winners; there are vast novels and slim books of short stories; there is at least one novel in verse; there are books from pretty much every continent; there are big-hitters, and a book from the smallest press imaginable, Perfect Edge. There is, given that 2011 was the nadir of the Booker in recent history and subsequent longlists have not prioritised readability over, y’know, quality, substantial crossover with this year’s Booker longlist: nine of the thirteen from the latter, including the ultimate winner, are among the Folio 80 (I’m not surprised that the two mass-market titles, by Karen Joy Fowler and David Nicholls, didn’t make it onto the Folio list, but I’m mildly disappointed Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World isn’t on there).

And what does this have to do with me? When I saw the list, and noted that I’d already read a fifth of the nominated books, I realised that it was just about feasible for me to read the remaining titles in the hundred or so days until the 2015 Folio Prize gets announced. So, I’m going to try it: I might (I probably will) fail, but I’ll have fun along the way. It’ll also, I hope, make me update this blog less infrequently. Among the remainder are books I’ve never heard of (Bald New World), authors I already love, authors I swore I’d never read again (Carey is the Australian equivalent of those 80s Brit Lit big hitters now spending this century bringing out one bad book after another), books I’ve been wanting to read and haven’t got round to, and books I likely wouldn’t have rushed to read but might have got around to eventually. There is something called Em and The Big Hoom. There are five books whose titles begin with the word ‘All’, a bit like when every new band you read about had ‘Wolf’ in the name. And I’m going to read them all. Even The Bone Clocks, dear reader. Even The Bone Clocks.

And write about them! I intend to post weekly updates talking about which titles I’ve got through in the preceding seven days, plus (to catch up) those I’ve read up until this point. To get us started, you can read my reviews of AL Kennedy’s All the Rage (“At her best, there’s no-one to touch her”) and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows (my favourite book of 2014: “If it is an engine designed to make you cry, it’s an endearingly clunky one”), which were originally written for Civilian.

As it stands, there’s 82 days until the prize is announced (on 23rd March) and I’ve 63 titles still to read — that’s about five books a week. Eminently doable! In the next update, I’ll write about Colin Barrett, Nicola Barker, Philip Hensher, and others.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through — are:

10:04, Ben Lerner
A GOD IN EVERY STONE, Kamila Shamsie
ACADEMY STREET, Mary Costello
AFTER ME COMES THE FLOOD, Sarah Perry
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, Miriam Toews
ALL OUR NAMES, Dinaw Mengitsu
ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, Niven Goviden
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr
ALL THE RAGE, AL Kennedy
AMNESIA, Peter Carey
ANNIHILATION, Jeff VanderMeer
ARCTIC SUMMER, Damon Galgut
BALD NEW WORLD, Peter Tieryas Liu
BARK, Lorrie Moore
BE SAFE I LOVE YOU, Cara Hoffman
BOY, SNOW, BIRD, Helen Oyeyemi
CAN’T AND WON’T, Lydia Davis
DEAR THIEF, Samantha Harvey
DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill
DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem
DUST, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
EM AND THE BIG HOOM, Jerry Pinto
ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, Graham Swift
EUPHORIA, Lily King
EVERLAND, Rebecca Hunt
EYRIE, Tim Winton
FAMILY LIFE, Akhil Sharma
FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson
HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith
IN SEARCH OF SILENCE, Emily Mackie
IN THE APPROACHES, Nicola Barker
IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, Zia Haider Rahman
J, Howard Jacobson
KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li
LILA, Marilynne Robinson
LIFE DRAWING, Robin Black
LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St Aubyn
LOVE AND TREASURE, Ayelet Waldman
NORA WEBSTER, Colm Tóibín
ON SUCH A FULL SEA, Chang-Rae Lee
ORFEO, Richard Powers
OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk
PERFIDIA, James Ellroy
ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson
SHARK, Will Self
SOME LUCK, Jane Smiley
STAY UP WITH ME, Tom Barbash
STONE MATTRESS, Margaret Atwood
THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, Lawrence Osborne
THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell
THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES, Mirza Waheed
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, Michel Faber
THE COUNTRY OF ICECREAM STAR, Sandra Newman
THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill
THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR, Donald Antrim
THE EMPEROR WALTZ, Philip Hensher
THE FEVER, Megan Abbott
THE HEROES’ WELCOME, Louisa Young
THE INCARNATIONS, Susan Barker
THE LIE, Helen Dunmore
THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan
THE NIGHT GUEST, Fiona McFarlane
THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters
THE TELL-TALE HEART, Jill Dawson
THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, Sebastian Barry
THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth
THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Martin Amis
THEIR LIPS TALK OF MISCHIEF, Alan Warner
THUNDERSTRUCK, Elizabeth McCracken
TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris
TRAVELLING SPRINKLER, Nicholson Baker
UPSTAIRS AT THE PARTY, Linda Grant
VIPER WINE, Hermione Eyre
VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN, Maggie Gee
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, Thomas Matthew
WHAT YOU WANT, Constantine Phipps
WITTGENSTEIN JR, Lars Iyer
YOUNG SKINS, Colin Barrett
YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER?, Dave Eggers