Rathbones Folio Prize reopens Man Booker debate

Rathbones Folio Prize reopens Man Booker debate

Members of the Rathbones Folio Academy have spoken out against the Man Booker Prize's expanded eligibility criteria, after the former canvassed opinion ahead of the release of its shortlist. One academy member author Tessa Hadley suggested that British and Commonwealth writing had become “lost in the margins” of US fiction as a result of the Booker Prize Foundation's decision to allow US authors to be submitted for the Man Booker.

Folio told The Bookseller it had canvassed its 300 members, consisting of writers and critics, with 99% of the respondents so far arguing that the Man Booker Prize should revert to its previous eligibility critera.

The Man Booker Prize was opened up to US writers in 2014, in a move that concerned many, and now Folio members such as Hadley and author and critic D J Taylor have argued the expansion has led to a “marginalisation” of home-grown talent.

The Rathbones Folio Prize, then called the Folio Prize, was established in 2013 as a rival to the Man Booker Prize, and is open to writers from around the world, rewarding the best work of literature “regardless of form”. It regards itself as a challenger prize, and believes it prompted the Man Booker to change its rules. But the Folio Prize has struggled to achieve widespread recognition, and did not run in 2016 as it sought a new sponsor. It returned in 2017 expanding its own criteria to include non-fiction books, having secured backing from investment company Rathbones.

On Tuesday (27th March), it revealed its shortlist for this year, dominated by Penguin Random House (PRH) imprints.

PRH scooped three-quarters of the shortlisted titles, with books from authors from the UK, Ireland, Pakistan, China and North America all vying for the £20,000 prize.

The eight-strong shortlist features five novels and three non-fiction titles, including award-winning Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber), flying the flag for indie publishers, while Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate) features as the only HarperCollins title.

Two Hamish Hamilton books have made the cut with Exit West by Mohsin Hamid along with Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, while four other PRH stablemates are shortlisted: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking), Once Upon A Time In The East by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus), Richard Beard’s memoir The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker) and Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape).

As the shortlist was revealed in a ceremony in central London, Folio Prize Academy members questioned the Man Booker Prize's 2014 decision to admit English-language authors outside of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth.

Author, critic and Folio Prize Academy member D J Taylor said: “The internationalism on which the recent expansion of the prize is predicated is largely spurious. Its immediate effect has been to marginalise yet further the kind of quiet, understated, yet immensely rewarding home-grown novels which deserve more attention than they get.”

Hadley said that the Man Booker “used to provide a point of focus each year for British and Commonwealth fiction”, which she said "had some identity-in-difference, and that British and Commonwealth novels were in some sense 'talking to one another' - as distinct from any conversation going on in US fiction”.

“Even if you weren't happy with the longlist, you could still feel at that time of year, 'so, that's what's going on in our writing community',” Hadley said. “Now it's as though we're perceived - and perceive ourselves - as only a subset of US fiction, lost in its margins - and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing. And yet I don't think the Americans are very interested in the Man Booker.”

However, author and journalist Sam Leith believes the Man Booker’s new rules should stay. “I think that - angry though it has made a lot of UK writers and publishers - there's a clear literary sense in the Man Booker having as its constituency the English language, rather than a territorial remit based on a semi-defunct postcolonial trading bloc," he said. 

Andrew Kidd, co-founder of the Rathbones Folio Prize, added: “Like everyone else, we’ve been closely following the passionate debate about whether the Man Booker Prize should consider returning to its original ‘UK and Commonwealth’ parameters. So far, most of the voices have come from the publishing and media sectors. And so it occurred to us: with the unique asset that lies at the heart of our own prize – the Rathbones Folio Academy – we could quickly canvass the view of writers themselves, and thus provide our friends at Man Booker with useful, additional feedback.”

He continued: “But our interest in helping facilitate conversation now stems from what we see as a mission all book prizes share: to stimulate cultural debate, and collectively to do all we can to put more outstanding books in the hands of more readers. The Man Booker Prize remains the pre-eminent English language book prize, with the power to have a tremendous impact on author’s careers and readers’ choices, which means all its decisions matter. We hope it will find this emerging additional feedback from our Academy – which so far has been strongly weighted towards a return to Man Booker’s original remit – of some use.”

The Booker Foundation has declined to comment on the survey findings.

The Rathbones Folio Prize will be awarded at a ceremony at the British Library in London on 8th May. The shortlisted titles were chosen from a list of 80 works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, which the Folio Academy deemed to be the best published in the UK in 2017.

Earlier this year, publishers urged the Man Booker Prize organisers to reverse their decision to allow US authors to enter, saying it created a “homogenised literary future”. The letter was initiated by John Murray publisher Mark Richards and went on to gain signatures from around 30 editors.

The merits of the rule change have been contested since it was introduced, with Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate describing it  as "disastrous" for the health of the prize, while author Julian Barnes, winner of the award in 2011, labelled it "straightforwardly daft”.