US writer George Saunders has won the inaugural Folio Prize for his short story collection Tenth of December (Bloomsbury, £8.99, paperback).
Announcing the winner last night (March 10th) at a ceremony in London, chair of the judges Lavinia Greenlaw called Saunders’ stories “both artful and profound”. Meanwhile prize founder Andrew Kidd said the judges had “recognised one of the great writers of our age, and one of the undisputed masters of his form”.
The Folio Prize aims to recognise and celebrate the best English-language fiction published in the UK during a given year, regardless of form, genre or the author’s country of origin. Saunders receives £40,000 and a trophy in the form of a hand-bound presentation case which holds a letterpress certificate, taking inspiration from the books produced by The Folio Society, the prize’s sponsor.
Greenlaw said of the stories in Tenth of December: “Darkly playful, they take us to the edge of some of the most difficult questions of our time and force us to consider what lies behind and beyond them. His subject is the human self under ordinary and extraordinary pressure. His worlds are heightened versions of our own, full of inexorable confrontations from which we are not easily released. Unflinching, delightful, adventurous, compassionate, he is a true original whose work is absolutely of the moment. We have no doubt that these stories will prove only more essential in years to come.”
Of the judging process, she added: “We weren’t looking for novelty but we were looking for the new. Writing which is unsettling and invigorating. They [the shortlisted authors] operate in extremes of language, scale and form in ways that create light and depth."
Kidd said: “It's a brilliant choice which boldly affirms the aims of the prize: to celebrate the most perfectly realised and thrilling storytelling of our time.” He added that he wanted the prize to be "part of the cultural landscape for decades to come," saying there was a place for a prize "judged by peers."
Toby Hartwell, m.d. of The Folio Society, said: “The breadth and range of the shortlist for this first Folio Prize was stunning and I don’t know how the judges were able to choose just one book to win. With Tenth of December George Saunders has given us an exceptional first winner and I am delighted for him. Every one of the authors shortlisted for the prize has proved that great fiction writing is in rude health. They have also abundantly demonstrated that literature can be taken in new and exciting directions and that has to be good for readers everywhere.”
Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles called Saunders “one of the mercurial masters of the short story” but added that Britain’s lack of interest in short-form fiction had prevented Foyles from championing his book. “These stories are satire as its most brutal, fiercely funny but also bitter about a dystopian future that already seems to be coming to pass,” he added. “He’s a deserved recipient, up there with Vonnegut.”
Saunders' UK editor is Bloomsbury editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle and his agent is Curtis Brown's Karolina Sutton. In the US he is published by Random House.
The other contenders were: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press), which last year won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize; Last Friends (Little, Brown), the third in the Old Filth trilogy by 85-year-old Jane Gardam; Anne Carson’s verse novel Red Doc (Jonathan Cape); A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Press), which was originally self-published; The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Harvill Secker), set in 1970s New York; Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber), about a father fleeing a custody battle with his young daughter; and Benediction, the third novel in the Plainsong trilogy by Kent Haruf (Picador).
Alongside Greenlaw on the judging panel were Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Michael Chabon; multi-award winning writer, Sarah Hall; writer Nam Le, and Pankaj Mishra, winner of the LA Times Art Seidenbaum award.
Short story collections rarely triumph in literary awards open to fiction written in other forms, an exception being Petina Gappah's An Elegy for Easterly (Faber) winning the Guardian First Book Award in 2009. Short story writer Alice Munro was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature 2013. The eligibility rules for the Man Booker require entrants to be a full-length novel and a "unified and substantial work".
Saunders’ book has been the second highest selling of those shortlisted for The Folio Prize, recording 4,610 copies sold according to Nielsen BookScan data. Gardam’s Last Friends recorded the highest figure, with 5,486 copies.
Also recorded are The Flamethrowers (3,620 copies), A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (2,177 copies), A Naked Singularity (1,543 copies) and Benediction (340 copies). Two books, Red Doc and Schroder, have not yet hit the TCM top 5,000, so no Nielsen BookScan data is available.
Image by Basso Cannarsa