The Booker and Goldsmiths shortlists combined.
Show Hide image

All must have prizes! How the Goldsmiths and Folio awards are changing the literary landscape

Two new prizes are making fresh demands of fiction – and the Booker is taking note, writes Leo Robson.

The Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969 and sponsored by the Man Group since 2002, is under fire and eager to respond. Two new prizes for fiction in English have been established in recent years, with the aim not of stealing the Booker’s throne but of excelling where the Booker has failed. Or where the Booker excelled but the Man Booker has failed. The Folio Prize was launched with a view to setting a “standard of excellence”; the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, seeks to “reward fiction that breaks the mould”. The implication behind these rubrics is that the Man Booker would be unlikely to recognise a great but unfriendly book such as V S Naipaul’s In a Free State (the 1971 winner) or a modernist work such as John Berger’s G (1972).

Since the announcement of the Folio in 2011, in response to the aggressive populism shown by that year’s Man Booker jury, the Booker administrators have engineered a return to seriousness, principally by selecting as the chair of judges not a politician or a broadcaster but the editor of the TLS (Sir Peter Stothard), a Cambridge academic celebrated for his nature writing (Robert Macfarlane) and, this year, the philosopher – and former Booker judge – A C Grayling.

The administrators also extended the prize remit to match the Folio, which includes writers from beyond the Commonwealth – a harmless move – though they didn’t go as far as allowing short stories, which gives the Folio the edge. Its first winner, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, might be seen as eclipsing the work of just about any English-writing novelist.

At the same time, though less consciously, the Man Booker has distanced itself from the Goldsmiths Prize through a change to the submissions policy. In the past, each publisher has been allowed two entries, not including writers who have previously made the shortlist; now publishers are accorded submissions based on their recent Man Booker record – the more longlist titles you’ve had over the past five years, the more submissions you are allowed. (The maximum is four, and the exceptions still apply.) So while things have now improved for Saunders, an American published by Bloomsbury, they would have been even harder for the first winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, Eimear McBride, and the runners-up Philip Terry and Lars Iyer, whose small publishers – Galley Beggar, Reality Street, Melville House – lost one of their submissions under the new system.

Although the Man Booker doesn’t define the kind of novel it wants to recognise, either positively or negatively, its allegiances are clearly different from those of the Goldsmiths. McBride’s novel, picked up by Galley Beggar after multiple rejections, was submitted for last year’s Man Booker but did not make the longlist. The award of the Goldsmiths last November turned it into a book that the Man Booker had missed – and that other prizes couldn’t afford to. It then won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and became a bestseller. One of the virtues already displayed by the Goldsmiths Prize is that rather than hiving off “novel” fiction, it has potentially wide appeal (though Adam Mars-Jones’s long review in the London Review of Books, which ended with a forward glance to a time “when this little book is famous”, also played a part).

There is more overlap between the prizes this time around. The judges, three writers known for their experiments with the novel form (Francis Spufford, Geoff Dyer and Kirsty Gunn) and the NS culture editor, Tom Gatti, on 1 October announced a shortlist with one novel that appeared on the Man Booker longlist, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a portrait of medieval England, and two novels that appear on the Man Booker shortlist – Howard Jacobson’s J, about a ruined future England, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, a pair of stories about grief and art. Of the other titles on the shortlist, Zia Haider Rahman’s recession epic In the Light of What We Know might easily have made the Booker longlist, but Rachel Cusk’s unyielding memoir-novel Outline might have caused the odd problem, and Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist would have caused all sorts of problems, being plotless, narratorless and very short.

It is clear that of the two qualities emphasised by the new prizes, the Man Booker seems keener to be associated with excellence than mould-breaking. But then the troubles of 2011 related to judges liking books that were “readable”, not conventional, so the Man Booker response was not to encourage the unconventional, but to show a renewed dedication to the “literary”, a designation that, before the Folio and Goldsmiths came along, helpfully distinguished the Man Booker from the Costa, which rewards the “most enjoyable” books of the year. A C Grayling, speaking at this year’s press conference, used the term “literary fiction” repeatedly. It’s a tag that, for all its vagueness, one could confidently apply to all six of the shortlisted books, half of which – Jacobson’s J, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – belong to a recognised “literary” genre: dystopian fantasy, family saga, war-torn romance. Of the others, two are accomplished American novels that employ a familiar mode in approaching unusual subject matter – Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, about a dentist on a spiritual quest, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in which a woman recalls her part in a bizarre scientific experiment.

And then there is the strange case of Ali Smith, who would make as plausible a winner of the Man Booker – or the Folio – as of the Goldsmiths and the Costa – or the Baileys. But that’s more a reflection on Smith’s writing than on the validity of these prizes, which are doing an effective job of covering an ever larger, chaotic and fractured landscape.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 14 October, the Goldsmiths Prize on 12 November

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

Show Hide image

TV show ideas better than the Game of Thrones showrunners’ series about slavery

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

So David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners on Game of Thrones, have announced their next TV idea: a revisionist piece where slavery never ended in America. The response was... not good. As Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast, “this harebrained idea serves as yet another reminder that the imaginations of white men can be incredibly myopic... this show sounds stupid as hell.” So I and the New Statesman web team came up with our suggestions for TV shows we’d rather watch. Please enjoy.

The Office, except it’s your office, every day, from 9-5, from now until you’re 70.

Blackadder, but it’s just about fucking snakes.

Pingu, but after the icecaps have melted.

A children’s TV show about a time-travelling grammar-obsessed medical pedant called Doctor Whom.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but it’s just me, trying to talk to people in various social settings.

The Great British Hake Off: who has the best medium to large seawater fish averaging from 1 to 8 pounds?

Gilmore Girl. Lorelai is dead.

Brooklyn 99. Let’s go buy an ice cream in New York City, baby!

Come Dine With Me. The host only cooks one meal and other contestants fight for it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Alan Sugar selling broomsticks in Romford market.

Match of the Day, but it’s just about actual wooden matches.

One Tree Hill. It’s just a tree on a hill.

House of Cards. It’s a man building a – ok I think you get where we’re going with this now.

Knife Swap: what happens when gangs trade territories?

Recess: a provincial MP goes home and sorts out his guttering.

Blue Planet: on the ground in the smurf community.

Transparent: Your TV, replaced with glass.

Game of Thrones, without the violence against women.

Friends, but without modern medicine so all the friends die by age 25. Except Ross. Ross lives.

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

Rugrats, but it’s just one long tracking shot of a rat-infested rug.

A talking head countdown starring minor British celebrities but instead of the best comedies of the 1970s or whatever they’re just ranking other talking head countdowns starring minor British celebrities.

30 Rocks: seven sweet, sweet hours of unfiltered footage of 30 motionless rocks.

Live footage of the emotional breakdown I’m having while writing this article.

The Good Wife: she’s just super sweet and likes making everyone cookies!

Stranger Things, but it’s about the time that stranger walked towards you and you both moved right and then both moved left to avoid each other and oh my God how is this still happening.

Parks and Recreation: Just a couple o’ pals having fun in the park!

Who Do You Think You Are? Just loads of your ancestors asking you how you even sleep at night.

The Crown: some really graphic childbirth footage playing on repeat.

Downtown Abbey: nuns in inner city Chicago.

Peeky Blinders: a study of neighbourhood curtain twitchers in a Belfast suburb.

DIY: SOS. The emergency services are called every episode!

The Big Bang Theory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.