Folio Society to sponsor new £40,000 literary prize

Books will be nominated by a one-hundred strong Academy of "ideal" readers.

On Wednesday evening it was announced that the Folio Society will take responsibility for funding a new £40,000 fiction prize. Previously referred to as the "Literature Prize", the Folio Prize aims to "recognise and celebrate the best English-language fiction from around the world," distinguishing itself from the Booker and Costa Book Awards by accepting nominations from countries outside the UK and Ireland.

Nominations for the prize will not come from publishers and agents, as is traditional with literary prizes, but from a one-hundred strong academy of "ideal first readers": the first attached to a major book prize. The Folio Prize Academy will be a fluid collective of writers and critics, out of which six judges - three from the UK, two from outside, with no more than three members of the same gender - will be chosen each year to carve out a shortlist of eight books.

The novelists Nicole Krauss, J M Coetzee and Salman Rushdie will join essayists Geoff Dyer and Pankaj Mishra, alongside critics such as New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and Granta editor John Freeman, as members of the Academy chosen for their "commitment to excellence in fiction".

The impetus for a new literary prize emerged amid the controversy surrounding the 2011 Booker Prize, when the judges suggested "readability" and a novel’s capacity to "zip along" as deciding factors in their selection process. "When we first announced our intentions a year and a half ago, we were surprised by the coverage and noise generated by our single speculative press release," Andrew Kidd, Managing Director of Aitken Alexander Associates and Folio Prize founded told those gathered at the British Library for the announcement. "What it suggests is that storytelling still matters, and so we find ourselves here."

He stressed they would not be searching for "difficult or obscure" books. "Many, if not most great books go down easily," he added. "That said, the Prize will not apologise for getting excited about books that might appear daunting at first, but that go on to reward dedicated readers by reflecting the world back at them in an entirely unexpected way."

The Folio Society was founded in 1947 with the intention of creating "editions of the world’s greatest literature in a format worthy of the contents". The publisher, which produces illustrated and hard-bound editions of classic texts, markets itself as a celebrant of the books as objets d’art. Philip Pullman, a member of the Academy, said: "I think their sponsorship of this new prize is a recognition that while literature can become manifest in many different forms, the book - the codex - is at the heart of what we understand literature to be." The Folio Society will produce a deluxe, reimagined edition of the winning book each year, in collaboration with its existing publisher.

The six academicians chosen to be judges will be announced in July this year. The shortlist will be announced next February, with the first winner being declared in March 2014.

Nicole Krauss, one of the Folio Prize academicians. Photo: Patric Shaw.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis