The Folio Prize announces its initial panel of judges

Pankaj Mishra, Nam Le, Sarah Hall and Michael Chabon were drawn at random from a one-hundred strong academy of writers and critics, who will nominate books for the prize. Lavinia Greenlaw will chair the panel.

The £40,000 book prize formerly known as the Literature Prize has announced its panel of judges. This year’s Folio Prize will be chaired by the poet and critic Lavinia Greenlaw, who has said that she is “honoured and delighted to be chairing the jury,” adding that “fiction is finding new forms and writers are resisting all kinds of borders.”

Greenlaw will be joined by fellow writers and critics Pankaj Mishra, Sarah Hall, Name Le and Michael Chabon, who were drawn at random from the prize’s Oscars-style Academy of one hundred “ideal first readers”. Between them they represent Australia (and Vietnam), India, America and the United Kingdom. The Prize is Anglo-centric by definition, being the only literary competition which seeks out English-language fiction written anywhere in the world.

Nam Le, the Australian short story writer and author of Frank O'Connor longlisted collection The Boat (2008), was overjoyed with his selection in the ballot: “I won the lottery!” he said. “I’m looking forward to it: I like the idea of making space in the award ecology for prizes like the Folio – where writers read, nominate and honour other writers.”

The Folio Prize is the most ambitious literary prize germinating in that ecology right now. It has widened the Booker’s remit, and in terms of numbers alone – its academicians, judges, committees of advisors and managers from across publishing and the arts – it cannot fail to make a noise when the initial shortlist is unveiled in February next year. The prize's sponsor, The Folio Society, is a publisher whose mission is to create firm, illustrated editions of classic works of fiction, biography, science and philosophy. The partnership is in itself a statement of the organisers’ hopes from the prize’s longevity.

All rise for the honourable judge Chabon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue