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.

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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