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

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game