Here is a reminder of the eight finalists of the Folio Prize, with a link to my reviews:
- 10:04 by Ben Lerner (Granta)
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber)
- Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Granta)
- Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta)
- Family Life by Akhil Sharma (Faber)
- How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) [link goes to Writer and The Critic podcast]
- Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (Viking)
- Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)
On the face of it, the Folio Prize shortlist for 2015 is impressive. Of the 8 novels nominated I thought 6 of them ranged from very good to excellent, with the dial definitely favouring the excellent. The only two novels I wasn’t that keen on were Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster.
However, if you look a little closer, look at the type of books that were nominated, a pattern emerges – one, that as Dan Hartland points out, has “a fairly narrow sense of what the novel might be and do.” In his review of All My Puny Sorrows and Dept. of Speculation he begins by quoting the Folio Prize’s mission statement, “to show the novel ‘refreshing itself, reaching for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do.'” and then he illustrates that a number of the books on the shortlist seem to be plowing the same field:
Both [the Toews and Offill] feature a middle-aged female novelist struggling with life at the expense of her art; the narrator is self-recriminating and -critical, placing goodness and kindness and worth in people other than herself, and reflexively wondering why she falls short. Both are also written in that arch, wry, self-conscious sort of tone which I associate with much contemporary North American fiction (and, in all honesty, with the creative writing courses Offill teaches, an occupation she shares with her nameless narrator). Not only that, but Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 also feature (though I haven’t read them) struggling novelists, and according to reviewers both also tackle this venerable literary conceit in ways designed to nod and wink towards the reader in order to re-fashion what has long been a stock literary situation.
In fact it’s a little worse than what Hartland has described. There are five books on the list where the main point of view character is a writer. In each case, the subject matter of the novel is semi-autobiographical verging on memoir and they all have a distinct middle class vibe.
While I agree with Hartland that the judges have probably failed in meeting the mission statement they set for themselves, I don’t think we need to start bemoaning the state of literature or the Folio Prize just yet. Yes, I can draw a tight thematic and story link between All My Puny Sorrows and Family Life but both authors are dealing with the issue of family tragedy through very different lenses, meaning that any sameness between the two books is surface level only.
Also, if I look at three recent literary shortlists, the National Book Critics Circle, the Man Booker and the National Book Award, we don’t see the same echo chamber – semi-autobiographical novels with a writer protagonist. In other words, if a trend is emerging, at the moment it’s a trend that’s specific to the Folio Prize. (Not that this was Dan’s argument, but it is something I think is worth noting).
And finally, I find it hard to castigate or wag my finger at any shortlist that has exposed me to such wonderful authors as Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Miriam Toews, Jenny Offill and Akhil Sharma. In the case Owuor’s Dust, my thoughts on who should have won the Folio Prize was between it and Ali Smith’s How To Be Both. In the end I feel compelled to go with How To Be Both, but Dust is an astonishing novel and it’s come closest to all the other literary works I’ve read over the past twelve months to toppling How To Be Both from its lofty and deserved perch. And so if I’m disappointed, it’s that the judges went with a novel, albeit very good indeed, that feels safer and more crowd pleasing. Dust, in particular, would have been a more courageous, more provocative and far more interesting winner.
So while this year’s Folio Prize might have been failure in delivering us with books that keep stretching the boundaries of what the novel can do, I still find myself landing on my initial position that this is one impressive shortlist. So I urge you all to drop what you’re reading and start moving your way through the novels above. It will be worth your while.