LONDON — A handful of writers from Britain, the United States, Australia and India will choose the first winner of the $60,000 Folio Prize for fiction, which hopes to rival the Booker as the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary award.
Organizers of the Folio Prize last week announced a high-profile judging panel made up of British poet Lavinia Greenlaw, U.S. novelist Michael Chabon, British writer Sarah Hall, Australian short story writer Nam Le and Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra.
The five were chosen by lot from the Folio Academy, a 100-strong international group of writers and critics that includes novelists Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Peter Carey, Mohsin Hamid, Junot Diaz and Salman Rushdie.
Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “Telegraph Avenue,” said he’s slightly daunted by the prospect of reading 80 contending novels in the space of a few months. But judging his fellow novelists holds no terrors.
“I think being nonjudgmental is highly over-rated,” he said. “That’s all writers do all day long, sit in judgment. I’m highly trained at sitting in judgment on other people.”
The Folio Prize is staking its name on a mix of inclusivity and exclusivity.
The award was set up by a group of writers, publishers and agents amid debate over whether the 44-year-old Booker was guilty of dumbing down. Recent Booker winners have included relatively best-selling authors such as Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes, leading to criticism that newer or edgier voices are being overlooked.
The only criterion for winning the Folio Prize, organizers say, is “excellence.”
Unlike the Booker Prize, which is open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers, the Folio admits Americans. It can be won by any English-language writer whose work has been published in Britain.
Under the prize rules, the judging panel must include three members from Britain and two from elsewhere, and can contain no more than three men or three women.
The judges will read 80 books: 60 nominated by members of the Folio Academy and 20 drawn from publishers’ submissions.
The judges will announce eight finalists in February, and the prize, named for its sponsor, publisher The Folio Society, will announce its first winner in March.
The idea of a rival Booker with added Americans has been received sniffily by some in the British literary world. But Chabon says there is no downside to a new literary award. He thinks it will give a boost to underappreciated authors and may help books become better known outside their countries of origin. And it’s fun.
“Prizes are awesome,” he said. “Who doesn’t like receiving a prize? Giving prizes is a fundamental human activity. We’ve been doing it as long as there have been human civilizations.
“I think it’s curmudgeonly or misanthropic for people to gripe about it or quibble about it. What more entertaining intellectual activity is there in the world than looking at the results of a prize you don’t agree with and completely taking it apart?
“It just gets people talking, and in this case, it gets people talking about something I really care about.”