The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 1 March 2020

The Folio Prize Shortlist

Hello Gentle Reader

The literary award season is now beginning. The otherwise quiet Rathbones Folio Prize has released its shortlist for the year. The flame over the year has slowly dwindled for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Originally the Folio Prize was a highly anticipated literary award. It was advertised as the needed competitor of the preeminent Booker Prize. Despite the initial hype, the Folio Prize suffered setbacks: sponsorship problems; lack of advertisement; and muted response from the public, allowed the Folio Prize to fall to the wayside. It’s been operating for five years (it was not awarded in two-thousand and sixteen) since its initial inception, and though the Folio Prize has made greater attempts at gaining recognition, it still suffers from growing pains. On the surface, the Rathbones Folio Prize seeks to behave independently and unique from the Booker Prize—it allows poetry and short story collections to be nominated for the prize—it behaves in the same fashion as the Booker Prize, which has irked readers, who view the Rathbones Folio Prize as nothing more than the silver version of the otherwise golden Booker Prize.

How the Folio Prize selects their shortlist, and how literary judges are appointed, is however unique to the Folio Prize. The Folio Prize is overseen by the ‘Academy,’ which is comprised of two-hundred and fifty writers, who includes: Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A.S. Byatt, J.M Coetzee, and Zadie Smith. This ‘Academy,’ reads and submits up to three nominations for the award. Deliberations are conducted by awarding points to each work. A series of reading rounds is conducted by the academy. A longlist of sixty is compromised after these rounds. This sixty novel longlist is then assessed by a panel of judges consisting of three to five members of the academy. The judges are appointed by the academy. Further deliberations are conducted by the judges, as they work to create a shortlist. Due to the large list of works on the longlist, the Folio Prize jury does not release it, but releases an eight title shortlist.

The release dates of the Folio Prize shortlist vary year by year. Release dates range from early or late February; to early or late April; as well as in March. The lack of consistent dates, makes reporting on the Folio Prize an otherwise complicated matter in some situations, and may otherwise play against the prize receiving greater attention. Regardless of its faults, the following is this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist: [list in no particular order]

Azadeh Moaveni – “Guest House for Young Widows,”
Valeria Luiselli – “Lost Children Archive,”
Sinéad Gleeson – “Constellations,”
Ben Lerner – “The Topeka School,”
James Lasdun – “Victory,”
Zadie Smith – “Grand Union,”
Laura Cumming – “On Chapel Sands,”
Fiona Benson – “Vertigo & Ghost,”

The shortlist is noticeably dominated by women. Of the eight shortlisted writers six of them are women, and the other two are men. It’s a mixture of known and unknown; poetry, short story collections, and novels.

One of the biggest names on the shortlist is: Zadie Smith; that young writer, who began her writing career a mere twenty years ago, and became a millennium literary wunderkind from there. Since her initial bestseller debut “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith has become a staple of the contemporary English language literature. Smith is shortlisted with her first short story collection: “Grand Union,”—which in typical fashion of Zadie Smith’s work, has been praised by critics. Even in the short story form, Zadie Smith once again proves her talents to the literary world never cease.

Valeria Luiselli was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year with the same novel “The Lost Children Archive.” Much like the Booker Prize, Valeria Luiselli becomes the first Mexican writer to be named as a contender for the Rathbones Folio Prize. The novel “The Lost Children Archive,” is a critical novel about the social and racial crisis gripping the world, exemplified further in the United States of America, and their otherwise intolerant treatment of illegal immigrants from their southern neighbor. The novel takes the perspective of an otherwise strange family participating in a disjointed road trip from New York to Arizona. The novel is postmodern in its approach; while being socially engaged and critical. Valeria Luiselli has proven herself to being one of those rising multilingual writers, who literary work and vision transcend both geographical boundaries, but also linguistic barriers. Valeria Luiselli proves herself to being a truly refreshing and rising star in the international literary scene.

Fiona Benson is shortlisted for her poetry collection “Vertigo & Ghost.” Since her debut, in two-thousand and fourteen, Fiona Benson was recognized early on as a mature and well defined poet. Her first collection of poetry “Bright Travelers,” was shortlisted for the T.S. Elliot Prize, the Forward Prize; it won the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize. “Vertigo & Ghost,” in turn has received the Forward Prize. “Vertigo & Ghost,” explores violence, transgression, and femininity. The collection recounts the myths of Zeus; in particular the Greek god’s insatiable sexual appetite. In “Vertigo & Ghosts,” Zeus is depicted as a serial rapist; a violent electrical predator, prowling for prey: women. Sex becomes a weapon of power politics, through the act of penetration. The collection is charged with rage and frustration, both historical and personal; which leads to a contemporary world, where Zeus’s predation is still a predilection of today’s world, continually perpetrated throughout the world. Fiona Benson provides a poetry collection that deals with the sexual politics of the ages—historical, personal, and mythological—the collection bristles with rage and frustration.

Laura Cumming, Sinéad Gleeson, and Azadeh Moaveni are shortlisted for their non-fiction works. Laura Cumming “On Chapel Sands,” recounts the author’s, mothers abduction as a three year old girl, and the familiar secrets that lie hidden in a community of silence. It’s a testament of love, warmth, adoration, and admiration ones mother; while also being riddled with the complexities of family, and those intertwined personal histories. The Irish writer Sinéad Gleeson has been shortlisted with personal essay collection: “Constellations.” The essays delve into different topics concerning the writer. Many of the essays found in “Constellations,” recount pain and illness, but are offset by the foil of ruminations on culture, personal and political, in correspondence with the physical body. “Constellations,” is Sinéad Gleeson debut collection of essays; prior to the publication of these essays, Sinéad Gleeson had worked as an editor and critic of music and books for other publications. “Constellations,” has been praised as deeply thoughtful and powerful work, perhaps one of the most interesting and promising works on the shortlist. A piece of reportage, in her book: “Guest House for Young Widows,” Azadeh Moaveni looks into the women who joined the Islamic State. It’s a unique and powerful commentary on the quickly politicized issue of the Islamic State Brides cum Widows, who now seek to return to home, away from the battles, conflicts, and horrors that became their reality. Azadeh Moaveni has written other pieces about the cotemporary political situations of the Middle East previously. “Guest House for Young Widows,” is but continuation in her continual research, reportage, recording and documentation of the ever evolving and volatile regions shift in perspective between progression and maintaining its staunch traditions, customs, and identity.

This leaves only the two men on the shortlist to discuss: Ben Lerner and James Lasdum. Ben Lerner is on the shortlist with his autobiographical novel “The Topeka School.” The novel is the final installment in his trilogy of novels. Readers of Ben Lerner’s previous novels will recognize Adam Gordon, and welcome Lerner’s renowned conversational prose writing. The novel carries autobiographical elements, and perhaps to some degree could even be described as self-indulgent based off reviews and descriptions; but it’s the end of the trilogy, and those who have invested in the first two books will want to see it concluded. Finally, James Lasdum is shortlisted for: “Victory.” The two novellas that make up “Victory,” detail sexual violence (an otherwise common thread through this year’s shortlist); through a recount of love, lust, longing, betrayal, hate and guilt; James Lasdum analyses the fault lines and divisions of contemporary relationships, through the dominating power politics of sexual inequality. James Lasdum explores uncomfortable elements of the male psyche in relation to the changing societal perspective on masculinity and femininity, and a rolling boil of a sexual political divide between the two genders.

After carefully looking into the shortlist works of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, one can see it’s a diverse and unique shortlist, not just in content, but in form. Common threads can be found thematically through some of the books, such as sexual politics, corruption, gender divides; there are works on social and political commentary, as well as personal discussions. I maintain that the one writer who stands out as the most unique on this year’s Folio Prize Shortlist is: Sinéad Gleeson and her collection of personal essays: “Constellations.” Following Sinéad Gleeson, is the poet: Fiona Benson and her accomplished second collection of poetry, now cementing her name as not just an emerging poet to watch, but one  of mature grace and refined style.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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