by Alison Flood)
Featuring a novel from American author Sergio De La Pava which was initially self-published and a debut novel that took nine years to find a publisher, the inaugural shortlist for the Folio prize, the first major books award to consider English language writing from all over the world, is heavily weighted to US writers, with five American novelists dominating a line-up of eight titles which celebrates "the art of fiction at full stretch".
Jane Gardam, shortlisted for Last Friends, the third novel in her celebrated Old Filth trilogy, is the sole British writer to be chosen by the Folio prize's five judges. The judges, chaired by the poet Lavinia Greenlaw, were chosen from an academy of 187 international literary experts. They read a total of 80 titles, selected by members of the academy and through publisher submissions, and looked for "the most exciting and outstanding English language books to appear in the last year", according to founder of the £40,000 prize Andrew Kidd.
"They were asked to disregard nationality, ethnicity, gender and lifetime achievement and to concentrate solely on the words on the pages in front of them. Thrillingly, that's exactly what they did," said Kidd.
Irish debut novelist Eimear McBride was shortlisted for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, about a young woman whose brother had a brain tumour as a child, and Canadian poet Anne Carson for Red Doc>, a modern poetic journey through the myth of the red, winged monster Geryon. McBride took nine years to find a publisher, and was turned down by the majority of the major London presses before ending up with the tiny independent publisher Galley Beggar Press.
The line-up is completed by five American writers: Amity Gaige, shortlisted for Schroder, in which a father kidnaps his young daughter, Kent Haruf for the end to his Plainsong Trilogy, Benediction, Rachel Kushner for The Flame Throwers, a finalist for the National Book Award in America, and George Saunders for his story collection Tenth of December, which the New York Times described as "the best book you'll read this year".
De La Pava was selected for A Naked Singularity, which he self-published in 2008, and which has already won him the PEN prize for debut fiction. "It is ambitious, affecting, intelligent, plangent, comic, kooky and impassioned," wrote Stuart Kelly in the Guardian. "I've read a lot of novels this year … and I've yearned for this kind of exuberant, precise fiction."
Greenlaw, joined on the judging panel by the writers Michael Chabon, Sarah Hall, Nam Le and Pankaj Mishra, said the "experience of reading 80 books over five months was full of surprises, challenges, frustrations, provocations, regrets and delights".
"The shortlist we've arrived at is one of which we're proud," she said. "Our deliberations were long and intense. We forgot about the authors and focused on the books. Only when we surfaced with our chosen eight in hand did we reflect on what they collectively represent: the art of fiction at full stretch and in all its forms, and the ingenious and dazzling results of form under exquisite pressure."
The final choice of a winner will, she said, be "extremely difficult". The shortlist was announced at a press conference at the British Library. The prize is sponsored by the Folio Society.
Kidd said the final eight books made up "a list that ticks no boxes, balances the interests of no constituencies and will no doubt stir all kinds of debate".
"In the end it is, quite simply, the eight books that in the collective view of five brilliant readers were the best pieces of storytelling of 2013," he said.