The Folio Prize is being promoted as a rival to the prestigious Man Booker. To be launched next March, it is the first major book award to have no barriers or borders

After more than 40 years of unchallenged supremacy, is the Man Booker Prize, the so-called “Oscar” of the publishing world, in danger of being overthrown? Toppled or not, the buzz is not good. For the first time since its inception in the 1969, the Booker is being challenged.

There is a new and aggressive pretender in town — already being hailed as the “Booker without the bow ties” in a swipe at the prize’s opulent champagne-and-black tie ceremony. Breathless media hype and brave claims have accompanied the launch of the £40,000 Folio Prize which is being promoted as “the prize for the 21st century” to rival the supposedly outdated Booker with its bow-tie and buttoned- up -collar culture.

Using a football metaphor, one leading supporter of the new prize likened it to the “Premiership” while the Booker, he suggested, was in the lowly “FA (Football Association) Cup” league. Unlike the Booker, which is restricted only to novelists from the Commonwealth countries and Ireland, the Folio prize will be open to writers from around the world. It will seek “to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.”

“It’s the first major book prize to have no barriers and no borders — it’s truly international,” said its founder, Andrew Kidd, the well-known literary agent.

It will be judged by a panel drawn annually from a group of more than 100 leading writers and critics, grandly named the Folio Prize Academy.

Tipping point

The prize, which will have its first outing next March is sponsored by the Folio Society, a London publishing house which specialises in producing special illustrated editions of famous fiction and non-fiction titles and backed by a host of Britain’s high-profile writers, including several, former Booker winners. They believe that the Booker has become too jaded in recent years and abandoned its original mission of discovering new and challenging voices.

The tipping point was the 2011 Man Booker Prize when judges were accused of putting “readability” over “artistic achievement” as the criterion for selection after one judge, Chris Mullin, a former Labour MP, said that for him books had to “zip along.”

The chair of judges, Stella Rimington, a former MI5 chief, fuelled the row when, in an apparent tilt at some of the previous winners, she said: “We want people to buy and read these books , not buy and admire them.” Some questioned Dame Rimington’s credentials to judge a literary prize alleging that she had “help…with the writing” of her own novel.

Another judge, Susan Hill, an acclaimed novelist in her own right, dismissed the obsession of Booker’s critics with experiment and innovation.

“I don’t mind experiment if there’s a genius behind it. If you’re James Joyce, you can write Ulysses. But I don't want experiment from writers who can't do the real thing,” she said.

Although critics, among whom were some of the leading lights of London’s literary establishment, claimed that they were concerned about the “dumbing down” of the Booker, what really appeared to have upset them was that the Rimington panel gave short shrift to their favourite writers. Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion lashed out at the judges for leaving out Alan Hollinghurst, Graham Swift, Philip Hensher, Edward St Aubyn and Ali Smith, among others.

“It’s extraordinary they are not on the list,” he railed at the panel for picking several “unknown” writers.

Amid a blazing row, Mr. Kidd and his supporters announced the launch of a parallel prize to recognise novels which were “unsurpassed in their quality and ambition,” which, he said, the Booker failed to do. It took him another 18 months to find a sponsor. Meanwhile, the Booker judges had the last laugh, awarding the prize to Julian Barnes for his novel The Sense of an Ending, an extraordinary artistic achievement as well as highly readable. In a dig at critics, he dismissed the “readability” row as a “false hare.”

“Most great books are readable. Any shortlist of the last ten years that I’ve read has contained nothing but what you would call readable books,” he said.

In recent days, Mr. Kidd has sought to play down his previous attacks on Booker claiming that it is wrong to see the Folio Prize as a rival to any other prize.

“It’s not a matter of how many prizes there are but how many prizes effectively get their message across and connect with the public and result in thousands of people buying these books. For me that’s the key measure of success,” he said.

Those unimpressed

For all the claims being made on its behalf, not everyone is impressed. There is a widespread sense that it is more of the same old wine dressed up as something sparkling new.

As a blogger on The Guardian’s “Books Blog” wrote, the Folio Prize “has all the characteristics of an event conceived in the post-millennial book world.”

“It is well-funded…. It has already been well-promoted to the media, and has made a point of securing as much advance support as possible from London’s literary community. In short, it reflects a literary culture where prizes, as much as reviews, make the running, and where big prizes become themselves a cultural event of unprecedented consequence.’’

Many wonder whether there is really need for another prize when the field is already so crowded. Besides the Man Booker, there is the Costa Book Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction previously sponsored by Orange mobile phone company, the Samuel Johnson Prize and a host of prizes for specific genres such as drama, mystery, “worst” sex, worst criticism, etc. Some believe that prizes have become a big marketing stunt guaranteeing year-round publicity for publishers and sponsors.

“It’s big business for writers, too. Win the Booker Prize and you become a millionaire. Win the top Costa slot …and, like Kate Atkinson or Mark Haddon literary course is set fair,” wrote one commentator.

But, what the hell. Just because we don’t live in Utopia it doesn’t mean there can’t be prizes for everyone.