Over the course of two meetings last month it was my great privilege to sit in on the meetings of the inaugural Folio Prize judges: Michael Chabon, Lavinia Greenlaw (the Chair), Sarah Hall, Nam Le and Pankaj Mishra.
Their brief was simple: to determine which eight works of English language fiction published in 2013 in the UK had most perfectly achieved what they'd set out to do. In other words what, in their view, were the most exciting and outstanding English language books to appear in the last year?
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. Even more thrillingly, the dreams of the Folio Prize founders came true before my eyes. As a result of putting together an academy of authors and critics, of people who live and breathe books, and then drawing five judges from that academy, 80 works of fiction were given the most rigorous, careful and generous sounding any author could wish for.
We sometimes forget that to become a great writer one must first become a great reader. And great writers never stop hungrily devouring books, as a means of feeding their imaginations, of refining their craft. They also understand, as no else can, just how difficult it is to get it right. The judges’ conversations will rightly remain confidential. But in some ways I wish that weren’t the case because it would have inspired anyone to witness them.
The result of all this close reading and careful deliberation? A shortlist of eight amazing books that range from classical narrative to prose poetry; from a ‘messy masterpiece’ to a collection of effectively flawless short stories. It’s 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.
Tonight George Saunders was announced as the winner of the very first award. Read more about Saunders' winning book Tenth of December and the excellent shortlist for The Folio Prize.