What Does It Take to Create a New Literary Prize?

Books! So many books!

As book reviews vanish and culture coverage shrinks, readers of the daring, the obscure, and the experimental find it increasingly hard to find books that both seek to “make it new” and succeed in the task. One potential answer for readers in this bind might be to follow the Novel Prize, a recently launched initiative from three independent publishers.

The American publisher New Directions, the British publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the Australian Giramondo Publishing Company run the prize, which celebrates English-language “novels that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.” The competition casts a deliberately wide net: Any author writing in English, wherever they might live, can enter; entrants can be agented or unagented; they can have an extensive publishing history or can be publishing their first book. Winners receive $10,000 and publication by each of the sponsor presses. 

March saw the publication of the co-winners of the 2022 Prize, Tell by Jonathan Buckley and It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over by Anne de Marcken. In the middle of the month, I spoke to Barbara Epler, President and Publisher of New Directions, and Maya Solovej, New Directions Publicity Manager and Assistant Editor, about the prize, their international collaboration, and their hopes for the future. 

All three presses are independents known for prizing literary quality over quantity of books sold. Their catalogues often overlap; New Directions and Fitcarraldo, for example, both publish Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli’s wrenching Minor Detail, while Giramondo and New Directions each publish books by Aboriginal novelist Alexis Wright. Book publishers live and die by their disparate tastes  so their shared sensibilities made collaboration easier than might be expected. That’s not to say that agreements are always easily reached. No two editors have identical taste, and Epler admitted that ““I sometimes have to stretch to understand what people appreciate about a book.”Although she was initially “leery” about coordinating editorial decisions across three continents, Epler praised her co-publishers: “Our colleagues have been outstanding and removed a lot of our fears.”

Collegiality aside, judging the prize remains “a lot of work,” particularly for small houses. 

In 2020, the three publishers looked at roughly 1,500 submissions. The task in 2022 was marginally smaller, at a mere 1,000 manuscripts. Each publisher received several hundred titles for initial consideration.  As Epler put it, “For us to receive hundreds of manuscripts, it shows how much talent is out there.” New Directions seriously considered forty to fifty titles, but ultimately had to choose just five to present to the co-sponsors. 

Although one publisher is American, one is British, and the third is Australian, it’s by accident rather than design that the committee has so far chosen one Australian, one American, and one British writer. The Prize’s first winner was Cold Enough for Snow, Australian Jessica Au’s slim (meaning under one hundred pages) and enigmatic (meaning there are at least two mutually exclusive readings of the book’s plot) story of a mother and daughter visiting Tokyo.

The 2022 co-winners differ in most everything but their ambition. American Anne de Marcken’s debut, It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over, is a phantasmagoria of grief narrated by an undead woman holed up in a crumbling hotel in a collapsing world. In our conversation, Epler compared de Marcken’s vision to Beckett’s; as I read, I thought about J.G. Ballard, Max Porter, and Night of the Living Dead. Zombies, traditionally, shamble and lurch, but de Marcken’s novel leaps and races. It pulses with the life its narrator so deeply misses. The undead protagonist sublimates her grief into a hunger for human flesh; she is feral and brutal and yet sympathetic. Her arm falls off on the first page, and the narrator long ago lost her name, the story of her life, and the name of her beloved. Dream logic reigns:  At one point, she stuffs a dead raven into her chest cavity; it speaks cryptic messages to her as she voyages to the sea, the site of her most precious remaining memory. Her strange odyssey reaches an appropriately bizarre end; I won’t soon forget the book’s final image. 

Where It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over is propulsive and visceral — literally visceral in one scene of cannibalism — Jonathan Buckley’s Tell is recursive and meditative. The novel presents as a transcript of five interview sessions between an unnamed filmmaker and the former gardener to the fabulously wealthy clothing entrepreneur Curtis Porter. 

The filmmaker, like the gardener, is never named, though it transpires that they are making a film about Curtis and his apparent death. Buckley withholds the filmmaker’s questions, so, aside from brief notations like “[pause]” or “[indistinct],” the entire novel consists of the gardener’s answers, page-long paragraph after page-long paragraph of discursion, digression, recursion, and reflection. Curtis, the novel’s central figure, is by necessity glimpsed only at second-hand: The gardener is recounting events months or years in the past, and as an employee, rather than a friend, her perspective is somewhat limited. Tell is a triumph of voice; the gardener’s tics and patterns of speech are all believable; and although her perspective on Curtis is distant, it’s never detached. 

The Novel Prize is still too young to be a proper institution, but already it seems to be achieving its goals of attracting an audience for inventive fiction. Fitzcarraldo founder Jacques Testard sold the rights to Cold Enough for Snow to nineteen foreign-language publishers and has more recently closed deals for It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over with Éditions Gallimard in France and Suhrkamp in Germany.

And what of the books that didn’t win? While not every manuscript submitted to the prize will ever see traditional publication, the Novel Prize also publishes a shortlist of nominees. Other publishers concur with the Novel Prize committee’s high assessment of these books: From the 2020 list, Christine Lai’s Landscapes and Nora Lange’s Us Fools went to Two Dollar Radio in the United States, while Emily Hall’s The Longcut appeared from Dalkey Archive. Vijay Khurana’s 2022 shortlisted novel The Passenger Seat sold in the United Kingdom this March.  

Epler and her colleagues have high hopes for the Novel Prize’s future. Towards the end of our conversation, she mentioned that one young writer had already told her their eye was on this year’s prize. Anyone looking to submit has their chance now: The 2024 Novel Prize opened on April 1 and closes on June 1.


Image: Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash

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