Folio Prize Speech

24 March 2015

I gave a short speech before announcing the winner of the 2015 Folio Prize yesterday:

Our Folio Prize shortlist is the result of months of reading and hours of passionate conversation. First the almost physiological challenge of getting through the 80 nominated titles, when we became machines for reading, combine harvesters gorging on sentences. A strange, trippy sensation - from one day to the next we might be reading books written in dystopian patois, blank verse or eleventh-century English, swooping through the lives of Montana social workers, art students in Weimar Germany, Christian missionaries on a distant planet. Children, soldiers, composers, dentists, bankers, ministers, vagabonds, this great humanity-pageant passing across the mind's eye - there were days when my head felt like a souk of other people's dreams.

With so many books arriving at the house in boxes, so many new flyleaf blurbs and dedication pages and Chapter Ones, it might have been easy to take the existence of books for granted, as if books simply irrupted into the world, the result of unconscious natural processes, like clouds, or spring. In fact, this period of intensive reading has refreshed my sense of wonder, not just about the enriching of our imaginative, intellectual and emotional lives made possible by books, but about what each individual book represents, the hundreds or thousands of hours of solitary concentration that lie behind it, the private campaign of thoughtfulness, the self-criticism, doggedness, perseverance and despair as well as the daring and elation.

So I feel, more than ever, gratitude for books. And special gratitude, this evening, for their books, to Ben Lerner, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin, Akhil Sharma, Miriam Toews, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Yvonne Owuor. It may be that, as parents think their own children are the special ones, so prize judges always think their shortlist is somehow exceptional. But this one really is. These eight novels explore vast themes - time, loss, belonging, war, solitude, marriage and family, the making and the mystery of art - with amazing vitality and grace. They're both epic and intimate - in fact, they show those dimensions to be two sides of the same coin. They've surprised, moved, challenged and enchanted us; they've made us laugh; they've grown and deepened when we read them again. It's easy to say something new, and it's easy to say something true, but to say something new and true takes a kind of wizardry. These books have it.

Thank you to Andrew Kidd, Kate Harvey, Suzy Lucas, Fiona McMorrow and the team behind the Folio Prize for being our shepherds and sometimes sherpas throughout this process. Thank you to Bob Gavron and the Folio Society for their commitment to the celebration and promotion of great writing. And thank you to my brilliant fellow jurors Rachel Cooke, Mohsin Hamid, A.M.Homes and Deborah Levy, for their diligence and insight and care. At every stage our conversations were passionate - passionate not just for individual books but for the whole enterprise and possibility of fiction.

Our only agenda was excellence. Our shortlist has boldness and experiment and a deep core commitment to human struggles, fervours and longings. The list reminds me that fiction is itself a work-in-progress, reaching out for new shapes and strategies. It's as if we're eavesdropping on a marvellous conversation about what the novel is and might be.