American writer George Saunders has won the £40,000 pound (nearly $74,000 Cdn) Folio Prize for literature with his humorous and disturbing short-story collection Tenth of December.
The chair of the judging panel, British poet Lavinia Greenlaw, said Monday that Saunders' "darkly playful" stories explore "the human self under ordinary and extraordinary pressure."
Saunders edged out esteemed Canadian poet Anne Carson, who was up for Red Doc, which mixes poetry, drama and narrative.
The other finalists for the inaugural prize included Americans Amity Gaige for Schroder; Kent Haruf for Benediction; Rachel Kushner for The Flame Throwers and Sergio De La Pava for A Naked Singularity.
The Britain-based finalists were Jane Gardam for Last Friends and Eimear McBride for A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.
Saunders has won acclaim for his satirically edged short stories, and last week won the Story Prize for short fiction, worth $20,000 US. Carson's previous honours include the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Griffin Poetry Prize.
His tales place characters with recognizable human emotions in quietly unsettling situations. In one story in Tenth of December, a man is used as a guinea pig in unusual drug trials, while another features women trafficked to be human lawn ornaments.
- LISTEN: George Saunders on CBC's Writers and Company
- LISTEN: Day 6: George Saunders' Tenth of December: Should You Read It?
He's probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech to Syracuse University's class of 2013, whose key message was: "Try to be kinder." It went viral on the Internet and will soon be published as a book.
Saunders picked up that theme at the prize ceremony Monday, saying the goal of fiction "is to develop our ability to be more sympathetic to others."
"To me, fiction since the first time I started doing it was about softening the borders between myself and other people," he said.
"I think in a time like ours, where so much of the public discourse tells us that we are antagonistic, that we're separate, fiction is a wonderful way to remind ourselves that actually that's a lie."
The judging panel considered a total of 80 books.
The award, which is sponsored by The Folio Society, hopes to rival the Man Booker Prize as the English-speaking world's most prestigious literary award. It is open to any book published in Britain in the previous year, which has led some in the U.K. literary world to fear it will become U.S.-dominated.