By Michael Roddy
LONDON, March 10 (Reuters) - American author George Saunders, whose fiction specialises in "darkly playful" twists of fate, won the inaugural Folio literary prize and 40,000 pounds ($66,500) on Monday for his collection "Tenth of December".
Saunders, 55, who started out as a geophysicist and worked in the oil fields of Sumatra before turning to writing, was selected from a shortlist of eight authors for the new prize.
Its sponsors say it is intended to recognise "the best English-language fiction from around the world" that has been published in Britain, regardless of form, genre or the author's nationality.
"George Saunders's stories are both artful and profound," English novelist and poet Lavinia Greenlaw, the chair of the judges, said in a statement announcing the winner of the prize founded by the Folio Society, a publisher of deluxe classic books.
"Darkly playful, they take us to the edge of some of the most difficult questions of our time and force us to consider what lies behind and beyond them. His subject is the human self under ordinary and extraordinary pressure.
"...We have no doubt that these stories will prove only more essential in years to come."
The Texas-born Saunders, who was a recipient of the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called "the genius grant", in 2006, is a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University in New York.
He has written several collections of short fiction, including "Tenth of December" (Bloomsbury), a New York Times bestseller, as well as popular children's books.
"No one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised, those Americans who struggle to pay the bills, make the rent, hold onto a job they might detest - folks who find their dreams slipping from their grasp as they frantically tread water, trying to keep from drowning," Michiko Kakutani wrote in a review of "Tenth of December" in The New York Times in January, 2013.
The other 2014 shortlisted titles were:
"Red Doc>" by Anne Carson (Random House/Jonathan Cape)
"Schroder" by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
"Last Friends" by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
"Benediction" by Kent Haruf (Picador)
"The Flame Throwers" by Rachel Kushner (Random House/Harvill Secker)
"A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing" by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
"A Naked Singularity" by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions) ($1 = 0.6013 British pounds) (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)