2015 Judge Rana Mitter on what makes a Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book
There’s no obvious answer to the question of what marks out the non-fiction book of the year. The past few years have seen the Samuel Johnson Prize go to a biography of an Italian poet and political firebrand; a study of a devastating famine visited on Mao’s China; and a memoir that brings together goshawks and grieving in an utterly innovative take on traditional nature writing.
So that makes the task before my fellow judges and me a pretty hard one to define. First of all, the size of the task. There is a lot of very good non-fiction out there and the judging panel has to read a great deal of it to get a sense of what has been published. My own specialism is in modern Chinese history but I’ve quickly developed an instant education in a whole variety of areas from archaeology to astronomy to architecture. All the judges are reading in areas that might not be anywhere near their normal areas of interest – and that’s what makes this such a powerful, though exciting, challenge.
Because the book we want to choose in the end – and we are still a long way from having any idea which book that might be – needs to be something that will speak to a readership beyond its own subject; it will need to be a book with resonance. Of course it will need to be well-researched, if it’s a book of history or science, and certainly well-written. But it also needs to capture some sense of a wider connection to the public conversation. We are certainly not looking for a book that is about the zeitgeist – nor could any of the winners over the years be accused of being only modish successes. In retrospect, the first ever winner, Antony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’, heralded a moment when the history of war moved in a new direction, with detailed accounts of soldiers’ experiences every bit as important as top-down military strategy. Last year’s winner, Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ stood in a much longer tradition of British nature writing, but brought a personal element to it that made it truly a book of the early twenty-first century. A new way of looking at nature was also at the heart of a previous winner, Philip Hoare’s ‘Leviathan’. We are seeking another such book that has the distinctiveness and connection to the wider conversations of today.