Judge Peter Hennessy on being a prize winner and now a judge
How do you feel about being a judge for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize?
I’m very honoured. Particularly as I once won the NCR prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize’s predecessor – there’s a nice symmetry to it, now that I am myself a judge. And with Martin Rees in the chair who could say no!
How have you found the judging process so far?
It’s fascinating, and a great pleasure. A pleasure in that the books are understandably enormously well written and of the highest calibre. And in that being a judge makes you read more widely that you normally would in your summer reading, or even in a year of reading. I read quite broadly, but being a judge has made me read even wider, in a way that I wouldn’t have done without the prize. It’s like discovering the thrill of the chase when reading as a school boy or an undergraduate.
What types of books do you normally read?
I normally read a lot of history, politics and biography, and I read a little anthropology, although I’m not skilled in that area. I also read New Scientist every week (as much of it as I can understand!), so having all the science books to read as well has been another delight.
How do you feel about the status and popularity of non-fiction books in general?
It seems to be holding up, indicated, I think, by the number of literary festivals that now exist. They seem to be recession proof, and their non-fiction element is very pronounced. The word festival is apt, they are spirit raising, and have a tonic effect for people like me if I’m invited to talk. They’re a coalition of the willing, unlike a row of undergraduates who didn’t really want to come. Prizes impact on the success of the festivals, as the books that are longlisted and shortlisted provide a good pool of authors for festivals.
The book itself has always been in danger of being written off - when I was very young it was the television that we thought was a threat, and now the technological distractions are even wider. But a golden literary thread survives.
Are book prizes important?
Prizes do matter. When the Samuel Johnson Prize first launched it filled a huge gap, all other prizes were fiction prizes, and it took off straight away. Naming it after Samuel Johnson was a stroke of genius!