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Mary Beard on how to judge a book prize

Mary Beard on how to judge a book prize

Mary Beard
non-fiction
books

The last time I blogged about the Samuel Johnson Prize was before I had got down to actually reading the books. I was still at the procrastination stage, shifting the books around in their big box and wondering whether to start with the long ones, the ones I knew most about, or the ones with the most appealing covers (the deck chairs on the Titanic syndrome).

Anyway, I am now long past that stage, and we are deciding the longlist. I have to say that it has been hugely interesting, as well as time-consuming (a bit like being forced to watch lots of really good movies). And, happily, it has raised many more important questions than the “which book to read first” conundrum I started out with.  Top of the list is the biggest of all: what makes a good/great work of non-fiction? It is easy enough to talk about the formal criteria of quality, originality, accessibility and so forth. But how in practice do you judge those?

The sort of difficulties I’ve been coming up against all the time are these…

How do you judge (say) a big book, on a “big” historical theme, wearing a strong and serious thesis on its sleeve, versus an elegant slim volume whose aim is to spotlight some usually taken-for-granted aspect of the world and help us to see it differently – and perhaps not take it for granted any more? (Sorry if this is elliptical, but I don’t want to “out” any particular book… and I think you’ll get what I mean).

A slightly different version of the same basic question is: where does non-fiction end…and something else (fiction/“literature”) begin? We can all agree that science, politics or biographies of the dead are central sub-genres of non-fiction. But how about idiosyncratic personal memoirs? Are there some things that in practice fall between the Man Booker Prize and the Samuel Johnson? And is that quite fair?

And how do you judge the hefty, copiously foot-noted, impressive, well-written “classic”, against an intentionally popular and funny  -- but, maybe, again mind-changing -- book? Does a major book have to be serious?  In fact I found myself wondering whether I would have longlisted 1066 and all that if the prize had existed all those years ago.

Gender comes in too, of course.  It’s impossible not to reflect whether there are (with some obvious and notable exceptions) different male and female styles in non-fiction, and whether it is the male style that seems to tick more of the “prize-winner boxes”.  Before anyone gets worried, let me say that all us judges are on the look out for this – and we have tried to be gender-aware.

So there are lots of dilemmas. But, as I worked my way through my piles of hopeful books, I found myself thinking along these lines: if someone were to go into their local bookshop (assuming they still had one!) and buy this book on the grounds that it had won the Samuel Johnson Prize, would they think it money well spent? I don’t mean, would they like it (I’m afraid you can’t judge a prize just on “likes”, or on “easy-reads” for that matter). But would they see why it had been judged so good? If it was “difficult”, would they see why it might repay the effort? Would I, in other words, be able to look the punter in the eye?

Or, as one of my fellow judges put it rather more succinctly, “would I recommend this book to a friend?” Because if we are choosing books for the Prize that – for all their virtues -- we wouldn’t actually suggest that anyone else should read, then we’ve surely lost the plot!

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