Sign up to the Newsletter for the latest news from the Baillie Gifford Prize

You are here

Judge Peter Hennessy on being a prize winner and now a judge

Judge Peter Hennessy on being a prize winner and now a judge

Samuel Johnson
literary festivals
Peter Hennessy

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!



William Feaver author of The Lives of Lucian...
Christina Lamb, author of Our Bodies, Their...
What does it feel like to be longlisted?...
Craig Brown, author of One Two Three Four: The...