Judge Ray Monk is positive about the future of publishing for non-fiction
Choosing the ‘best work of non-fiction of the year’ was always going to be a challenge. For one thing, non-fiction includes so much.
In the last month, I have been reading, among much else, huge, exhaustively researched works of history, short, intimate memoirs, evocative descriptions of countries and cities, polemical discussions of politics and current affairs, and, of course, biographies.
‘The judges will be looking for originality, quality of writing and the author’s ability to communicate his or her subject to a wide audience’, the rules state. So that excludes academic books, then, which is a welcome break for me. For someone who spends so much time reading the dense and abstruse prose of academic philosophers, it is a real pleasure to read so much elegant and attractive writing. Of course, many of these books are scholarly and some are even written by academics, but if the writing doesn’t engage and entertain as well as inform, it won’t be considered for the prize.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the area of publishing that the Samuel Johnson Prize exists to encourage and support – the books that are deeply serious but not academic, engagingly written but not lightweight and ephemeral – is under threat and in danger of disappearing.
I am very happy to report that that is emphatically not the case. On the contrary, it is in robust health. I do not know which book will win, but I do know that there are plenty of books that would be worthy of winning and that the eventual winner will not only enrich your understanding of its subject but also keep you turning its pages through the beauty and power of its prose.