Judges' Blog - Paul Laity
I spend my days sending out non-fiction books for review, and editing the pieces for publication, but rarely have I thought about 'non-fiction' as a thing in itself. Being a judge of the Samuel Johnson Prize has encouraged me to do that – something I'm sure I should have done anyway. Much energy is spent thinking about the nature of fiction, but non-fiction's way of being isn't dwelt on much, perhaps simply because it covers so many subjects and can take so many forms – from celebrity memoir to works of academic philosophy. And I think this makes judging a non-fiction prize even trickier than adjudicating between novels, because how do you choose between chalk and cheese?
Tricky it might be but also very rewarding: if nothing else, being a Samuel Johnson Prize judge has forced me to think about the different guises a non-fiction book can take, and what adaptations can be made and risks taken with the form. How is it best to describe and make sense of the world, factually? Of the superb books on our shortlist, Robert Macfarlane puts himself at the centre of his rich stories of landscape and culture, while Katherine Boo expands the possibilities of the form with her scrupulous imaginings of the thoughts of Mumbai slum-dwellers. Paul Preston on Spain and Sue Prideaux on Strindberg, meanwhile, show how powerful and thought-transforming history and biography can be. Wade Davis's study of the Everest expeditions combines many types of book in one – history, biography, anthropology, just for starters. And Steven Pinker's debate-changing book about violence in history takes in science, social science, evolutionary psychology and statistics. Phew.
All the shortlisted books structure their arguments in very different ways, but it is (just about) possible to think comparatively about the success of their methods, how their evidence is marshalled, and the degree to which the sentences work, or even sing. So variety, yes, but also real quality. These books deserve all the attention we can give them, and non-fiction – in all its shapes – seems more compelling to me than ever.