Ruth Scurr on the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction
In the summer of 1766 Samuel Johnson, after whom the UK’s most substantial and prestigious non-fiction prize is named, suffered a nervous breakdown. Exhausted by his work on his dictionary and his edition of Shakespeare, he lay in bed groaning for weeks, until his friends Henry and Hester Thrale rescued him. In 2001 Beryl Bainbridge wrote a novel from the perspective of the Thrales’ eldest daughter, According to Queenie. Bainbridge’s novel and the boundary it pushes between fact and fiction has been on my mind this summer while I have been reading for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2014.
'All the best stories are true' is the Samuel Johnson Prize motto and fiction is not eligible. I was a judge of the Man Booker Prize in 2007 where the opposite rule applied: non-fiction was ineligible. I am interested in the distinction between fact and fiction, what is true and what is invented. I do not think that a factual book can or should lack artistry. I hope that all the books on our long list will be works of art that also happen to be true stories.
In the course of judging, I have read many books, some long, some short, some historical, some contemporary, spanning subjects from A (archaeology) to Z (zoology). The ones that stand out are the brave books that take risks. Non-fiction is typically more diligent and earnest than fiction. There is always ground to be covered, archives to be read, sources to be included, names and numbers to be checked. But the best non-fiction books are more than competent: they are creative and compelling; they engage the reader’s imagination as vividly as any novel could.
I am looking forward to discussing the books with the other judges. I spend a lot of time reviewing, so I am used to finding reasons for liking what I like, but rarely do I have to defend my reasons or test their strength. I am looking forward to challenging conversations about which of the books we have read is the best and why.