Sunday, October 11, 2015

Samuel Johnson Prize Update

The long list has now become a shortlist. The six still standing are...  The Ted Hughes biography discussed below, Steve Silberman's Neurotribes (mentioned below), The Four-Dimensional Human, in similar vein, by Laurence Scott; Landmarks - very different, about the relationship between landscape and words, by Robert Macfarlane; This Divided Island, by Samanth Subramanian, about the civil war in Sri Lanka; and The Unravelling by Emma Sky, which concerns the disaster wrought by Bush and Blair in Iraq.

Any other year and my tip would be Sri Lanka or Iraq, slightly favouring the latter because it inevitably sticks the boot in to Bush and Blair.  This year, however, I remain convinced that nothing can beat Ted Hughes.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Samuel Johnson Prize

As mentioned below, the longlist is out for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.  It's an eclectic list - everything from neurodiversity to Jack the Ripper, via Guantanamo Bay - but there is an obvious odds-on favourite in Jonathan Bate's unauthorised life of Ted Hughes.

Really, if you tried to concoct a surefire winner of the Johnson Prize, this would be it - the greatest poet of his generation, as charismatic as Byron, with a chaotic private life including, as a bonus, the feminist totem Sylvia Plath.  Not that I'm suggesting this is what Professor Bate did.  Far from it.  Bate is a major scholar who has spent years working on what was originally an authorised literary life.  At the last minute permission was withdrawn when Hughes' widow decided Bate had strayed into the off-limits private life.  Of course he did - Hughes' private life is what made him so incredibly famous and kept him in the limelight even during periods when he wasn't publishing his best material.  His private life is the subject of Birthday Letters, the last masterpiece, and is therefore unavoidable.  And of course authorisation was withdrawn by the Hughes estate.  It always is.  The women Hughes left behind are naturally protective and inevitably unpredictable - after all, they lived with Hughes.

Bate might not have engineered his book to win this award but his publishers, William Collins (who made their name publishing Byron), certainly did.  The other contenders have had their day in the spotlight and, worthy as they are, find themselves facing a juggernaut of reviews and articles hitting the media as decision-time looms.

Personally, Bate's is the book on the list I will acquire first.  That said, I will inevitably end up reading Bruce Robinson's They All Love Jack, because I am a big fan of Withail and I and a hopeless Ripperology fan.  Maybe Robinson could still emerge as an outside bet for the prize?