I’m running through my mind the list of 2013 books that could have made it onto a non-fiction long-list (mine – available from all good booksellers – excepted of course) if the definition of non-fiction were wider than the 15th Samuel Johnson’s obviously myopic scope.
There was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life for starters, which was more or less obviously going to win my imagined, unblinkered prize for unbridled non-fiction.
Until Sonali Deraniyagala published The Wave and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. The Wave was the “most powerful and haunting book” Michael Ondaatje had read in years.
Then again, George Monbiot’s Feral, could not have been “more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely,” according to the 2009 Samuel Johnson winner Philip Hoare (2009 being one of two years when the prize has championed a genuinely rounded idea of non-fiction).
And indeed Philip Hoare’s own The Sea Inside was in the words of another none-too-shabby writer, Jan Morris, “exhilarating”, “profound”, “tumultuous” and “a delight”.
Oh … there was Tim Dee’s Four Fields, which gave us “the wide world and everything in it, including ourselves and all our works,” said Kathleen Jamie, with only a (very allowable) trace of hyperbole.
And of course Mark Cocker had form. He was shortlisted in the other year referred to above, (the year Kate Summerscale won) and shared that shortlist with five other books that would not have made it over the dusty historical barricades of 2013. Crow Country, 2008 was as lyrical as it was learned. Birds and People, 2013 was “drenched in knowledge and love” according to Jim Crace – and more loaded with narrative than any wildlife book he had encountered before. “It has literature, history, philosophy, folklore, travelogue, biography… .”
Al Alvarez, hardly a literary lightweight, turned his pen to the catharsis of the natural world in a powerful memoir Pondlife. “nuanced and vulnerable” according to Andrew Motion; an “artistic triumph” and “exquisitely distressing” according to Robert Epstein.
While in Scarp – In Search of London’s Outer Limits the grandfather of psycho-geography himself, Nick Papadimitriou, set out on a series of fantastic journeys through an ordinary landscape describing London and its regions with “the velocity and the daring exploratory feel of interstellar voyaging”. The results, wrote Will Self, “are haunting, strange, lyrical, poignant – a testimony to a life that is triumphantly less ordinary.”
David Wolf on the Prospect site alludes to the same lack of variety in this year’s list, so it isn’t just me. He misses James Dawes’ Evil Men and James Woods’ The Fun Stuff (which Mary Beard has pointed out in a comment was published last year – although it wasn’t long-listed then either) but if proof were ever needed that the SJ team in annexing the all-encompassing term non-fiction have then applied to it to only a fraction of the literature it ought to include, the complete absence of Geoff Dyer from any shortlist ever would be enough. Zona is missing, in spite of its brilliance. He’s “a national treasure” according to Zadie Smith. “Adept at fiction, essay and reportage, but happiest when twisting all three into something entirely his own”, according to the New York Times.
That I fear is where Geoff may be going wrong. Come on Geoff, stop being so original. Non-fiction, according to those who wish to define such things, is not at its best in Zona and the various types of books cited above, where fiction, essay and reportage are blended into something new, nor when memoir, biography, myth, natural history and polemic are, nor when non-fiction rubs up against fiction. What such books are I don’t know. Non-fiction, it seems, is a tighter, exclusively didactic and less daring entity.
Mary Beard, one of this year’s judges, has said that much time was spent grappling with the question “where does non-fiction end and something else begin?” I wonder, did the judges find their answer at the ends of the history and biography sections, before timidly heading back down the shelf-stack?
The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction 2013 long-list:
Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh (Macmillan)
Empires of the Dead by David Crane (William Collins)
The Return of a King by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury)
A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape)
Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape)
The Memory Palace by Edward Hollis (Portobello)
The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate)
Disraeli by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Modernity Britain by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury)
Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (Thames and Hudson)
The War That Ended Peace by Margaret Macmillan (Profile)
Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore (Allen Lane)
Time’s Anvil by Richard Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman (William Collins)
The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama (Bodley Head)
Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon (Chatto & Windus)
Everest: The First Ascent by Harriet Tuckey (Rider)
Danubia by Simon Winder (Picador)