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'The problem is that everyone else is wrong'

11th October 2015 - Toby Mundy


SJ logoThe Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is the biggest non-fiction award on the British literary calendar, with a cheque for £20,000 going to the winner. This year's shortlist was announced live at the Southbank Centre. Last year's winner was Helen Macdonald with H is for Hawk.


The Prize's Executive Director Toby Mundy sits in on the judging panel's deliberations and here he reveals how five well-read and opinionated people were able to come to an agreement about the final six.



‘Success’, remarked Benjamin Disraeli, ‘is the child of audacity’. And the shortlist for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction recognises six bold and original works.


We are blessed this year with an outstanding group of judges: our chair is the award-winning historian Anne Applebaum, who is joined by Emma Duncan, editor of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine; Rana Mitter, Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford; Sumit Paul-Choudhury, editor of New Scientist; and the film producer and former head of Film Four, Tessa Ross. Together they are articulate, thoughtful, witty, well-read, diligent and incredibly clever. They are also all accustomed to getting their own way.


Four of this year’s half dozen were agreed in a few minutes. But the fifth and sixth slots were a fiercely argued contest between six titles. ‘Someone is going to be pretty cross, no matter what we decide’, declared one of the judges, after 90 minutes of hard wrangling.


’Elements of this book are nuts’, said one judge of a longlisted title, while another wondered if it might be ‘too advanced’ for the Prize. Regarding another title, one judge said: ’The point is that this book is incredibly original and clever and witty’, while another worried that it started strongly but ‘ran out of steam’. About another work, one judge declared, ‘this book gave me great joy’, only to be told by another, ‘This book is almost unreadable’. (Gulp). One judge, taking no prisoners, opined ‘the problem is that everyone else is wrong’. About the same book, another said, ‘This book is full of empty sentences.’ Voices were not raised but corners were robustly argued. The outcome of all this argy-bargy is a shortlist of terrific range and quality, which travels around the world, and addresses urgent questions.


The judges meet again to agree the winner ahead of the announcement on 2nd November. Hold on to your hats!


The shortlist


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