Way to win more than just readers

December 21, 2001

Academics dreaming of that bestseller can now shoot for the British Academy Book Prize. Harriet Swain reports.

There was a time when an academic's idea of communicating with the general public was asking a dry cleaner to fix a rip in his tweeds. Not any more.

Since Stephen Hawking made science a bestseller and historians hit our television screens, many have found the satisfactions of peer approval and perfect footnotes no longer enough. And should they still hesitate to venture out of the seminar room, a collection of prizes that rewards accessible academic writing can encourage them on their way.

The Samuel Johnson Prize, for example, awards about £30,000 to the year's best non-fiction; this year's prize went to Michael Burleigh's history of the Third Reich. Scientists have the Aventis Prize for science books, awarded by the science communication partnership Copus, which gives £10,000 each to the writer of the best general science book and the best book for children, plus £1,000 each to the authors of the ten shortlisted books.

For historians, there is the Wolfson Literary Award for History, which aims to reward books by British historians for the general reader. It divides about £35,000 between two or three winners. And from next year, there will be a prize for a first, unpublished history book written for a general audience. It is being launched by David Cannadine, a Wolfson judge and director of the Institute of Historical Research, with the publisher Grove Atlantic. The winner will receive a £7,000 publishing contract.

The latest prize is the British Academy Book Prize, awarded on Wednesday to Rees Davies for The First English Empire and to Ian Kershaw for his biography of Hitler, Nemesis . It is designed to "celebrate the best of accessible scholarly writing within the humanities and social sciences". Nominations were sought from the 700 fellows of the academy. The academy's 18 sections then compiled a list of the best book in each subject discipline before the judging panel drew up the shortlist of six books.

Despite the effort that went into trying to get as broad a subject spread as possible, all six of the books on the shortlist were, to some extent, history books.

Jonathan Breckon, assistant secretary of the academy, says some sections of the academy did not nominate a title even for the long list because they felt nothing was suitable. "There was the suggestion that we should choose a different subject each year, but we want to reward the absolute best," he says. "If the message is 'why can't all the humanities and social sciences write as well as history?' then so be it."

Sir Anthony Kenny, pro vice-chancellor of Oxford University and chair of the judging panel, says one problem was that some of the British Academy sections failed to grasp the emphasis being put on writing for the general reader. He suggests that writing accessibly may come more naturally to historians than to academics in other disciplines.

Roy Porter, one of the shortlisted authors, says jargon may be a problem in some subjects, with English studies hit worse than most by postmodernism. But he says all academics should be conscious of the fact that their wages are being paid by the public and should honour that by producing work that the public might want to read. "There is also an enormous hunger for knowledge about history, and if good academic historians do not fill that vacuum, someone else will," he warns.

Rees Davies suggests that the research assessment exercise "does not encourage people to think of the world beyond the university. It also rushes people into print before they can stand back and think."

None of the shortlisted authors, however, claims that writing well is easy. Lowenthal suggests that writing is "an unnatural act" and recommends starting writing things down early enough to be able to hone them later.

"I have been sitting at my screen since 5am this morning trying to make ten pages read well," says Porter, speaking at 11am. "It is damn hard work."

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