Don's diary: prize jobs

December 13, 2002

A letter arrives from the British Academy, inviting me to serve on the jury of its book prize. My heart sinks. It's not just a matter of the time it will absorb. For years, I have done non-fiction reviewing for a Sunday newspaper and have been paid for each review.

I feel like a taxi-driver who is asked by his friends to take them to John o' Groats for nothing, on the grounds that he does a lot of driving anyway. But noblesse oblige, and I accept the invitation.

A man from Securicor delivers a large cardboard box of books. I put it on the floor in the corner of my study. Immediately, I feel the onset of Inland Revenue syndrome - those brown envelopes can stay unopened on my desk for weeks, silently unnerving me with their stare.

How long can I leave this box, I wonder? The jury doesn't meet until November.

An exhilarating week in the Staatsarchiv, Zurich, finding a mass of manuscripts and copying them out all day long. (Where else in the world do archives open at 7.45am?) I return with files bulging with notes and a wrist rendered agonisingly unusable. After a week's rest there is no improvement and I am in despair. I can't write or do any proper research because that means writing notes. What can I do? The cardboard box stares up at me from the corner of the room, and I have my answer.

The shortlisting meeting is a surprisingly amicable affair. No one is gunning for a particular title at this stage. Inevitably, the real arguments are about the two criteria we have been set: scholarly excellence and accessibility to general readers. The problem is not that the two are incompatible (God forbid), merely that one book can have more of one, and another more of the other.

Luckily we are in expert hands. Listening to our chair, Gillian Beer, swapping anecdotes with the novelist Michele Roberts, I realise that they have served on the jury of every prize I have heard of (Booker, Samuel Johnson, Hawthornden, Cohen, Orange...) and several that I haven't.

Clearly, this could become a full-time occupation - a career, even. An enterprising university should set up a course in it; and who better to run it than Dame Gillian, who could be to book prize-judging what Malcolm Bradbury was to creative writing?

The final meeting. We manage to cut the shortlist from six to three, but then things get much harder. It's a strong list, indicative perhaps of more general strengths - and weaknesses - in present-day academia. Four out of six authors (Eamon Duffy, Jonathan Israel, Michael McCormick and Jonathan Rose) have written works of history. Four out of six teach in the US, and two of them (Israel and the philosopher Brian Barry) have moved there from here.

But the winner fits neither category: the sociologist Stanley Cohen, author of States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering , who teaches at the London School of Economics. In a graceful acceptance speech Cohen cites, in relation to his own work, a motto of Keynes: "It's better to be roughly right than precisely wrong." I think we got it precisely right - but it's not a bad motto for book-prize judges, all the same.

Noel Malcolm is fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and fellow of the British Academy.

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