Arifa Akbar: We saw nothing wrong in considering Vicky Pryce for the Orwell Prize

The Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Four days before I sat down with fellow judges of the Orwell Prize for Books to begin the selection process, Vicky Pryce was convicted of perverting the course of justice.

I had just read Greekonomics, her book on the Greek economy and Euro crisis, and I was so surprised by how engaging she made the dreary business of triple-dips and fiscal cliffs that I half forgot that she had latterly become better known as someone who took penalty points on her driving licence for her ex-husband and then lied about it, rather than a big-brained economist.

So much so, I reckoned that her book could be a contender for the prize. She had, after all, written it long before her courtroom drama began and it had been fulsomely praised by critics, politicians and Greece's ex-prime minister. Yet, by the time I had exchanged opinions with the others, while the prize director, Jean Seaton, rustled up lunch and listened intently to our shifting views, I had lost my sense of certainty.

There is no doubt that Greekonomics is a good read. It has intellectual depth and insider perspective, given Pryce's Greek heritage. There are even flashes of humour, an achievement in itself, given the subject matter. It could easily have become leaden in less capable hands.

Yet Pryce's conviction and prison-term, ending this week in the ignominous tagging, left me unsure about gunning for her book. Could we really nominate it for an award that hinges on George Orwell's ambition to expose lies and reveal truths when its author had just been convicted of perverting the course of justice? I'm no economist but I am certain that Greekonomics is not telling lies. This does not tread the same moral territory as the Johann Hari controversy of 2011, in which deception clearly took place on the page. Still, on principle, how could we separate the truths in her book from the damaging lies in her life? Would it have been courageous of us to nominate her or compromising for the award?

Maybe it is wrong to conflate the integrity of her intellectual endeavour with the messy business of her marriage -in-meltdown. There is that well-rehearsed view that the private lives of writers, politicians, footballers, ought to have little bearing on our judgement of their professional abilities and it is not as if Pryce has ever been convicted of shoddy economic analysis.

Nevertheless, her character falls under suspicion, and she becomes – for a short time – one of those writers whose misdemeanour overshadows the excellent achievement of her work. This quandary was the only moment of discomfort in an otherwise illuminating judging process. I discovered that if the values of a prize are not frequently invoked, it is easy to stray away from them, and from recognising the best book out of the bunch.

There are unconscious impulses that one must attempt to counteract: the instinct to consider a writer's body of work rather than just the book before us; the sense of rewarding a 'deserving' author or bringing a new name to public attention.

Judges of the Women's Prize for Fiction must contend with how to judge Hilary Mantel's book against others, and I wonder if it might not be tempting to ask whether she really needs another award, rather than stick to the only relevant question: has she written the best book on the list?

In Pryce's case, our decision was not based on whether she was a deserving nominee but if a book could retain its integrity if its author had been less than honest. Ours was the difficult realisation that in the real world, it is sometimes impossible to separate the book from its author.

Morecambe's funny old vampire returns

Eric Morecambe managed to pack a lot into a short life, not least some out-of-print 'funny' vampire novels written in the 1980s, which now prove he was well ahead of the curve. The Reluctant Vampire and The Vampire's Revenge, illustrated childrens books which revolve around a vampire who is weighed down by his bloodsucking destiny, are to be republished, complete with illustrations by Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame) who is doing them for free because "I have no desire to suck the blood from Eric's creations."

Pretty, Dirty Things of the Gulf

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the "Arabic Booker" as it is known, has sparked controversy for as long as it has existed (some writers have refused to have their work nominated) so it is a surprise to learn that The Bamboo Stalk, a novel by a young Kuwaiti author, Saud Alsanousi, has picked up the $50,000 prize without a brouhaha.

That said, Alsanousi's story is a gritty and topical one, dramatising the plight of foreign workers in the Gulf region, which sounds like a Pretty Dirty Things for the Gulf. Hopefully we can expect to read it in translation before long, as five previous winners of the six-year-old prize have been translated for English readers. Alsanousi is its youngest recipient, as well as the first Kuwaiti to win it and his story revolves around the son of a woman who travels from the Philippines to work.