Boyd Tonkin: Blessed are the truth-tellers

The week in books
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The Independent Culture

Aglance at the non-fiction bestseller lists often brings nothing but dejection for anyone who wants to see wide exposure for mind-stretching books. Man cannot live by Jamie Oliver alone. Over the past couple of weeks, however, another kind of star has shone with surprising brilliance. Simon Sebag Montefiore's "biography" of the city of Jerusalem, eye-opening and hair-raising in equal measure, has outsold almost all the celebs.

This week I had the pleasure of talking to the author about his spectacular chronicle of unholy deeds in holy places at another sort of shrine: Daunt's beautiful bookshop in Marylebone. Readers have, rightly, lapped up his history of an ever-disputed ground, with its ebullient equal-opportunity account of the manifold crimes, perennial hypocrisy and very occasional generosity of all the powers and personalities who have invaded the city's sacred space. If this were a novel, we could start to discuss its prize prospects in excited terms. For good or ill, awards do matter in the clamour of our literary souk.

With history books, the channels of recognition seldom flow so smoothly. This week, the organisers of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction announced a strong line-up of judges for this year's competition: potentially, a major honour for non-academic history. It's heartening news that the BBC – with so many arm-twisting incentives to cut costs – has decided to maintain funding for the prize (worth £20,000 to the winner). We should cheer its survival at a time of brutal cuts. All the same, the award's portmanteau "non-fiction" brief inevitably means that history, however broadly you define it, jostles with other genres for an annual place in the limelight.

Over recent years, first-person reportage from political hot spots has done well in the Johnson stakes, with victors such as Barbara Demick's dispatches from North Korea (Nothing to Envy) and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's from Iraq (Imperial Life in the Emerald City). You might wish to call such books contemporary, or first-draft, history. Other winners have cleverly straddled the gap between individual biography and cultural or social history: Kate Summerscale investigated Victorian detection in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; James Shapiro illuminated a turning-point in Shakespeare's, and England's, life in 1599. Yet you have to go back to 2002 to find a Samuel Johnson laureate from the among the ranks of mainstream, big-picture history: Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan's panorama of the Versailles peace conference of 1919 and the world that it made.

Popular history still booms on TV, with series after series turning in impressive viewing figures. The unscheduled triumph of books such as Jerusalem reveals a large public appetite for blockbuster narratives about the past. Yet the commitment of publishers and agents to the form wavers according to the last season's sales figures. With this and every other unpredictable genre, they are fainthearts and fashion victims, in thrall to the numbers.

So should we have a separate, higher-profile prize for history? Of course, worthwhile specialist awards do already flourish. The most prominent, the Wolfson Prizes, have over the years honoured titans from Keith Thomas and Theodore Zeldin to Mary Beard and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Since the Wolfson mission does involve rewards for work that will reach lay readers, perhaps it could do with a just bit more glitz and punch in its promotion and publicity.

That will cost, of course. Times are tough for all such ventures. Last year, it even looked for a while as if the renowned Royal Society Prize for science books would go extinct for lack of sponsorship. Now, after a life-saving five-year deal with an investment company, it has recently been resuscitated as the Royal Society Winton Prize. Thank Newton for that.

Whether in science or history, travel or memoir, the art of non-fiction narrative still thrives. As it always has. Jerusalem may wreck your faith in holy men – and, above all, in holy warriors of every creed. Its true heroes turn out to be the writers: historians, chroniclers and diarists who over the millennia have preserved a sense of proportion, and a sense of humanity, in the city of miracles and massacres. Blessed are the storytellers who keep their grip on truth.

Heroes and zeros on the shelves

What did you do in the Great Library War, Mummy and Daddy? Like any long drawn-out conflict, the national struggle to save libraries has begun to throw up its heroes – and its appeasers. Foremost among the first group is Philip Pullman (right), whose much-linked barnstormer of a speech at Oxford Town Hall has stiffened the sinews of anti-cuts campaigners around the country. In the opposite camp, Roy Clare – chief of the doomed museums and libraries quango the MLA - has proved (let us charitably say) less than militant in fighting for his patch. If this is the level of "leadership" the befuddled MLA can offer in a crisis, then no one will mourn its passing much.

Racing ahead of the e-book plot

Many commentators on the book business – this one included – behave these days like the sort of impatient reader who riffles through the pages to the final chapter without bothering to see how the intervening action will unfold. Yes, e-books will soon become a general and popular format for delivery. Nobody seriously disputes that any more. Everybody obsesses about the consequences. But let's remind ourselves of the figures as they stand. In the new year, several UK publishers reported recent digital sales at 5 per cent or so of total volumes. With genres that appeal to "early adopters", such as certain kinds of crime fiction, the digital slice of the market can already reach 20 per cent or more. Yet this week at his firm's party for authors, Peter Roche, CEO of Orion – part of Hachette, the largest UK publishing group – looked forward to e-book sales making up 4 per cent of his business in 2011. So, for now, 96 per cent will stay on the printed page. This story still has a lot of twisting plot to come.