George Orwell sought to make “political writing into an art” so a prize that honours his name must abide by this ambition.
Among the bulging postbag of books I received in preparation for plucking just 12 of them for the Orwell book prize long-list this week, I came across those campaigning books intent on exposing a lie or revealing a truth, and also those ‘writerly’ ones that could shape a sentence beautifully. The challenge was to find these two qualities in the same book. That’s why it was so valuable having Nikita Lalwani - a prize-winning novelist who knows all about writing beautiful sentences - on the jury, alongside Joan Bakewell, and chair, Professor Jean Seaton - an all-female panel!
We reached a consensus after nearly three hours of discussion and dissent, and even managed to laugh about our all too discrete definitions of ‘good writing’. I am genuinely excited by the books we've chosen. They are engrossing and impassioned and elegantly written. While they may draw our attention to old, identified enemies and injustices, they make them newly urgent. Prominent among the books are personal journeys of different kinds. There is a timely scrutiny of the church in Richard Holloway’s affecting memoir, Leaving Alexandria in which he has the audacity to speak out about a world whose inner machinations are still fairly secret, with outspoken views on homosexuality, sexual desire and the doubt that can accompany faith.
There is torture in AT Williams' brilliantly forensic study of Baha Mousa’s death (while under military arrest in Iraq) in A Very British Killing. Out of this highly publicised case, Williams draws chilling new details and assessments that reflect on endemic abusive practises. Paul Preston’s masterful study of Franco’s brutal regime in The Spanish Holocaust deals with one kind of fascism while a contemporary British portrait is drawn by Daniel Trilling in his brave debut, Bloody Nasty People, which explores the rise of the far right in a grown-up, unsensationalised way. Raja Shehadeh memoir, Occupation Diaries, dwells on the everyday tragedies of the Palestinian struggle and is surprising for its fresh, raw outlook on an old problem.
Another powerful journey comes in Carmen Bugan’s Burying the Typewriter. Bugan’s family home was taken over by Ceausescu’s secret police after her father – part of the resistance movement - was arrested in the ‘70s. Her child’s-eye-view shows the price of her father’s heroism on his family. Ioan Grillo goes on the chase of Mexican drugs cartels in El Narco, talking to everyone from contract killers to drug dealers and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma is perhaps the most overtly campaigning in its call to take direct action. Its findings are not just shocking but affect anyone on medication.
Marie Colvin’s On the Front Line stands out for its comprehensive war reporting, but before we selected this book we first asked ourselves the question: ‘Would it be long-listed if the late journalist were still alive? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, for her ability to distil the traumas of the ‘small people’ in the ‘big picture’ of war across decades and continents. She also had the talent to write beautifully but without any sense of self-importance or vanity. Orwell would certainly have approved. Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire turns anti-colonial writing into an art while Clive Stafford Smith’s thrillerish Injustice traces the case of Kris Maharaj, a death row prisoner of nearly three decades alongside his own trajectory as a human right’s lawyer, from watching a death row execution to his struggle to free Maharaj. The future of our environment came up repeatedly, as did immigration, though these aren’t reflected in the long-list. So did an interrogation of the state we’re in in late-Capitalist society, and whether democracy is being attenuated by the vast inequalities in wealth that have created Chrystia Freeland’s 0.1percent of global super-rich in Plutocrats.
For Orwell, good prose was a “window-pane”, clear and direct in its delivery of a truth. Each of these 12 books are examples of just that.
This article appears in Saturday's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine