Where there's a Will, there's a Johnson nomination

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A controversial biography of the life and times of William Shakespeare is among the books on the longlist for the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction announced today.

A controversial biography of the life and times of William Shakespeare is among the books on the longlist for the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction announced today.

Stephen Greenblatt's lively recreation of the playwright's life in Elizabethan England - Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare - has sharply divided the academic world. While the work is praised for bringing to life the few known facts about Shakespeare's life, critics have questioned the degree of interpretation Greenblatt has lavished on events.

The 320-page hardback, published last October, is among 20 books on the long-list, which includes seven other biographies and three tomes about cities. Their subjects range from Winston Churchill (In Command of History by David Reynolds) to human mutants (Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi) and bodysnatching (The Italian Boy, a first book by Sarah Wise).

Sue MacGregor, the broadcaster, who ploughed through 173 volumes to produce the list, said: "There were some we simply fell upon as being really mould-breaking books, that were really different from the door-stopping books that so often win the prizes.

"It's such a great longlist and there are interesting trends to spot."

Three books - Salonica by Mark Mazower, Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk and Maximum City by Suketu Mehta about Mumbai - take the city as their subject.

The biographies range from the conventional in-depth investigation of a great figure, as in Hilary Spurling's Matisse the Master, Charles Nicholl's Leonardo da Vinci, and Lyndall Gordon's Mary Wollstonecraft, to Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters' dazzling debut in which he tells the story of Stuart Shorter, an unpredictable criminal with a history of jail, homelessness and drug abuse.

Jonathan Coe has written up the life of experimental novelist B S Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant.

Perdita by Paula Byrne is about a flamboyant 18th century poet, Mary Robinson. Blood and Roses is the story of a Norfolk family during the Wars of the Roses. Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild is a history of slavery and A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb is about Brazil. The Command of the Ocean is the second part of N A M Rodger's naval history trilogy, while Hawkwood is about a 14th-century mercenary and pirate.

Ms MacGregor said one factor she had overlooked when originally asked to chair the judges was the volume of reading involved as few non-fiction writers produced slim volumes. Jenny Uglow's A Little History of British Gardening was the rare exception.

"I had this Berlin Wall of books along one side of my basement study which has now been slightly demolished. It's down to a mere pavement," she said.

The judges, who also include John Simpson, the journalist, and Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician, will now re-read the longlist to narrow it down to a shortlist which will be unveiled on 12 May. The winner will be announced at a dinner at the Savoy Hotel in London on 14 June. Last year's winner was Stasiland by Anna Funder.

The longlist

* Perdita, Paula Byrne

* Blood and Roses, Helen Castor

* Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe

* Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon

* Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt

* Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild

* Parallel Worlds, Michio Kaku

* Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters

* Salonica, Mark Mazower

* Mutants, Armand Marie Leroi

* Maximum City, Suketu Mehta

* Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Nicholl

* Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk

* In Command of History, David Reynolds

* A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb

* The Command of the Ocean, N.A.M Rodger

* Matisse the Master, Hilary Spurling

* Hawkwood, Frances Stonor Saunders

* A Little History of British Gardening, Jenny Uglow

* The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise

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