The PEN/Ackerley Prize is the only literary prize in Britain dedicated to memoir and autobiography. This year’s lively and interesting short list made it an exciting event. This is nothing new: the Ackerley prize has been won by writers as different as John Osborne, Lorna Sage and Alan Bennett. The judges were Michael Holroyd, Francis King, Peter Parker (chair), and Colin Spencer.
Autobiographies are written for a variety of reasons. An attempt to understand oneself, the desire to explore the lives of others, a sense of stories lurking, the wish to share experience, or to tell the world about people the rest of us haven’t heard about, but might just recognize: fathers, mothers, siblings, husbands who fell short, or didn’t understand. The five shortlisted books were as different in their approaches as the motives of their authors, and this made the readings interesting. The judges were looking for honesty and creativity, integrity and narrative skill. To possess all that in equal measure would be difficult, and the five short listed books had very different strengths and qualities. The judges had started with a list of 39 books from which the present shortlist of five had been drawn:
The Presence by Dannie Abse (Hutchinson)
Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am? by Jane Haynes (www.intheconsultingroom.com)
The Islamist by Ed Husain (Penguin)
Family Romance by John Lanchester (Faber)
In My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour (Simon & Schuster)
Not only are the titles revealing, but the publishers grab your attention too: the second book is published by the author and online.
The Presence was introduced by Michael Holroyd who explained the importance of the title, the presence of Joanna, Dannie Abse’s wife who died in a car crash, but whose voice and presence continues to haunt the poet. Michael Holroyd’s introduction and the reading conveyed a fine sense of the texture of the book. The focus is not the past, but the present, a present which is sustained by a voice from the past. Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am? was introduced by Francis King who took the opportunity to remind us of the difficulty of publishing. ‘ The question seems to be no longer is this a good book, but will it sell?’ Jane Haynes gives us an account of her own psychoanalysis and that of her patients in the belief that ‘everyone deserves a listener.’ Her own story (a father who died of syphilis, a mother who rejected her) is strong and emotional and boldly told. The Islamist by Ed Husain struck the judges by its vivid honesty and they were astounded by what they learnt about contemporary Britain. Family Romance by John Lanchester tells the story of his voyage round his mother, Julia Immaculata, whom he discovered had been a nun. John Lanchester says of his own books that ‘they all concern people who can’t quite bring themselves to tell the truth about themselves.’ One is immediately drawn in, tantalized. In My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour we meet her father who looms large over his family but whose real passion lies elsewhere: a house, and later young men and motor bikes. This book showed according to judges that ‘style can conquer content and deal with the incredibly difficult.’ And the passage read gave a sense of that.
The prize was awarded to Miranda Seymour by Michael Holroyd, who then announced his retirement from the judging committe this year. His place will be taken by Georgina Hammick.
Report by Mika Haugaard.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/penackerleyprize2008/