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The Baillie Gifford Prize: Non-Fiction Longlist Explored


The chaos that 2020 has impressed upon us has left nothing and no one unscathed. Its reach and impact can be seen across the board, and literary prize announcements have proved to be no different. The throng of calls for an interrogation of our society as well as more honest and better literary representation indeed extends to our evaluation of non-fiction works. As the most prestigious UK based non-fiction award, the Baillie Gifford Prize longlist, announced 10 September, includes works discussing history, politics, the arts, memoirs, science, etc. 


The Baillie Gifford Prize Longlist

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown 

  • Labours of Love - The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting 

  • Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke 

  • The Idea of the Brain: A History by Matthew Cobb 

  • Eat the Buddha - The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick 

  • The Lives of Lucian Freud: FAME 1968- 2011 by William Feaver 

  • Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh 

  • Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women by Christina Lamb

  • Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty 

  • Those Who Forget: One Family's Story; A Memoir, a History, a Warning by Géraldine Schwarz 

  • Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan by Amy Stanley

  • The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale 

  • Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

Historical non-fiction plays a prevalent role in this year’s longlist, with a myriad of literature exploring women in history, eastern history, as well as more specific historical memoirs. Christina Lamb’s book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women offers an exploration of the female experience of war, particularly the use of rape against women as a means of warfare. Comparatively, Francesca Wade’s navigation of the lives of 5 female writers allows us an insight into the early 20th century for remarkable female writers in London, including the eminent author Virginia Woolfe. 


Moreover, this prize longlist then journeys across the globe to explore two portrayals of Eastern modern history. Firstly, we are given an exploration of 21st century Tibet through the lens of, previous Samuel Johnson Prize winner, Barbara Demick’s book Eat the Buddha - The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town. As well as this, Amy Stanley offers an unparalleled window into the life of an exceptional 19th century Japanese woman in Strangers in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan.


Biographies hold another significant place in the prize’s longlist. From Bloomsbury comes The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011. This is the second volume of a collection following Lucian Freud’s life, written by his close friend and artistic collaborator, William Feaver. Fame features the prime of one of Britain’s foremost 20th Century portraitists in his devotion to his art and the pursuit of perfection. Whereas One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time is a biography from Craig Brown, uses a mixture of forms (such as fan letters, interviews, and diaries) about the combined success of the Beatles, extraordinarily comparing them to the elements: fire, earth, air, water.


Comparatively, the longlist also incorporated discussions of healthcare, with Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love - The Crisis of Care reflecting on the crisis of the healthcare system in the UK. She highlights flaws such as underpayment and major disregard, and rather than calling for a movement full of compassion and empathy, commands a tangible change in the healthcare system that would benefit us all. Disparately, Clarke’s Dear Life: A Doctor's Story of Love, Loss and Consolation is a deeply personal memoir from author and specialist in palliative medicine which discusses her learning of both the power and pitfalls of her work when her own father is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Entry from Dara McAnulty, the youngest ever nominee for the prize, with Diary of a Young Naturalist describes the natural world around him in the immense detail his autism and wonder allowed him to experience it in. While Matthew Cobb takes a new approach to understanding our human brain in The Idea of the Brain: A History. From analysing metaphors of the past, Cobb asks what might be the next idea that could lead us to complete understanding.


Each of the entries in this year's longlist offers a refreshing insight into the world of non-fiction writing in the most eloquent way. Discussing many different important societal and historical moments, people and current affairs, this prize paves the way for honest and distinctive non-fiction writing. The shortlist for the 2020 award will be announced on Thursday 15th October, with each receiving £1,000 and the winner will be announced in a virtual celebration on the 24th November, receiving £50,000 supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.