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Meet our judges: Boyd Tonkin
"Somehow you need to combine strong views with open minds."
Each year the Orwell Foundation awards prizes for the writing and reporting which best meet George Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art”. Since the first annual Orwell Prizes were awarded in 1994, many distinguished figures from literature and journalism have served on our judging panels: in this year alone, there are four independent panels across five prizes, including the new Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness.
In the first of a new series, we talked to Boyd Tonkin, Chair of the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2023, about his wealth of experience judging literary prizes - and the wider horizons for political fiction around the world.
Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor and writer who was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal in 2020 for outstanding service to literature over the course of a career. He currently writes on books and arts for international media including The Economist, The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Times Literary Supplement and UnHerd, and was formerly Literary Editor and Senior Writer at The Independent. He chaired the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and then served as the prize’s Special Adviser. His reader’s guide to global fiction, The 100 Best Novels in Translation, is published by Galileo.
You've been involved with the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction since it's inception in 2019, but this is your first year on the judging panel. What has the prize brought to the literary scene? Why is it needed?
In its four years (so far) of operation, the Prize has already crowned four outstanding winners and selected wide-ranging and thought-provoking shortlists. A few years ago, people complained about a surfeit of major fiction prizes; now, quite a few have shut up shop. So the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction has not, I think, entered an overcrowded field. More important, its distinctive remit – broad but not unlimited – invites readers to think about all the ways in which contemporary writers engage with our world and its various challenges. If it asks us to interrogate what we mean by – and want from – “fiction”, then it encourages the same questions about our definitions of “politics” as well.
What does political fiction mean to you? What kind of books are you hoping to find?
Fiction that imagines and reflects on the life of human beings within societies and communities, past, present and future, and which through its form, its content, or both, allows us to see how power, ideology and institutions of any kind may shape private and public life. Inevitably, that means looking further than fictional works of advocacy and argument, beyond utopias, dystopias, state-of-the-nation tracts, satires, parables and polemics. That said, none of those forms should be excluded either! Could, say, George Eliot’s Middlemarch have won this prize? I like to think so. As for what I hope to find, if the next winner can come close to the last – Claire Keegan’s magnificent, instantly classic Small Things Like These – we will all be very happy.
Do you have a particular favourite Orwell novel (and why)?
The enduring greatness, and eternal timeliness, of Nineteen Eighty-Four needs no emphasis. I have a soft spot for Coming Up For Air, with its rueful, thwarted pastoral nostalgia as the bulldozing “progress” of 1939 flattens memories and dreams. Already, in the late 1930s, Orwell had registered and satirised the makeover of much of rural England into a consumer-commuter “exurban” space. And the novel, which bears the imprint of his admiration for Henry Miller and the revolt of the senses against rational modernity, shares with Inside the Whale a grasp of the appeal – and the perils – of a purely individualistic outlook. “Political fiction” should surely embrace stories that show us why so many people – like Orwell’s George Bowling – detest (actually-existing) politics.
Outside of Orwell, you also have a particular interest in international and translated fiction (translation isn't eligible for the Orwell Prize). Are there any noteworthy trends in international fiction that relate to political events or pressures?
All the great themes and movements that drive public life find their way into the world’s fiction – these days, sooner rather than later. Environmental anger and anguish; mass migration, the power of borders and the quest for refuge; the continuing, and evolving, insurgency of minorities of many kinds; the fear, and hope, that mighty digital technologies bring with them. I’ve noticed too, across the literature of several languages, a strong interest in revisiting history in fictional form, in order to tell the forgotten stories of the many kinds of people excluded, until now, from the ruling narratives.
As someone who long been involved in literary prizes - how do you approach a judging meeting? What makes for a good discussion?
Somehow you need to combine strong views with open minds. Passionate advocacy is fine, but there must always be a space left for doubt, uncertainty and second thoughts. Inspect your prejudices, and consider revising them. Think clearly, argue succinctly, and of course listen closely and respectfully. Everyone will have to sacrifice favourite children in the process – but you also discover that ugly ducklings may, on closer scrutiny, turn out to be swans. Beyond that – judges have to be honest, must never talk over their colleagues, and should try to have as much fun as possible. It’s a book prize, not an Old Bailey jury. You can’t send anyone down – but, with luck, you can lift authors up. That’s a real privilege.