A Spotlight on the Wellcome Book Prize

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By Rebecca Foster

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation founded by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and dedicated to improving health. Books are put forward by publishers (which can nominate up to three titles each), must have been published in the UK in the previous calendar year, and should “engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness.” The Prize has run since 2009, and at £30,000 is among the most generous single-book awards; I know of only a few with a higher monetary value (e.g. the Booker at £50,000), and most of those are offered to an author’s entire body of work (such as the MacArthur Genius Grants, the Windham–Campbell Literature Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature).

Long before I’d heard of the Wellcome Prize, I was becoming increasingly interested in health-themed reading. A book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, which tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath, made a big impression on me in 2007. Mark Doty’s exquisite memoir about his partner’s death from AIDS, Heaven’s Coast, was one of my favourite reads of the following year, when I, coincidentally, started working in a primarily medical library in London, where I was employed for over five years. But my reading didn’t specifically overlap with the Prize until I came across Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which won in2010, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies,shortlisted in 2011 – two books that I would number among my most memorable reads of the past decade.

One thing that’s unique about the Wellcome Book Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible (but not poetry). Eligibility is based on theme rather than genre, so in a way the Wellcome has more in common with awards like the Dylan Thomas Prize that focus on an author’s age but cross genres. Here’s how the website describes the prize’s purpose: “a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”

Over the years, the winning books have exemplified the breadth of topics and styles encompassed by that description. Although only two works of fiction have won the Prize so far, plenty more have appeared on the shortlists, and the two winners could hardly be more different: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, which won in 2011, is a gripping mystery narrated by a woman with Alzheimer’s, while 2017’s winner, Mend the Living, the English translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s French-language novel, is an elegant literary novel about all the parties involved in a heart transplant. (In this case the prize money was split between the author and her translator, Jessica Moore.)

Nonfiction, however, has reigned supreme in seven of the first nine years of the Prize. Last year Mark O’Connell triumphed with To Be a Machine, his buoyant survey of transhumanism.Marion Coutts won for her stunning, tender memoir The Iceberg in 2015, about her husband’s death from a brain tumour. The other awardees are Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All in Your Head (about psychosomatic illnesses) in 2016, Andrew Solomon for Far from the Tree (on genetic inheritance) in 2014, Thomas Wright for Circulation in 2012, and Andrea Gillies for Keeper: Living with Nancy – a journey into Alzheimer’s in 2009. The judges, different every year, have included authors, academics, journalists and broadcasters.

For the last three years I’ve run a shadow panel of five book bloggers who read along with the shortlisted titles and choose our preferred winner. This year and last, Shiny’s very own Annabel has taken part. In the 10th anniversary year, we’ve done things a bit differently: we also followed along with the longlist, reading all 12 books between us (a few per person, though we overlapped on some). It’s been a wonderfully diverse selection of books, as it is every year, ranging from a novel about steroid addiction to memoirs about genetic disease and gender reassignment and popular science on polio and cardiology. This year two overall themes emerged, though: mental health and gender. The week before the official announcement we as a shadow panel chose our ideal shortlist, which contained seven titles rather than six because two books tied in our voting.

2019 Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist

We successfully predicted four of the books that advanced to the shortlist on Tuesday the 19th. Those were: Murmur by Will Eaves (a novel about Alan Turing’s chemical castration), Heart: A history by Sandeep Jauhar, The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster by Sarah Krasnostein and Amateur: A true story about what makes a man by Thomas Page McBee, the final two of which feature transgender main characters. Rounding out the shortlist is Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning and the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

With this year’s judging panel being chaired by novelist Elif Shafak, perhaps it will be time for another fiction winner? It’s always difficult to predict what the judges will plump for, though. Only once so far – with To Be a Machine – did my shadow panel selection match the judges’ choice. In any case, we’re excited to read or revisit these shortlisted books in the weeks before the winner is announced on 1st May. I hope you’ll join in reading one or more of them. The Wellcome Book Prize showcases a lot of fascinating material that otherwise might fly under the radar.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and writer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.