Over at Biographers International Organization — a group I’m proud to be the president of for another three months — we’ve announced the ten nominees for the Plutarch Award, presented to the year’s best biography. This is the world’s only literary biography prize given to biography, by biographers, which makes it a pretty neat deal.
BIO takes the Plutarch very seriously. In fact, last year, with an eye on — among other issues — the hubbub surrounding the hijacking of the Hugo Award, we decided to better define and add a bit of rigor to our own process for selecting the initial ten nominees. For this year, then, we dug into our esteemed Advisory Board and tapped Douglas Brinkley (who counts biographer among his long list of accomplishments) to chair a distinguished panel of judges who were tasked with sorting through, reading, digesting, and discussing as many of the biographies published in 2015 as they possibly could. The result of their hard work is the so-called shortlist of ten nominees.
And what nominees they are. This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by author, are:
- Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
- Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
- The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
- Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
- Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
- Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
- Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
- Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
- Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)
That’s a pretty distinguished group of books. And here’s something else I really like about this list: we’ve got six books written by women, and five books about women. As Jim Henson might say: “Lovely.”
Next, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will narrow the list to four finalists. Once those finalists have been selected, BIO members will get to vote for which of those four they think should be the Best Biography of the Year. We should receive that list in March, and the winner will be announced at the BIO Conference in June.
By the way, looking back at when I discussed the Plutarch last year at this time, I promised you I’d tell you who the winner was after the vote — and then I never came back and told you who that was. It was Hermione Lee, for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.
One of the best things about being a member of Biographers International Organization (BIO) is that each year, we get to vote for the recipient of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year.* This is the only international literary award given by biographers to biography, which makes it pretty neat. (It was inspired in part by the Edgar Award, presented each year by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Nebula, given annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America.)
Here’s how it works: each year, a select committee of biographers puts together a list of ten nominees for the year’s best biography.** This list is presented to BIO members in good standing, who then make their selection by secret ballot. The winner (and three runners-up) will be announced (in suitably dramatic fashion, since I’m the one tasked with putting together the ceremony) at BIO’s Annual Conference, which will be held the first weekend in June at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
I should add for the record that as president of BIO, I don’t sit on the Plutarch Nomination Committee, and have no role in of the selection of the ten nominees; like all BIO members in good standing, my responsibility is to simply vote for the book on the list I think is the best.
And what a list it is this year–an interesting, diverse, even somewhat eclectic group of biographies, any of which would be a worthy winner. Wanna see? I won’t make you wait. Here are the ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch, listed alphabetically by author:
- Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
- John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
- Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
- Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
- Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
- Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
- Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
- Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)
I’ll be back here in mid-June to let you know who the winner is. And if you’d like to see a list of previous winners (and nominees), click here.
* In 2015, we vote on biographies published in 2014, which is why the medallion reads “2014”
** As a result of this process, we have NO SAD PUPPIES. (And we send kind thoughts to our friends at the Hugo Awards. Lost? Click here for more information on this year’s Hugo kerfluffle.)