The short list for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year has… lengthened. On December 10, there were six books on it. Now, according to a tweet posted this week by one of the judges, Benedict Allen, there are 10. Maybe the judges were unhappy with the list they were presented with by Stanfords, which, I’ve been told, uses “an academy of critics, booksellers and travel bloggers” when drawing up short lists for all its awards. Maybe the judges pointed out that the original short list included only one female writer.
On December 10, the list was:
Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett (Allen Lane)
Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber (John Murray)
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman (Picador)
On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)
Lotharingia by Simon Winder (Picador).
The four additional titles are:
No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Picador)
Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean (Bloomsbury)
Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh (Bloomsbury)
Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler (Jonathan Cape).
The winner will be announced on February 26.
The most striking addition is perhaps the book by Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee and journalist, which documents life in Australia’s offshore detention system and has won him numerous awards. It was written in phone texts sent out on WhatsApp over almost five years.
Is it a travel book? Well, the author certainly glided over frontiers in its composition, according to his translator, Omid Tofighian:
Boochani has created a book that resists classification. It overlaps with genres such as prison literature, philosophical fiction, clandestine philosophical literature, prison narratives, Australian dissident writing, Iranian political art, transnational literature, decolonial writing and the Kurdish literary tradition.
The Stanford Dolman, formerly the Dolman prize, after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006, was rebranded in 2015. It is now part of a scheme run by the bookseller Stanfords and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.
The Stanford Dolman is the only award that brings a cash prize. When Stanfords first got involved that was doubled to £5,000, but it’s now back to £2,500, funded generously out of his own pocket again this time round by Dolman. At the time of rebranding the Stanford Dolman was very much the centre-piece of the awards. In the past couple of years, though, the judging process has become truncated and the prize seems to have got a bit lost in the scheme as a whole. In the press release on short lists I was sent in December, trumpeting 57 books divided into nine categories (with a 10th category for articles by new writers), it wasn’t even mentioned until the seventh paragraph.
Books that would have been strong contenders for the Stanford Dolman in earlier years — when judges chose their own short list — are now ending up on a short list for one of the other awards. Last year, for example, Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine and The Crossway by Guy Stagg were in travel memoir of the year; Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth was under adventure travel. This year, The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden is short-listed as a travel memoir (as, initially, was Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars); Outpost by Dan Richards is in adventure travel. I’ve not read Last Days in Old Europe, but most of the reviews I’ve seen suggest it’s a memoir, so one might ask why it isn’t in the memoir category.
One might also ask why there is a category for “fiction with a sense of place”. There is already a well-established prize for books “evoking the spirit of a place”: the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, which embraces non-fiction and poetry as well as novels and is worth £10,000.
I’ve long been a customer of Stanfords, and I’m a huge admirer of what the company does to promote travel writing, but I do think that 57 books (61 now, at least?) in nine categories is overdoing it. Time to dwell more on the Dolman.