Five days after the award was announced, John Dugdale, the associate media editor of The Guardian, wrote a piece that asked “Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?” You might think: Good question! Women have been writing great science books for a long time now. Why haven’t more of them been recognized?
But that’s not why Dugdale asked the question. According to him, the Royal Society caved to pressure created by the example of another “more female-friendly” prize. His piece suggests that the judges’ taste is shifting from “male” approaches to science writing that emphasize “a problem, a mystery, or an underexplored scientific field,” towards a feminine tendency “to focus on people.”
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When the Royal Society first announced the short list, my heart both leapt and sunk. I felt joy seeing my book reckoned one of the best of the year, especially by a storied institution like the Royal Society. Then as I looked over the other titles, I was suitably impressed by the competition. The list included two “big” books of the sort often rewarded by prizes, Wulf’s and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene. Just as formidable, there was a daring investigation of a pressing current concern in Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade, along with Tim Birkhead’s learned and lovely book on birds’ eggs in The Most Perfect Thing, and Jo Marchant’s beautifully written and courageously pursued account of mind-body medicine, The Cure.
Dugdale paints a very different picture of the field. He describes Wulf’s book as a kind of soft option, just a single-subject biography, the first to win the Royal Society prize for almost two decades. That’s both wrong and obtuse in its stereotyping as female what is one of the most basic tools almost every non-fiction writer uses.
As its title suggests, Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is at once the biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and an extended account of the development of the idea he championed, which evolved, Wulf argues, into the modern conception of nature as an interrelated whole. That’s what good intellectual biographies do: The stuff of life leads to the stuff of thought. That Dugdale thinks a biographical approach is somehow a peculiarly female pursuit is simply risible, or so it seems to this male author of Einstein in Berlin and Newton and the Counterfeiter.
When I read The Invention of Nature, long before it was nominated for the Royal Society prize, it was obvious that it was a contender for major honors. It was deeply researched and reported; it told a fine and little known story; it connected the personal to a big idea, and the past to a very pressing present-day concern.
Two of the judges that chose The Invention of Nature have already responded to Dugdale’s suggestion that they were catspaws to political correctness (my term, not his.) My experience as a Pulitzer juror in 2012 offers some insight in what goes on in these kinds of judgments. For my two colleagues and I, it began not by discussing any individual book. Rather we asked ourselves what it meant to be the best book of the year.