PEN Ackerley Prize
The PEN Ackerley Prize is awarded each year to a volume of autobiography by a British author. It was founded in 1982 in memory of the writer and editor J.R. Ackerley. Originally endowed by his sister Nancy West, it is now funded by the royalties received for Ackerley’s books, and remains the only British prize for autobiography.
The judges do not accept submissions by publishers but call in books themselves, and are looking for ones that display the high standards Ackerley himself set in My Dog Tulip and My Father and Myself- enquiring, absolutely candid and, above all, very well written.
The judges are the Trustees of J.R. Ackerley Memorial Trust are all themselves writers, currently Ackerley’s biographer, Peter Parker (chair); the playwright, food writer and historian Colin Spencer; the novelist and short story writer Georgina Hammick; and the biographer and critic Claire Harman. Former judges include the novelist Francis King, the biographer Michael Holroyd, the editor of Ackerley’s letters, Neville Braybrooke, and the biographer and historian Richard Davenport-Hines.
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Alison Light wins the PEN Ackerley Prize 2020 for her ‘thoughtful, moving and beautifully written’ memoir A Radical Romance (Fig Tree)
Two other books were shortlisted for the prize: Edward Parnell’s Ghostland (William Collins) and George Szirtes’s The
The PEN Ackerley Prize was established in memory of J R Ackerley, the author and literary editor. The prize is judged by the trustees of the J R Ackerley Trust: biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), writer and painter Colin Spencer, novelist and short story writer Georgina Hammick, and writer and critic Claire Harman.
Alison Light said:
I am absolutely delighted to win this prize and to be in such good company – my fellow nominees, the judges who are writers themselves, and from an organisation devoted to writers and to campaigning for freedom of expression. Thank you.
Peter Parker, chair of the judges, said:
The three books on this year’s shortlist each took refreshingly different approaches to the art of memoir, though they share a common thread about families and loss. They also evoke a sense of place, whether it is the old house in Spitalfields Alison Light shared with her husband, the English landscapes Edward Parnell explored with his family and read about in stories of the uncanny, or the vanished world of pre-war Transylvania in which George Szirtes’s mother grew up. All three books achieve those qualities Ackerley himself set as a writer: they are properly searching, absolutely candid, and above all very well written. We cannot recommend these three books too highly, and urge everyone to buy and read them, but the winner of this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize is Alison Light’s A Radical Romance. A Radical Romance is not only an extremely frank account of a love affair and marriage between two people who came to left-wing politics through very different routes, and were instrumental in rethinking the way in which we view and record history. It also provides a vivid and funny picture of a less than comfortable life in a tumble-down Georgian house in Spitalfields while all around them developers had begun swallowing up the area. Finally, Light weaves into her narrative a fascinating enquiry into both memory and the memoir form. All these elements combined to make this thoughtful, moving and beautifully written book our unanimous choice as this year’s winner.
Daniel Gorman, director of English PEN, said:
I’d like to congratulate this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize winner Alison Light, and I encourage everyone to read her beautiful memoir A Radical Romance. It’s an honour for us to bestow this prize in memory of a great writer and free thinker – J R Ackerley. We’re extremely proud of its reputation for celebrating the very best memoir and autobiography – the only prize of its kind in the UK.
Peter Parker also paid tribute to Colin Spencer
who is retiring as a judge this year:
Colin has not only judged the Prize every year since its inception 38 years ago, but is the person responsible for its very existence. It was he who persuaded J R Ackerley’s sister Nancy West to endow a literary prize in her brother’s memory, and as a consequence he must have read more memoirs and autobiographies than almost anyone else living. He has seen other judges come and go and been a greatly valued colleague of them all, remaining firm in his judgments, good humoured and even tempered throughout. We wish him well and hope that the huge amount of time now freed up from reading other people’s books can be devoted to his own writing and painting.
The PEN Ackerley Prize is the UK’s only literary prize dedicated to memoir and autobiography. It was established in memory of J R Ackerley, the author and literary editor. The prize is judged by the trustees of the J R Ackerley Trust: biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), writer and painter Colin Spencer, author Georgina Hammick and writer and critic Claire Harman. Further information about J R Ackerley and the prize can be found on the newly launched website: