Announcing the Life Writing Prize 2021 judges


Spread the Word is delighted to announce that the judges for the Life Writing Prize 2021 are Damian Barr, Catherine Cho and Frances Wilson. 

Damian Barr is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. His memoir Maggie & Me was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year and won him Stonewall Writer of the Year. His debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, was BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and Book of the Year in the Observer, Irish Times and on NPR. Damian has hosted a variety of events, including The Man Booker Prize, IPG Awards, the PEN Quiz and presented the live coverage of Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sky Arts. He has written columns for the Big IssueHigh LifeThe Guardian and hosts his celebrated Literary Salon at The Savoy and most recently online, and is presenter of The Big Scottish Book Club on BBC TV. 

Damian says: “I look forward to working with the other judges to find some thrilling new voices and help them get heard.  Memoir has a unique power for writers and readers – it is an engine of empathy. Now more than ever we need to build bridges between seemingly disparate communities and cultures.”

He is looking for “stories where I feel I’m meeting a person on the page. I want the language, grammar and a cadence to bring a person or people to life so that after I might even think I met them in person.”

Catherine Cho is a literary agent and author of Inferno: A Memoir. Originally from the US, she lives in London with her family.  

Catherine says: “Life writing is a window into someone else’s life – it uses storytelling to connect the personal to the universal, to share experience in a way that’s intimate and revealing. I am excited to read the entries and to be part of a prize that recognises the power of storytelling.” 

She comments that “with life writing, I look for the bridge between the personal and universal. Everyone has a story to tell, but the challenge is in pushing beyond the individual story so that it transcends the self.”

Frances Wilson is a biographer and critic. Her books include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (winner of the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, 2009), How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay (winner of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, 2012) and Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (finalist for the National Books Critics Circle, the L A Times Book Awards, the BIO Plutarch Prize, the Historical Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Crown Award, and  longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, 2016). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, her life of D H Lawrence, Burning Man, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2021. 

Frances says: “I am excited and honoured to be judging the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in its fifth year. Life-writing is still in its nascent phase, and I’m looking forward to finding new voices and being taken to places I’ve not been to before.” 

She is looking for “voices that are bold and fresh, for sentences that take risks, for eyes that see and ears that hear, for stories that are crafted and honed into shape. I am looking to be reminded of how exciting and unpredictable life-writing can be.”

The Life Writing Prize is open to writers across the UK who have yet to publish a full-length work or have a literary agent, and is free to enter. The winner of the Life Writing Prize will receive £1500, an Arvon course, a writing mentor, two years’ membership of the Royal Society of Literature, and an optional development meeting with an agent or editor. Two highly commended writers will each receive £500, a writing mentor and an optional meeting with an agent or editor. The top twelve writers will be offered publication on the Spread the Word website and in a Life Writing Prize booklet designed to showcase the Prize’s top writers to the literary world.

The Life Writing Prize 2021 will open for submissions at 12 noon Monday 2 November and close at 11:59pm on Monday 1 February.

This Prize is run in association with Goldsmiths Writers Centre, supported by Arvon and the Royal Society of Literature, and is generously funded by Joanna Munro.

Photo credits: Daisy Honeybunn for Damian Barr, Alastair Levy for Catherine Cho.

Published 26 October 2020

Updated 27 October 2020