Peter Pomerantsev’s research of ‘the struggle in opposition to actuality’ wins Gordon Burn prize | Books
Peter Pomerantsev won the 2020 Gordon Burn Award for This Is Not Propaganda, a study of fake news telling “true stories with art”.
After winning the £ 5,000 prize, Pomerantsev paid tribute to his parents, whose lives as Soviet dissidents are guided by the book, and urged everyone to speak to their own parents.
“When I interviewed them, when I sat with them for a long time,” said Pomerantsev, “they suddenly became people to me and at the age of 43 I realized that parents are indeed people with their own life stories.”
This is not propaganda combining memoirs and investigations, examining archives to investigate how the author’s family was persecuted by the KGB, and traveling from St. Petersburg to Manila and from Belgrade to Beijing to review the ongoing wars of disinformation and what the subtitle his “adventures in the war against reality”.
“We live in a time of impunity, when regimes can do horrific acts and people just don’t react,” said Pomerantsev. “There have always been horrific things, but now we have more information than ever, detailed daily recordings of crimes against humanity. And the more information there is, the less we react. Besides being wrong on so many levels, it is also very dangerous because this impunity is increasing and this cave is expanding and drawing more and more people into it. “
All books can do, “and it’s a small thing, but maybe it’s an important thing,” Pomerantsev added, “is to get people’s attention”.
The broadcaster Sali Hughes, who judged the award together with the poet Anthony Anaxagorou, the writer Richard T Kelly and the artist Rachel Howard, welcomed the winner as a remarkable book.
“I thought it was going to panic me, I thought it was going to make me stressed,” said Hughes. “But actually I had the feeling that someone had opened a window and I had the feeling that I could breathe again.”
Kelly praised how Pomerantsev “trains a writer’s astute eye on some of the burning issues of our time … telling true stories with art”.
“Readers can trust Pomerantsev to unearth the truthful account that goes deeper than the hot takes and conspiracy theories we are otherwise bothered with,” said Kelly.
Celebrating both fiction and non-fiction, the award was launched in memory of writer Gordon Burn, who died in 2009 after writing books including his studies of Fred and Rosemary West, Happy Like Murderers, and the novels Fullalove and Born Yesterday : The News as a Novel.
Benjamin Myers won the 2013 opening award with Pig Iron. Jesse Ball won the 2018 award with Census, with David Keenan’s For the Good Times triumphing last year. This year’s winner was announced on Thursday at a digital event streamed as part of the Durham Book Festival.