The Bookseller announces the Diagram Prize 2020 shortlist

The Bookseller announces the Diagram Prize 2020 shortlist

Titles featuring the metaphorical power of micturating pooches, the ass’ enormous socio-economic and cultural significance in the Middle Ages and how heavy metal headbangers have been influenced by Virgil’s The Aeneid are among the six titles shortlisted for the 42nd Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year.

The prize—founded by Trevor Bounford and the late Bruce Robertson of publishing solutions firm the Diagram Group in 1978 as a way to stave off boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair—is the annual celebration of the book world's strangest and most perplexing titles. The Bookseller and its legendary diarist Horace Bent have been custodians of the prize since 1982. 

Bent called this year's crop "stone cold Diagram classics" and noted three entries come from "that particularly fecund pool of odd-titlehood: acadmic publshing": A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path (McGill-Queen's University Press) by Gregory Forth, Introducing the Medieval Ass (University of Wales Press) by Kathryn L Smithies and Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music (Bloomsbury Academic) by K F B Fletcher and Osman Umurhan. 

Rounding out the shortlist are How to Make Love to a Despot (W W Norton) by Stephen D Krasner, Lawnmowers: An Illus­trated History (Amberley) by Brian Radam and The Slaughter of Farmed Animals: Practical Ways to Enhance Animal Welfare (CABI) by Temple Grandin and Michael Cockram. 

Bent added: "Even in good times, the Diagram Prize brings a ray of sunshine into the lives of people all over the world. And in this, one of the most trying years in decades, I think we need a bit of odd-title joy more than ever. And I mean that with all the sincerity of those Covid-era ‘we’re here to help’ bank adverts with the schmaltzy music playing in the background." 

Tom Tivnan, The Bookseller managing editor and prize co-ordinator, said: “It can be said with some certainty that the Diagram—the world’s most prestigious literary award—has always been miles ahead of the lesser book prizes like the Booker and Nobel in terms of innovation. And it is interesting to see all these awards finally following the Diagram’s lead of moving to online and virtual ceremonies this year. As the old saying goes: imitation forced upon others by a global pandemic is the sincerest form of flattery."    

The winning title will now be chosen by members of the public via an online vote. The public vote closes on Friday 20th November, with the winning entry to be announced on Friday 27th November. There is no prize for the winning author or publisher, but traditionally a passable bottle of claret is given to the nominator of the winning entry. If a title wins that was nominated by The Bookseller staff, the claret will be given at random to a member of the public who participated in the online voting. 

The inaugural Diagram was awarded to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Two very dark years—1987 and 1991—had no award owing to the lack of odd titles published. Previous winners of this prestigious literary prize include: How to Avoid Huge Ships (1992), Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996), The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way (2010) and Cooking with Poo (2011). Last year’s winner was The Dirt Hole and its Variations.

The 2020 shortlist in full:

A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path
Gregory Forth 
McGill-Queen’s University Press

At first glance, publisher McGill-Queens’ claim that Forth’s book is based on “extensive field research” brings some alarm, but happily the book is not about dog urination per se, but animal metaphors in Eastern Indonesian society. The titular phrase is an idiom of the Nage people of Flores and Timor which means someone who begins something but is easily distracted from it. 

Introducing the Medieval Ass
Kathryn L Smithies
University of Wales Press

The University of Melbourne historian aims to “reclaim the ass” from its trope of foolishness and being synonymous with human idiocy. The book “pays an apt tribute to a dumb beast of burden that is also a symbol of true humility,” according to Paul Wackers at the University of Utrecht.

Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music
K F B Fletcher and Osman Umurhan
Bloomsbury Academic

US-based academics Fletcher and Umurhan edit a collection that looks at the close connection between the ancient Greek and Roman world and heavy metal. It is the “first attempt to break new ground by marrying Classics with metal music studies,” noted the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, to the astonishment of no one. 

How to Make Love to a Despot
Stephen D Krasner
W W Norton 

No, not a guide to, say, bump­ing uglies with Kim Jong-un and Recep Erdoğan, but rather a sober look at how US foreign policy should deal with 21st-century dictators, by a former diplomat turned Stanford professor. 

Lawnmowers: An Illus­trated History
Brian Radam
Amberley Publishing

Radam, “one of Britain’s leading experts on lawnmowers” who runs Southport’s British Lawnmower Museum, scampers through over 200 years of a quintessentially British invention. Prince Charles, Diana Spencer and Brian May are among those featured in the “Lawnmowers of the Rich and Famous” chapter.

The Slaughter of Farmed Animals: Practical Ways to Enhance Animal Welfare
Temple Grandin, Michael Cockram

Grandin and the rather too aptly-named Cockram’s tome balances commercial realities with philosophical discussions on the issues around meat production, featuring lively chapters such as “Stunning Pigs and Sheep with Electricity or CO2” and “Determining Unconsciousness and Insensibility in Commercial Abattoirs”.