James Tait Black Prizes 2013: Shortlist

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Criteria: Two prizes, each of £10,000, are awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh for the best work of fiction and the best biography published in the previous year. The winners of the James Tait Black Prizes will be announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August.

It is difficult to avoid using superlatives when describing the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes. Firstly, it was established as far back as 1919 by memorial grant to the University of Edinburgh, making it the oldest book prize in Britain. It is also the biggest literary prize in Scotland with £10,000 awarded to a work of fiction, a biography, and – starting this year – an original drama. But its single most distinctive feature must be its process: the judges consist entirely of University of Edinburgh academics, rather than of a hand selected panel of judges. The combination of history, financial clout, and academic approval make it a much coveted award.

The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes are something of a hometown glory for JG and I: the prize is overseen by an English professor at the University of Edinburgh, while the nominees are read and reviewed by the department’s own PhD candidates. When I arrived as a freshly minted fresher to the University of Edinburgh, I found the English Literature Department in a flurry of social activity: the 2011-12 year was the department’s 250th anniversary, and as part of the celebrations they were awarding a special ‘Best of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize’ to the best winning work of fiction in prize’s 93 year history. Through a series of panel discussions and interactions with the PhD candidates involved, I was given enlightening insight into the process of reading, reviewing, and selection of these prizes. It is no surprise that the department gave us as many glimpses into the world of awards selection as possible: how many other universities house awards of similar stature under their own roofs?

The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes offer a unique educational opportunity to the budding literaries at Edinburgh whilst providing a purely academic perspective in a world of corporate sponsorships. It is a cause worth supporting, and one which Edinburgh does not fail to honour: in 2005, they elected to increase each prize from £5000 to £10,000 with the department’s own funding. The ‘purely academic’ aspect serves to offer an element of nobility to the prize; there are no insidious corporate interests at play. At the same time, it seems to be doing a good to the academic community as by giving PhD students a chance to test well-honed critical faculties on fresh texts. It’s an uncommonly symbiotic relationship.

The James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2013 Shortlist:

As for this year’s short list, the salient feature seems to be its breadth of style: Granta BOYBN 2012 alumna Jenni Fagan, with her apocalyptic debut novel The Panopticon; Alan Warner – Edinburgh’s departing writer-in-residence and another Granta alum from 2002 – with The Deadman’s Pedal; Kirsty Gunn scores extra ‘Scottish points’ for The Big Music, which is said to be heavily influenced by themusicality of bagpipe music; and American poet and critic Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which has already garnered more than its fair share of critical praise. Three of these four novels have their own Scottish connection. Fagan resides in Scottish coastal town, while Warner is associated not only with Edinburgh University but also with Rebel Inc., a Scottish countercultural magazine of the nineties. While a Scottish influence is not criteria for being shortlisted, Scotland is quite clearly on these academics’ minds.

Notably, praise for the shortlisted novels tends to emanate from a peanut gallery of critics rather the tacit approval of popular sales. While A.M. Homes, Hilary Mantel, and Haruki Murakami seem to accommodate both the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’ writing hats with relative ease, these works tend to be slightly less accessible to the average reader. The academic perspective of these awards undoubtedly have a hand in the matter. It is unsurprising, then, that the James Tait Black prizes have a decent record for predicting Nobel Prize laureates: Sir William Golding, J.M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing all won the James Tait Black prize for fiction prior to their Nobel wins. However, as the months until the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement dwindle away, I can say almost certainly that none of these authors will be picking up both the James Tait Black and the Nobel this year. Peter Nadás, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Phillip Roth sport the best odds. So while the James Tait Black is no golden ticket to a golden Nobel, it does offer an especially intellectual bit of validation that no doubt reassurance to these authors of their own potential.

Further reading:

The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes website

‘Exceptional’ shortlist for UK’s oldest literary awards revealed via STV Edinburgh

James Tait Black Prize for Drama 2013, a blog post from Katie O’Reilly, who is shortlisted for the Drama Prize

Jenni Fagan on the James Tait Black Prize Short List  via The Scotsman

Angela Carter named best ever winner of James Tait Black award (2012) via The Guardian

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