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Prize reading: this year's James Tait Black Prizes

This year's prestigious James Tait Black Prizes will be held during the Edinburgh Book Festival's online programme - and alumni are invited to join. In anticipation of the event we spoke with two of the student readers who helped choose the nominees, and take a look at the shortlists.

James Tait Black student readers June Lawrenson and Alice Rae
June Lawrenson (left) and Alice Rae

PhD candidates June Lawrenson and Alice Rae are this year’s Lead Student Readers, jointly co-ordinating a panel of 22 postgraduate students in English Literature at the University that helps to finalise the shortlists for the Biography and Fiction prizes. They told us about leading the student panel and how it has enhanced their own study and research.

June Lawrenson

June is this year's Lead Student Reader for Biography.

"I have had the great privilege of being Student Co-ordinator and Lead Student Reader for the Biography category of the James Tait Black Prizes for the past two years; a role I absolutely love. I think there is a tendency for biographies to be perceived as ‘heavy-going’, but – as this year’s shortlist shows – this form of writing can be creative, imaginative, and experimental. Within the hundreds of biographical submissions, this year, in particular I noticed that many authors had adopted different narrative techniques in order to relate personal stories, or to tell of the lives of others.

"While my own PhD research involves extensive reading of biographical accounts (some of which can be quite dry), new presentations of form keep the category fresh and vibrant, adding to my knowledge of events or individuals in a more memorable, and enjoyable, way. Indeed, this is one of the ways in which my involvement in the Prizes enhances my study of literature at the University."

Biography shortlist

  • What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché (Allen Lane/ Penguin)
  • Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson (Picador)
  • Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman (Serpent’s Tail)
  • The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter by George Szirtes (MacLehose Press)

Alice Rae

Alice is this year’s Lead Student Reader for Fiction.

Here Alice talks about the value of the JTB Prize community, particularly for interdisciplinary students, and the crossover between fiction and Classics, her other field of study.

“While 2020 has been a year characterised by change, and at times uncertainty, being a part of the JTB Prizes has allowed me to continue to feel a part of a wider community and network of readers. The transportive and communicative powers of literature have never been so important as they are now; the diverse stories we have encountered through the thousands of submissions to JTB, from debut to award-winning authors, from characters from history to intricately imagined projections of the future, are not only a comfort but also a means of staying connected, regardless of distance.

"This year, we had a number of fiction and biography submissions that were focused on antiquity and Classics, my other field of study, and sorting through these has given me invaluable insight into the range of contemporary literature being written in this area.

“Recapturing the sense of adventure that comes from entering the world of an author for the first time is magnificent and an important process for PhD students to return to as they set out as tutors who will introduce new generations of undergraduates to the study of literature. Those shortlisted for the Fiction Prize this year all have a transportive quality, something that has taken on new importance during the pandemic.”

Fiction shortlist

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Travellers by Helon Habila (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin)
  • Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall (Faber)
  • Girl by Edna O’Brien (Faber)
Sally Magnusson
Sally Magnusson

The event

Friday 21 Aug 14:30 - 15:30, The New York Times Main Theatre Online - Free

The UK’s longest-running literary prizes will be awarded in this special event with broadcaster and alumna Sally Magnusson, who hosts a joyous celebration of the year’s best works of fiction and biography.  

Alumni can join this event  for free as the Prize judges share their insights and the nominated authors discuss their books, before the live, much-anticipated announcement of this year’s Prizes.

Edinburgh International Book Festival: James Tait Black Prizes

Related links

James Tait Black Prizes