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Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2019: June Laurenson

The Lead Student Reader for this year’s James Tait Black Prize for Biography tells us about her experience of judging Britain's oldest literary awards.

Established in 1919, the James Tait Black (JTB) Prizes for Fiction and Biography have been awarded annually for 100 years.

Photo of June surrounded by books
June at home surrounded by books

The Prizes are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to be judged by scholars and students, specifically senior staff and around 20 postgraduate students in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

As this year’s Lead Student Reader for Biography, PhD student June Laurenson was jointly responsible for co-ordinating the receiving and logging of all submitted books, liaising with relevant publishers, and allocating and collecting books and reviews from the Reading Panel.

Here she tells us about the experience of judging the JTB Prize for Biography in its centenary year, and looks forward to the announcement of the special, one-off Janet Coats Black Prize for creative writing which closes for entry on Friday 17th May 2019.

Engaging the wider public with books and reading

Following a career change from nursing, June earned an MA in English through the Open University in 2017. Later that year she began her PhD - which focuses on the novels of the twentieth century author, Anthony Powell - in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) at the University of Edinburgh.

“I closely follow several literary prizes every year and select books from their shortlists to read at my leisure”, June tells us. “As very few are based locally, I have followed the James Tait Black Prizes for many years - even before I started my PhD.”

“I believe literary prizes are an excellent way in which to engage the wider public with books and reading, and so when an opportunity arose to be involved in the JTB Prizes, I seized it.”

A shortlist worthy of a centenary

June has been a JTB Postgraduate Reading Panellist since joining LLC in 2017 and says that “this year's centenary has added extra pleasure” to what is now an annual event for her.

“From receiving approximately 600 books from the publishers, to distributing them to the Postgraduate Reading Panel and compiling their reviews, there has been a sense that this year's top eight books should provide something extra special” she says.

“To not only entertain, inform, and engage the wider readership but also to maintain the high quality and integrity of the UK's longest-running literary prize in this special year. I think the books listed on the two excellent shortlists reflect this.”

Find out what made the shortlist on the University of Edinburgh website

Discovering new authors

Two people reading books
June (l) and Reading Panellist Vivek Santayana (r). Image © Neil Hanna.

The James Tait Black Prizes are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to have students on the judging panel.

Asked how reading for the Prizes has enhanced her experience of studying English Literature at Edinburgh, June says: “I find that it is very easy to get stuck in my research era, reading books which are directly associated with my thesis topic, or getting bogged down by an overabundance of academic articles”.

“Participating in the James Tait Black Prizes reminds me of why I studied English Literature in the first place, reconnecting with the wider literary realm through brand new texts and discovering new authors.”

“In addition, being involved in a literary prize is an opportunity that many postgraduate students at other universities do not have, and thus I consider it an immense privilege to be able to do so.”

Looking to the future with the Janet Coats Black Prize

To mark the centenary of the James Tait Black Prizes and their founder Janet Coats Black, the University has launched a one-off creative writing prize for the best short story by a matriculated postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.

Reflecting on this opportunity for her fellow students, June says: “One of the many laudable aspects of the wider JTB Prizes is that entry is open to everyone, from self-published authors right through to those represented by the large, well-known publishing houses. On many occasions, as seen in the lists of previous winners, the Prizes have spotted potential in authors early on in their writing careers.”

“In offering postgraduate students at Edinburgh the chance to submit their work towards a unique new Prize, recognition for meritorious writing can be identified at an even earlier stage while showcasing the high quality of texts produced by our students.”

“Who knows, maybe winning the Janet Coats Black Prize will be the catalyst for one of our postgraduate students towards a glittering writing career!”

Find out more about the Janet Coats Black Prize | deadline Friday 17th May 2019

Are you interested in a PhD in English Literature?

The James Tait Black Prizes are just one of many opportunities available to our students, who also benefit from a wide range of reading and discussion groups (a number of which are student led), papers by visiting speakers, ‘work-in-progress’ seminars and conferences. Our doctoral candidates also contribute to, and edit, the journal Forum.

Find out more about doing a PhD with us

Related links

The James Tait Black Prizes