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Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2020: Alice Rae

Literature and Classics PhD student Alice Rae describes how being Lead Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction has added to her interdisciplinary study experience.

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

Photo of Alice Rae
Alice is a third year PhD candidate in English Literature and Classics

The Prizes are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to be judged by scholars and students. There is also a Drama Prize.

English Literature and Classics PhD candidate Alice Rae is this year’s Lead Student Reader for Fiction, jointly co-ordinating a Reading Panel of 22 postgraduate students in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh with June Laurenson (Lead Student Reader for Biography).

Here she 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.

A community of ardent bibliophiles

Alice has been a JTB Student Reader since starting her PhD at Edinburgh in 2017.Being a part of the Prizes over the years has, she says, helped her to feel connected to the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) as she divides her time with the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

“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”, she says.

“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.”

“While lockdown and social distancing have caused certain challenges for the Prizes this year, I hope that the coming year will be embraced as an opportunity to strengthen the JTB readers’ sense of community, bringing together, as it does, ardent bibliophiles from across LLC.”

“This year’s Fiction Prize received so many incredible submissions that our fiction readers were asked to take on a few extra texts. Everyone rose to the challenge with enthusiasm, and it was a pleasure to work with such a dedicated and passionate cohort. I am very grateful for all of the time they put into their thorough reviews, especially during such a challenging year with so many disruptions.”

An invaluable insight into the range of contemporary literature

Asked what the Prizes have added to her own research, Alice says “As an interdisciplinary PhD student, helping catalogue submissions throughout the year has helped me build on my own reading lists for outreach projects.”

“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.”

“Having the opportunity to read the latest works of fiction is not only a welcome change of pace from research but also an important insight into current trends and concerns. Being immersed in contemporary literature from large and small publishers has helped me to reconnect with the sheer pleasure of reading.”

“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. As Dr Benjamin Bateman (Fiction Prize judge) has highlighted, those shortlisted for the Fiction Prize this year all have a transportive quality, something that has taken on new importance during the pandemic.”

Read along with the James Tait Black Prizes

What makes a great novel? How is a novel woven together? How can we best appreciate works of fiction?

Jointly developed by the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 'How to Read a Novel' is a free MOOC (open online course) and reading group based around the Fiction shortlist for the James Tait Black Prizes.

The next edition of the course starts on FutureLearn on Monday 3rd August 2020, with this year's four shortlisted novels at its centre.

Find out what books have made the James Tait Black shortlist on the University of Edinburgh website

Read more and register for How to Read a Novel on FutureLearn

Are you interested in a PhD in English Literature?

Being a Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prizes is just one of many great opportunities available to our PhD candidates. We offer two PhDs: one in English Literature; and one in Creative Writing. Working with colleagues in LLC and across the wider University, we are able to support research which crosses boundaries between disciplines and/or languages.

Find out more about PhD study in English Literature with us

Related links

Read our interview with Lead Student Reader for Biography, June Laureson

Find out more about the James Tait Black Prizes