Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2020: June Laurenson

In her second year as Lead Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, we talk to PhD student June Laurenson about judging Britain's oldest literary awards.

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

Photo of June Laurenson
This is June's second year as Lead Student Reader for Biography

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.

As Lead Student Reader for Biography, a role she describes as a “great privilege” to have held for two years now, PhD student June Laurenson has been jointly responsible for co-ordinating the Prizes’ Reading Panel of 22 postgraduate students in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Here she tells us how reading multiple biographies has enhanced her PhD on the novels of Anthony Powell, as well as her love of literature more generally, and how the Panel’s collective knowledge has helped the judging process.

The creative, imaginative, and experimental form of biography

Describing the role of Lead Student Reader for Biography as one she “absolutely loves”, June explains that “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 of Edinburgh.”

Tapping into a wealth of knowledge

This year’s Student Reading Panel comprises 19 researchers at various stages of their PhDs in English Literature and three Masters students; between them, they have read over 500 submissions to the James Tait Black Prizes.

Reflecting on her role as joint co-ordinator of the Panel (on which she has sat since starting her PhD in 2017), June says: “It is brilliant to see the same faces returning year after year, eager to receive their box of books and to make their recommendations, just as it is great to see the enthusiasm in the new panel members.”

“For biography, I try to match as many books as possible to each reader’s research area, so that their wealth of knowledge can assist them in their judgement of each book for shortlist recommendation.”

“Thankfully, this year, we received our reviews and recommendations back from the panel before the COVID-19 lockdown, so there was no disruption to the normal process. We are now looking forward to starting the panel recruitment process for next year’s Prizes, in September.”

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

Watch this space for an interview with Lead Student Reader for Fiction, Alice Rae.

Related links

Find out more about studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh

Find out more about the James Tait Black Prizes