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Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2021: Heather Milligan

First year PhD in English Literature candidate Heather Milligan tells us what it's like to be a Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction.

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

Photo of Heather Milligan
Heather Milligan, PhD candidate and JTB Student Reader for Fiction

The Prizes are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to be judged by scholars, including postgraduate students. As well as awards for Fiction and Biography, there is also a Drama Prize.

First year English Literature PhD candidate Heather Milligan is one of 14 Student Readers for this year’s Fiction prize, the shortlist for which includes a short story collection by Dima Alzayat (a graduate of our Creative Writing programme) and novels by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Lydia Millet, and Shola von Reinhold.

In this short article, Heather tells us why she put herself forward as a Reader, what she gained from the judging process, and how the shortlisted works reflect global challenges and our collective desire for escape.

A high point of the academic year

This is the first year in which the entire James Tait Black judging process has taken place remotely. The student panel read each of the four shortlisted entries as e-books before meeting Fiction Judge, Dr Benjamin Bateman, virtually in June 2021 to discuss the books at length and decide the prize-winner.

Reflecting on the opportunity, which she first learned about as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, Heather says “It seemed wonderful to me that scholars who spend all their time thinking about literature should have this chance to honour ambitious, innovative, and challenging new fiction - especially the writing of lesser-known authors or work that might not have such broad popular appeal.”

“Many of us have been unable to meet in person this year to discuss our work with peers as we usually would, so the James Tait Black Prize has been a wonderful way to connect with the postgraduate community at LLC (the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures).”

I found it incredibly fulfilling to join a seminar of devoted readers with hugely varied specialisms and interests, each defending our own favourite entry. The Prize has been a high point of my academic year, and I will certainly put myself forward as a reader again in future.

Heather Milligan, first year PhD candidate and JTB Student Reader for Fiction

A chance to look outward

Heather’s PhD research focuses on twenty-first-century novels and their relationship to climate and ecological crises.

For her, “the influence of environmental issues on contemporary literature is evident in the shortlist this year: for example, Dima Alzayat’s short story ‘Alligator’ links flooding in present-day Florida with the state’s dark history of settler colonialism and police brutality, while Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible explores intergenerational resentment in the face of ecological and societal collapse.”

“But these are also stories of escape, released at a time when we have all desperately wanted to be transported. Shola von Reinhold’s Lote captures the rapture of obsession through their narrator’s transfixion with the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. With The First Woman, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi immerses us in stories of women’s resistance outside the familiar framework of Euro-American feminism.”

Asked what reading for the JTB Fiction Prize has added to her own research, Heather says “Doctoral research can become tightly focused on a particular field of specialty; the James Tait Black Prize has prompted me to look outward, to the numerous genres, forms, and perspectives driving literary studies forward. This has the practical benefit of adding new material and scope to my research project, but it also helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading by engaging deeply with the year’s very best fiction.”

Find out more about the books on the James Tait Black shortlist on the University of Edinburgh website

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 2nd August 2021, with this year's four shortlisted novels at its centre.

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

Find out more about the James Tait Black Prizes 

Read more about Heather and her doctoral research