Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2022: Céleste Callen

PhD in English Literature candidate Céleste Callen shares her experiences of being 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 Celeste Callen on top of Calton Hill with the Edinburgh skyline behind her
Celeste Callen, PhD in English Literature candidate

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

2022 is the second consecutive year in which English Literature PhD candidate Céleste Callen has been a Student Reader for the Fiction prize, the shortlist for which includes works by Uschi Gatward, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Keith Ridgway, and Bryan Washington. The winner will be announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

Here, Céleste tells us how her previous positive experiences made her keen to read for the Prizes again, and how engaging with contemporary fiction has added to her experience of researching the work of Charles Dickens.

An opportunity to collaborate and engage

Before starting her PhD, Céleste completed our MSc in Literature and Society which explores writing and political and social discourse from the Enlightenment, Romantic and Victorian eras.

Shortly after becoming a doctoral student in 2020, she was invited to express an interest in being a JTB reader and decided to get involved, explaining: “I thought it would be such an exciting opportunity to collaborate and engage in conversations about literature with fellow PhD students.”

“From reading the shortlisted books, to hearing everyone's thoughts and voting for our winner, I felt a real sense of community and it was wonderful to meet people who shared my enthusiasm. Our Lead Fiction Judge Dr Benjamin Bateman made us all feel welcome and showed us that our opinions were valued; I think we all learnt from our varied perspectives." 

The experience was so inspiring and rewarding, so I knew without a doubt that I would participate again this year.”

Broadening horizons

Céleste’s PhD is on subjective temporal experience in the work of Charles Dickens, more specifically on Dickens’ fiction as read through the lens of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time. Her other areas of interest include representations of selfhood, subjectivity and temporality, as well as reflections on the novel and the philosophy of time more broadly.

When she read for the James Tait Black Prize in 2021, she was just starting the second year of her PhD and “the world was still accommodating to the [COVID-19] pandemic”.

Reflecting on her engagement with the contemporary works submitted to the Prize, she says “As PhD research centres around a very unique and focused topic, reading for the Prize offered a way to broaden my horizons and to reflect on these engaging contemporary works of fiction.” 

It felt more important than ever to shed light on these books which reflect human existence in all its variety and complexity, showing the challenges our world faces. Most of all, it reminded me of the power of literature and its ability to engage and inspire through words.

The shortlist has just been announced for this year's Prize and I am delighted to be a part of this journey for the second time. The books selected for the Fiction Prize are profoundly engaged with ideas of identity, family, human connection and resilience; I am really looking forward to what will be a fascinating discussion.  

Céleste Callen, PhD student and JTB reader

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

Are you in interested in a PhD in 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 Celeste and her doctoral research

Read our 2021 interview with returning reader Heather Milligan