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Authors vie for UK’s oldest book prizes

An exciting mix of award-winning writers and emerging talent forms the shortlist of Britain’s longest-running literary awards announced this week.

Biographies of HRH Princess Margaret – the Queen’s sister – and legendary boxer and activist Muhammad Ali are contenders for the James Tait Black Prizes.

They feature alongside works on the life and work of the revered novelist Joseph Conrad and a heart-rending memoir of a tragic family holiday.

Outstanding shortlist

Biographies by popular critic and satirist Craig Brown and award-winning author Jonathan Eig join the latest books by American academic Maya Jasanoff and acclaimed writer Richard Beard in the shortlist for the £10,000 biography prize. 

Contenders for the £10,000 fiction prize include novels based around a fictional second civil war in America, a ghost story set in modern-day America, a toxic love affair and a series of experimental short stories.

Annual awards

The winners of the Prizes – presented annually by the University – will be announced on Saturday, 18 August, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The four biographies competing for the £10,000 prize are:

  • The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)
  •  Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown (4th Estate)
  • Ali, A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Dawn Watch, Joseph Conrad in a Global World  by Maya Jasanoff (William Collins).

The four novels competing for the £10,000 fiction prize are:

  • American War by Omar El Akkad, (Picador)
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru, (Hamish Hamilton)
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta)
  • Attrib by Eley Williams (Influx Press).

Student involvement

Two prizes are awarded annually for books published during the previous year – one for the best work of fiction and the other for the best biography.

More than 400 books were read by academics and postgraduate students for the University’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, who nominated books for the shortlist.

It has been an outstanding year for biography writing as these shortlisted books eloquently testify.                          

Dr Jonathan WildBiography Judge

The books on this year's shortlist are experimental, thoughtful, and provocative. Together they represent the very best that fiction has to offer.

Dr Alex LawrieFiction Judge

This year’s fiction shortlist features in a free online course launched by The University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh International Book Festival to help book lovers get the best out of their reading.

Online course

The free course, How to Read a Novel, draws on an array of texts, from the classics to contemporary works.

The Massive Open Online Course – or MOOC – takes readers on an insightful journey giving them the tools to appreciate works of fiction, and examine what makes a good novel.

More than 20,000 people signed up for the four-week course last year via the FutureLearn website.

Book Festival links

The Book Festival is hosting two additional events linked to the course’s content featuring the fiction contenders for the James Tait Black Prizes.

The James Tait Black Prizes, awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband’s love of good books.

Judging process

The prizes are for the best work of fiction and biography during the previous 12 months. They are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students.

Each year the University also awards the James Tait Black Prize for Drama annually for the best original play written in English, Scots or Gaelic and first performed by a professional company in the previous year.

The James Tait Black Prizes

Online course: How to Read a Novel 

Edinburgh International Book Festival

School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures