UK's oldest book awards captivate in 100th year

An appealing mix of books illuminating themes such as gender, identity and race form the shortlist for the centenary awards of Britain’s longest-running literary prizes.

Contenders for the James Tait Black Prizes, include a novel inspired by computing science pioneer Alan Turing and a debut novel about a woman’s journey into motherhood.

The other nominated titles are a novel about personal relationships in the midst of political turmoil, and a collection of short stories exploring black identity in America. 

Shortlisted titles

James Tait Black Book Fiction Shortlist 2019
Fiction Shortlist

The four novels competing for the £10,000 fiction prize are: Murmur by Will Eaves (CB Editions); Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray); Crudo by Olivia Laing (Picador); and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Chatto & Windus).

The shortlist for the £10,000 biography prize includes a debut book by award-winning hip-hop artist Akala which explores issues around race and class, and a journey through the experiences of American war correspondent Marie Colvin.

Also in the running is a personal memoir about mourning and the hoarding of possessions and a biography of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son, Hernando Columbus, who sailed the world to collect books and prints.

Biography line-up

James Tait Black Book Biography Shortlist 2019
Biography Shortlist

The four biographies shortlisted for the £10,000 prize are: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala (Two Roads); In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum (Chatto & Windus); The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library by Edward Wilson-Lee (William Collins);The Life of Stuff: A Memoir about the Mess We Leave Behind by Susannah Walker (Doubleday). 

The winners of both prizes – presented annually by the University – will be announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. The centenary celebrations will be attended by some of the previous winning authors. 

Judges comments

These four books are stylish, witty, and experimental. I'm thrilled that in this centenary year our shortlist reflects the very best that fiction can offer. 

Dr Alex Lawrie Fiction Judge 

In searching, eloquent, and formally inventive explorations of their subjects, these four books ask questions about the way all of us live our lives. I’m delighted that this year’s shortlist shows the reach and vitality of biographical writing in the centenary year of the James Tait Black.

Dr Simon Cooke Biography Judge

Illustrious history

The annual Prizes have been presented every year since 1919 – surviving the Second World War, changing technology and evolving reading habits. 

In 1918 Janet Tait Black née Coats, part of the renowned threadmaking family J & P Coats, made provision in her will for the creation of two book prizes, to be awarded annually in memory to her husband, James Tait Black.

The legacy of Janet Coats Black

Student voices

The James Tait Black Prizes are distinctive in the way that they are judged. Each year the books are considered by senior staff from English Literature at the University, assisted by a reading panel of postgraduate students.

Anniversary prize

To mark the centenary, and to honour the founder of the Prizes, a creative writing prize for students has been created.

The Janet Coats Black Prize will be awarded in August to the best short story by a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.

The winning student will be awarded £1,500 and a mentoring opportunity with last year’s James Tait Black Prize fiction winner, Eley Williams.

Janet Coats Black prize

Landmark works

This year’s book prize winners will join the illustrious roll call of award winners. The awards have recognised landmark works and propelled the careers of many authors. 

Four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature have been awarded a James Tait Black Prize.

Earlier in their career William Golding, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee each collected a fiction prize and Doris Lessing was awarded a prize for biography.

Inaugural winners

The inaugural fiction winner was Hugh Walpole for The Secret City, his seminal work about the Russian Revolution. Henry Festing Jones won the inaugural biography prize for his book about the writer and artist Samuel Butler.

In 2013, the awards were extended to include a new category for drama.

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

The Massive Open Online Course – or MOOC – called How to Read a Novel, draws on an array of texts, from the classics to contemporary works.

Related links

The James Tait Black Prizes