Love and loss illuminates book prize shortlist

A captivating selection of books urging readers to ruminate on themes of grief, identity and environmental loss have been shortlisted for Britain’s longest-running literary prizes.

The list for this year’s James Tait Black Prizes features compelling work in fiction and biography that raises questions about gender, race and the art of capturing a life on page.

Contemporary writing

Contenders for this year’s fiction prize include a novel that captures a day in the life of a woman reflecting on a decades-long discordant relationship in the Lake District, and a satirical novel about a mountain lion who ponders the impact of climate change from its home under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

Other nominated titles include a debut novel exploring an Irishman’s will to continue his mother’s selfless good works, and an epic tale set in a fictional Aboriginal Australian town facing climate catastrophe.

The four novels shortlisted for the £10,000 fiction prize are: Lori and Joe by Amy Arnold (Prototype Publishing); Open Throat by Henry Hoke (Macmillan Publishers); Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan (Granta Books); and Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright (And Other Stories).

Book jackets for fiction shortlist
Fiction prize shortlisted books

The awards – presented by the University since 1919 – are the only major British book prizes judged by literature scholars and students.

Historical events

This year the judges described the shortlist as some of the very best contemporary writing that imagines lives at their dense contact points with historical events, natural environments, social transformations, and other lives both near and far.

The shortlist for the £10,000 biography prize has been increased to six titles for this year. It includes an exploration into the motivation of murderers in the Veracruz area of Mexico, and the story of an author investigating what happened to the work of a writer who took their own life.

Also in the running is a snapshot of the post-Second World War culture of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll through the eyes of West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and a collection of notes that cumulatively generate a portrait of everyday Black existence.

The other contenders are a series of letters, journal entries by, and interviews with a celebrated American sculptor, lovingly curated by her daughter, and a blend of biography and memoir by an obituarist questioning how you compress a life into the inches of a column.

Illuminating biographies

The six biographies shortlisted for the £10,000 prize are: This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, translated by Robin Moger (And Other Stories); Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe (Daunt Books Publishing); Always Reaching: The Selected Writings of Anne Truitt by Anne Truitt (Yale University Press); and Lifescapes by Anne Wroe (Penguin).  

Two rows of book jackets for James Tait Black
Biography prize shortlisted books

The shortlists will be reread, annotated, and discussed by students and scholars to decide the winners of both the prizes, which will be announced by the University of Edinburgh in May.

This year we have four strikingly different takes on how memory, both visceral and intellectual, colours the environments through which we move and shapes our understanding of intimates and enemies alike; which is to say, each novel probes, in prose ranging from spare to startling, the ambivalence of living in an increasingly interconnected world.

Dr Benjamin BatemanFiction Judge

From notes to interviews to obituaries to crónicas, this is a kaleidoscopic gathering of astonishing, formally daring life-writings. Acutely reflective in their inquiries into the stakes of writing lives, these are works as animated by an urgent attentiveness to the textures of loss as by a moving sense of gesture towards the lives evoked in their pages.

Dr Simon CookeBiography Judge

The biography list has been extended this year to allow the prizes to pay tribute to a wider range of writings, and to key into the breadth of interests among the postgraduate panellists and wider academic community.

The annual Prizes are for the best work of fiction and biography written in or translated into English published in the previous 12 months.

The James Tait Black Prizes began celebrating books in the early 20th century after 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 of her husband, James Tait Black.

Since the prizes’ inception 105 years ago, the list of winners forms a who’s who of literary distinction with Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Zadie Smith among the winners.

Stellar winners

Equally stellar names appear on the list of biography winners, including Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Quentin Bell, John Buchan, Richard Ellmann, Hermione Lee and Lytton Strachey.

In the last decade Amit Chaudhuri, Craig Brown, Lucy Ellmann, and Zia Haider Rahman have joined the illustrious list.

The University also offers a free online course to give readers the chance to engage with judges and other readers about the shortlisted fiction books as well as classics of English and Scottish fiction.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – called ‘How to Read a Novel' draws on the James Tait Black fiction shortlist and has attracted more than 60,000 participants from across the globe since it launched in 2017.

Related links

Find out more about the Prizes

English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh