Literary voices vie for the UK’s oldest book prizes

A fascinating blend of books by debut and award winning authors forms the shortlist of Britain’s oldest literary awards announced this week.

Contenders for the James Tait Black Prizes include a fictionalised account of John Lennon’s spiritual journey to an uninhabited island off the west coast of Ireland, and a novel exploring an attempt to re-introduce grey wolves to the UK in the shadow of the 2014 independence referendum.

The other nominated titles are the sharply funny debut novel by acclaimed screenwriter Miranda July, and a novel which explores a fascinating experiment in modern utopianism in a racially charged Detroit.

The four novels competing for the £10,000 fiction prize are: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Canongate); The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber); The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate); and You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits (Faber and Faber).

Contenders for the £10,000 biography prize include a memoir by acclaimed English playwright, screenwriter and theatre and film director Sir David Hare; a journey through the life of writer and publisher David Garnett – who won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction in 1922; an innovative account, drawn exclusively from his own words, of the life of John Aubrey, the father of modern life writing; and a portrait of the ways in which the events of 1606 shaped Shakespeare’s writing in the tumultuous year of King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

The shortlisted works for the biography section are:

The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir by David Hare (Faber and Faber); Bloomsbury’s Outsider: A Life of David Garnett by Sarah Knights (Bloomsbury); John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr (Chatto and Windus); 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro (Faber and Faber).

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.

Fiction judge, Dr Alex Lawrie, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh said: “The 2015 shortlist showcases the wit, energy and innovation that characterised a remarkably strong year for fiction.” The James Tait Black Awards are awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures – the oldest centre for the study of English Literature in the world, established in 1762.

More than 400 books were read by University of Edinburgh academics and postgraduate students, who nominated books for the shortlist. A unique aspect of the prizes is that they are judged entirely by university English scholars and postgraduate literature students. The prizes were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband’s love of good books. In 2012, a third prize category was announced for Drama, with the first winner of this award announced in August 2013.

Biography judge, Dr Jonathan Wild, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh said: “Once again our team of postgraduate readers have pointed us towards the cream of biographical writing.” The winners of the prize will be announced on August 15 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in the heart of the first UNESCO World City of Literature. The winners will join the distinguished gallery of past winners including figures of global literary distinction such as, Angela Carter, Graham Greene, DH Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh.

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

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About the James Tait Black Prizes

Established in 1919, The James Tait Black Prizes are Britain's oldest literary awards. A prize for drama was introduced in 2013. The James Tait Black Prizes for Fiction and Biography are awarded annually for the best works in each genre published in the previous year. The James Tait Black Prize for Drama is awarded annually for the best original play written in English, Scots or Gaelic and first performed by a professional company in the previous year.

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Source: University of Edinburgh 

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