A fascinating blend of stories that cross cultural divides form the shortlist of Britain’s oldest book awards. The James Tait Black Prizes award two annual prizes for books published during the previous year – one for the best work of fiction and the other for the best biography. The winners of the Prizes, presented by the University of Edinburgh, will be announced on August 14 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Contenders for this year include a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime years in occupied France, and a novel that focuses on one of Kentucky’s most powerful dynasties. The other nominated titles explore unlikely love affairs, one between a hustler and a writer based in Bulgaria, and another between an 18-year-old Irish student and a professional actor set in London in the 1990s.
The four novels competing for the £10,000 fiction prize are: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker, (Doubleday); What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Picador); The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, (Faber); The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan, (4th Estate).
Contenders for the £10,000 biography prize include a double biography of the great Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez and the Victorian bookseller, John Snare, whose life was transformed after he bought one of Velázquez’s paintings, and a book that attempts to overturn myths surrounding the infamous Russian mystic, Rasputin. Other contenders include an intriguing account of an unknown person whose identity the author explores following the discovery of 148 diaries in a skip, and lastly, there is a portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby – a poet, courtier, cook and diplomat who invented the modern wine bottle.
The shortlisted biographies are: The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez by Laura Cumming (Chatto and Windus); A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate), A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby by Joe Moshenska (William Heinemann); Rasputin by Douglas Smith (Pan Macmillan).
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.
A new online course linked to the awards has also been announced today, developing the partnership between the University and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The free four-week course entitled ‘How to Read a Novel’ will take readers on an insightful journey giving them all the tools they need to get the most out of their reading, and understand the reading techniques used by the judges and students while considering the awards. Course leaders from the University’s Department of English Literature will give participants an introduction to the four key elements found in most fiction – plot, characterisation, dialogue and setting. Videos, quizzes and discussions will be used to explain fundamental concepts. Edinburgh International Book Festival will host two workshops linking to the online course content.
Professor Dorothy Miell, Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We are delighted to be part of this collaboration with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We’re sure that people will enjoy learning how to get the most out of reading a novel by working through both classic texts and, using the James Tait Black shortlisted novels, the best new writing from last year.”
Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said: “Over the years, the James Tait Black Prizes have been more accurate than any other British awards in identifying books that stand the test of time. This new online short course (or MOOC) gives readers a fabulous opportunity to work with the University’s literature team and gain a deep understanding of the four books on the shortlist – before having an opportunity to come to the Festival and ask the authors questions about their work. What better way to get to the heart of great literature?”
Participants can sign-up for the free online course which starts in July at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-read-a-novel/1