Scottish prizes win on prestige

April 23, 2004

Edinburgh University's James Tait Black memorial prizes may lack the glamour and razzmatazz of the Man Booker or the Orange prizes for fiction, but they make up for it in prestige and longevity.

The awards, made by the university on the recommendation of its regius professor of English literature, commemorate a partner in the publishing house of A&C Black Ltd. The company, founded in Edinburgh in 1807, has published Who's Who since 1848. It launched Britain's oldest continuous book awards in 1919, and the 172 prizewinners form a remarkable Who's Who of writing, from D. H. Lawrence to Muriel Spark.

The nationality of the author is irrelevant although the books must be written in English. The work must also originate with a British publisher and have first been published in Britain in the previous 12 months.

The recipients of this year's £3,000 awards are Andrew O'Hagan for his novel Personality and Janet Browne for her account of Charles Darwin's life, The Power of Place .

Mr O'Hagan was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 best young British novelists in 2003. His second novel explores the notion of celebrity and is loosely based on the troubled life of child star Lena Zavaroni.

Professor Browne specialises in life sciences, natural history and evolutionary biology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. This is the second volume in her biography of Darwin.

There is no celebrity panel of judges, but John Frow, regius professor, has chosen to coopt a team of postgraduate readers to advise which of the 100 or so books submitted in each category should be shortlisted.

Stephen Greer, postgraduate reader, describes their role as a "primitive sorting device". He reports to Professor Frow on fiction and to honorary fellow Roger Savage on biography, who themselves trawl through all the books.

Rumours of conflict on the panel might give more prominence to the low-key prize. But the only whispers to emerge from behind the scenes are of commitment, hard work and sound judgement.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

'A different kind of cachet'

Stephen Greer, PhD student in English literature
"It's a tribute to Professor Frow that he manages to snare so many postgraduates to give up their free time, since we're all working hard. We get a nominal fee, which covered some books and the gas bill. It took me a month to read 15 novels. It's a skill most arts postgraduates learn, to read deeply but quickly. Nothing was terrible, but there were a couple where I could see so much intention but so little carried over into practice. I suggested one of the books for the shortlist. It didn't win, but I thought it was very good. It gives you faith in the form (of the novel), that people are still doing interesting things. The Booker and Orange prizes are huge spectacles, and the discretion involved in the James Tait Black prizes - that it's academics and academics in training - appeals to publishers and authors. It's got a different kind of cachet."

WINNERS

Fiction

  • D. H. Lawrence: The Lost Girl
  • E. M. Forster: A Passage to India
  • Zadie Smith: White Teeth
  • Robert Graves: I Claudius
  • Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter
  • Evelyn Waugh: Men At Arms
  • Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince
  • Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children

Biography

  • Lytton Strachey: Queen Victoria
  • Quentin Bell: Virginia Woolf
  • Noel G. Annan: Leslie Stephen
  • Elizabeth Longford: Victoria RI
  • Lady Antonia Fraser: Mary, Queen of Scots
  • Martin Amis: Experience
  • Richard Ellmann: James Joyce
  • Lord David Cecil: The Life of Cowper

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