'The cognoscenti know about us, but we have to come into the sunlight'

January 28, 2005

Colin Nicholson, who is in charge of the UK's oldest literary prize, is struggling to raise the award's profile

It is ironically appropriate that a professor of English literature responsible for a book prize is caught in a Catch-22. Colin Nicholson of Edinburgh University has this year taken charge of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Literature.

His goal is to raise the profile of the UK's oldest literary prize through sponsorship, and thus boost its dwindling funds. But to attract sponsorship, he needs to raise its profile.

This year's shortlist, chosen by Professor Nicholson and colleague Roger Savage, will be announced next week. Previous winners have included D. H.

Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing.

Professor Nicholson said the prize was unique in that the books, submitted by publishers, were initially winnowed by "young, able literary researchers". Unlike other awards, the James Tait Black is more about rewarding "technically interesting" writing than helping readers find accessible works. The shortlisted books "are all page-turners, but they are also challenging. This is not airport reading".

To publicise the awards, Professor Nicholson is capitalising on Edinburgh's status as Unesco's first world city of literature. He has enlisted the help of Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, both local writers, and Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He has also approached national newspapers and banks.

"If you're a member of the literary cognoscenti, you know about (our) prize. But we have to come out into the sunlight."

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