BOOK FESTIVAL – James Tait Black Prize

James Tait Black Prize
Saturday 25 August, 5:30pm – 7:30pm
RBS Main Theatre

By Mark Bolsover

The event began with a private reception which took place in the Book Festival’s dedicated reception venue: a smart but small and close marquee located behind the RBS Main Theatre, lit by strange red globes which hung from the white fluted roof of the venue and made it look like a set-piece from Logan’s Run. Though the reception was an extremely well- organised event in terms of the catering, rich canapés and drinks served by the warm and friendly staff, there was no introduction to any of the short-listed writers who attended (and it was only later, and with regret, that I realised I had been talking to the eventual winner) and none of the general schmoozing and chat that one might expect of this kind of affair. The faculty of the English Literature department and the postgraduate students who had read for the prize stood huddled in tight cliques throughout the intimate space without intermingling. This gave the reception the feel of an awkward wedding reception.

During the reception the ceremony itself was introduced, in a slightly gruff and abrupt father-of-the-bride fashion, by the Principal of the University of Edinburgh, Tim O’Shea. After obligatory welcomes, O’Shea gave an—equally obligatory—‘history’ of the awards, espousing the English Literature Department of the University as the oldest in the world (though I have heard Glasgow University scholars somewhat woundedly debating the veracity of that claim) and ‘boasting’ of the achievements of the University, including Darwin’s having ‘come up’ with evolution (?) and the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. He flagged up Edinburgh as a city of literature, citing a rather dubious list including Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith and, perhaps tellingly, ‘others who don’t make money’ (?). Importantly, he also emphasised that the JTB is decided by postgraduate and faculty (with faculty members Dr Jonathan Wild and Dr Lee Spinks having ultimate say) and praised the postgraduate readers, contrasting the JTB to more commercial, ‘celebrity’ awards.

After the introductions and the canapés were over, the assembled crowd meandered into the RBS Main Theatre for the ceremony itself. The space was well-suited for an event of this kind though nowhere near full to capacity. The ceremony was hosted by the very glamourous Sally Magnusson. Though charming, Magnusson stuck a little too close to her notes (understandable given that her introduction was, in essence, a repetition of the facts and figures cited in O’Shea’s for the broader audience gathered for the ceremony) and this rendered her introduction dry and slightly too formal and stilted. Again she praised the Department of Literature’s venerable age and summarised the ‘history’ of the prizes.

The JTB awards are divided between the categories of ‘Biography’ and ‘Fiction’ and the event followed this division. First up, Magnusson invited Dr Jonathan Wild to the stage to discuss the titles short-listed for the ‘Biography’ prize: (in order) Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson, Susie Harn’s Nikolaus Pevsner, Fiona McCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Though Wild was charming, very amiable and personable, the discussion of the books was somewhat too gushing and there were, frankly unnecessary, attempts to make the biographies (especially that of Ben Jonson) relevant to Scotland, as if in someway a Scotland-based award needs to justify itself in this way.

The winner: Fiona McCarthy for The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones.—McCarthy was a charming and modest winner. She gave a reading from her work, but whilst her prose is obviously clear and lucid the reading felt over-long.

Next Magnusson invited Dr Lee Spinks to the stage and the two discussed the short-list for the ‘Fiction’ award. These were: Belinda McKeon’s Solace, A.D. Miller’s Snow Drops, Padgett Powell’s You & I and Ali Smith’s There but for the. Though Dr Spinks is clearly very passionate about his work and spoke eloquently and engagingly about the books, his discussion with Magnusson tended to become too wordy (‘malign pseudo-scholasticism’—?) and was, again, rather too gushing and over-long.

The winner: Padgett Powell for You & I. Powell (as it turned out the writer with whom I had spoken, briefly and unwittingly), was a humourous, dry, cynical and clearly very intelligent speaker. The passage he selected was an excellent choice and demonstrated some of the dexterity, depth and humour of his work.

The JTB ceremony was organised and executed well, though rather too cliquey and stilted. It is also worth pointing out that around five to ten minutes into the ceremony a tweet was posted by the University, proudly announcing the winners of both awards before the awards themselves had been given and this seems a strange choice. Nonetheless, if you have not already had the chance to do so, it is clearly your time to checking out the short-listed texts for this years awards in both fields, though Powell’s You & I in particular stood out and he is clearly a writer to watch in the future.

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