The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes are literary prizes awarded for literature written in the English language. They, along with the Hawthornden Prize, are Britain's oldest literary awards. Based at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, United Kingdom, the prizes were founded in 1919 by Mrs Janet Coats Black in memory of her late husband, James Tait Black, a partner in the publishing house of A & C Black Ltd. Prizes are awarded in three categories: Fiction, Biography and Drama.
From inception, the James Tait Black prize was organised without overt publicity. There was a lack of press and publisher attention, initially at least, because Edinburgh was distant from the literary centres of the country. The decision on the award would be made by the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh.
Four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature received the James Tait Black earlier in their careers: William Golding, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee each collected the James Tait Black for fiction, whilst Doris Lessing took the prize for biography. In addition to these literary Nobels, Sir Ronald Ross, whose 1923 autobiography Memoirs, Etc. received the biography prize, was already a Nobel Laureate, having been awarded the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on malaria.
In 2012, a third prize category was announced for Drama, with the first winner of this award announced in August 2013.
Selection process and prize administration
The winners are chosen by the Professor of English Literature at the University, who is assisted by postgraduate students in the shortlisting phase, a structure which is seen to lend the prizes a considerable gravitas. At the award of the 2006 prizes, Cormac McCarthy's publisher commented positively on the selection process noting that, in the absence of a sponsor and literary or media figures amongst the judging panel, the decision is made by "...students and professors, whose only real agenda can be great books and great writing". The original endowment is now supplemented by the University and, as a consequence, the total prize fund rose from £6,000 to £20,000 for the 2005 awards. This increase made the two annual prizes, one for fiction and the other for biography, the largest literary prizes on offer in Scotland. The annual prize for drama is worth £10,000. The University is advised in relation to the development and administration of the Prize by a small committee which includes Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and James Naughtie amongst its members. In August 2007 the prize ceremony was held at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time.
Only those works of fiction and biographies written in English and first published in Britain in the 12-month period prior to the submission date are eligible for the award. Both prizes may go to the same author, but neither prize can be awarded to the same author on more than one occasion. For the drama category, the work should have been written in English, Gaelic or Welsh, and performed by a professional theatre company in the 12-month period prior to the submission date.
List of recipients
Best of the James Tait Black (2012)
In 2012, a special prize was given called the 'Best of the James Tait Black' (in addition to the normal prize for that year). The award celebrated the fiction winners over the past 93 years, as part of the 250th anniversary of the study of English Literature at the University. A shortlist of six previous winners competed for the title of Best. A judging panel of celebrity alumni and writers decided on the winner announced on 6 December 2012 as Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.