Shortlist for UK's longest-running book prize unveiled

American Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), in 1965. Pic: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesAmerican Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), in 1965. Pic: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), in 1965. Pic: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A dystopian novel depicting a second American Civil War and biographies of Muhammad Ali and Princess Margaret will be in the running for Britain's oldest literary honours when they are decided in Edinburgh this summer.

A writer’s account of the day he lost his brother in a childhood swimming accident and a ghost story which unfolds after two New York musicians stumble across an old blues song are both in contention in the competition run by Edinburgh University for almost a century.

Other contenders include an American academic’s exploration of the life and work of the 19th century Polish author Joseph Conrad and a portrait of a toxic relationship.

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The James Tait Black Prizes, which are awarded annually for the best fiction and biography works published over the previous year, are said to be the only honours of their kind anywhere in the world which are handed out by a university.

They are also the only major British book awards which are judged by scholars and students. This year’s contenders were drawn from more than 400 books.

The two prizes, each worth £10,000, are traditionally judged by senior staff from within the English literature department, assisted by a reading panel of postgraduate students.

The four biographies competing for the James Tait Prize are The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard, Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown, Ali, A Life by Jonathan Eig, The Dawn Watch, and Joseph Conrad in a Global World, by Maya Jasanoff.

The four fiction titles in the running are American War by Omar El Akkad, White Tears by Hari Kunzru, First Love by Gwendoline Riley and Attrib by Eley Williams.

DH Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, John Le Carre, Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark are among the writers to have been honoured since the competition was instigated in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband’s “love of good books”.

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The literary awards ceremony is staged annually during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The university also stages a separate ceremony for the James Tait Black Prize for Drama, which recognises the best original play written in English, Scots or Gaelic and first performed by a professional company in the during the previous year. 
Biography judge Dr Jonathan Wild said: “It has been an outstanding year for biography writing, as these shortlisted books eloquently testify.”

Fiction judge Dr Alex Lawrie added: “The books on this year’s shortlist are experimental, thoughtful, and provocative. Together they represent the very best that fiction has to offer.”

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Irish author Eimear McBride’s winning book in the fiction prize category last year traced a love affair between an 18-year-old drama student and an older actor and was set in mid-nineties-London. The Lesser Bohemians was only the second novel to be published by the writer, who studied acting in London.

Last year’s winning biography, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez, focused on the great Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez and a Victorian bookseller, John Snare, who thought he had found a lost painting of the celebrated artist. It was the first biography to be published by the author.