Edinburgh International Book Festival: The James Tait Prize
With past winners such as D.H Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene and Salmon Rushdie, the James Tait Prize is the oldest and, some might argue, the most prestigious literary prize in the UK. So, it is somewhat of a surprise that this evening’s event takes place in a theatre that is only two-thirds full.
First up is the biography prize, with a diverse shortlist this year. In Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, biography and literary criticism work in tandem as Michael Gorra uses James’ seminal novel The Portrait of a Lady as a platform to explore the author’s life. Tanya Harrod’s The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture opens a fascinating window on a sometimes overlooked potter, whilst Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir sees the author take the unconventional approach of writing about himself in the third person. Thomas Wright’s Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea tells the story of the man who is arguably the most important British scientist after Newton and Darwin.
The winner is announced, and Harrod takes to the podium to collect her £10,000 prize. She says she is delighted to win a prize which is judged by a university department and student readers, believing that this takes the focus away from the trend of "celebrity culture" that is all too prevalent in some literary awards. Having spent a decade submerged in research for the biography, she comments that she owes a great deal to her subject Michael Cardew and to her publishers for "bravely" taking on the book.
Up next is the fiction prize, which this year has a shortlist dominated by Scottish authors. Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music is an accomplished novel inspired by bagpipe music which brims with appendices and notes, whilst Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner centres on a young poet struggling to gain a sense of self as he leads a fraudulent life in Madrid. The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner encompasses themes of conflict, struggle, and class warfare against a backdrop of a 1970s Highlands railway project. Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is a lyrically beautiful and astonishing first novel that tells the story of a young girl struggling in the care system.
The much deserving winner is Alan Warner, who humbly uses up much of his time on the podium describing the length to which he enjoyed the other books on the shortlist, undermined only slightly when he adds "these are easy words to say when you’ve just relieved someone of ten grand!" Alongside his wife, agent and publisher, Warner also thanks the characters who came alive to him on the page. Winning the prize feels like "a warm and happy homecoming" to Warner, who for the last two years has been the Writer-in-Residence at the university. As a parting shot, he quips that he’s glad that it’s a paper cheque and not "some kind of transfer through Kindle or something."