Winners of James Tait Black Prizes Announced at Edinburgh International Book Festival

by Rebecca Raeburn
Communications, Edinburgh
City of Literature Trust

21 August 2020

The winners of the £10,000 James Tait Black Prizes were announced by broadcaster Sally Magnusson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online on 21 August 2020.

A novel by Edinburgh author, Lucy Ellmann, told entirely via the internal monologue of an Ohio mother of four, and a memoir by poet George Szirtes, whose mother was a survivor of the Holocaust, have won the UK’s longest-running literary awards.

Ellmann and Szirtes join the talented list of writers who have won the James Tait Black Prizes, awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh.

Lucy Ellmann’s winning book in the fiction prize, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press), is a complex novel based around the ruminations of an Ohio housewife, much of which is written in one sentence. The novel was also shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2019 and won the Goldsmiths prize for inventive fiction in the same year.

Lucy Ellmann, said:

“Amid the daily assaults on our lives and intelligence, it is really cheering to receive this prize. My father won the James Tait Black in 1982 (for his biography of James Joyce), so it feels like quite an Oedipal coup for me to get one! And I liked the international flavour of the shortlist. English literature exists and thrives way beyond the boundaries of England. If it didn’t, there’d be little hope for it.”

George Szirtes’ winning book in the biography prize explores the life of his mother, Magda. The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter (MacLehose Press) uses photographs and memories to trace her life. Budapest-born Szirtes came to the UK as a refugee in the 1950s. In 2004 his poetry book, Reel, won the the TS Eliot prize.

George Szirtes, said:

“I am delighted, grateful and astonished to be awarded the James Tait Black Prize, especially given such a marvellous short list. I am a poet and the book is written much as a poet would write it, not so much a straight story as a set of mysteries in reverse time order, starting from my mother’s suicide in 1975, through concentration camps and refugee status, ending with a set of studio photographs of her early childhood in Transylvania. She died before she saw any of my books in print. The Photographer at Sixteen is an attempt to bring her to life.”

You can find the previous list of winners for the Fiction, Biography and Drama prizes over on the James Tait Black Prizes website.

The James Tait Black Prizes

The James Tait Black Prizes are for the best work of fiction and biography during the previous 12 months. They are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students. Prizes are awarded by the University of Edinburgh’s English Literature department, which is the oldest in the world.

They are distinctive in the way that they are judged. Each year two academic judges rely on the help of postgraduate student readers to critically assess the entries. Around two dozen students divide the 400-plus entries between them, and employ their literary training to pass on their recommendations to the judges, who select the two shortlists and the eventual winners.