THE PHOTOGRAPHER AT SIXTEEN by George Szirtes is shortlisted for the 2020 James Tait Black Prize for Biography

Many congratulations to George Szirtes, whose hybrid work of biography and memoir about his mother's life and the Holocaust, THE PHOTOGRAPHER AT SIXTEEN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A FIGHTER (Maclehose Press, 2019), has been shortlisted in the Biography category of the James Tait Black Prizes 2020. The 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.

The shortlisted titles for the £10,000 biography prize are:

  • What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché (Allen Lane/ Penguin)
  • Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson (Picador)
  • Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman (Serpent’s Tail)
  • The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter by George Szirtes (MacLehose Press).

The winners of both prizes will be announced in August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which will take place online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The online event celebrating the eight titles will be part of the festival’s virtual programme.

At our trying hour of staying home, these four dazzling works of fiction supply nourishing forms of travel – around the world, across perilous borders, and into the thoughts of compelling characters whose personal and political emergencies demand our attention.

Dr Benjamin BatemanFiction Judge

Whether crossing distances to bear witness or writing the life of one’s own body, recovering lives through the archive or in one’s own family, each of these luminous books is a work of amazing artistic daring, imagination, and integrity. With challenges of isolation, distance and proximity such keynotes, these perfectly pitched voices draw us into the lives of others and ourselves with exhilarating urgency and patience.

Dr Simon CookeBiography Judge

The James Tait Black Prizes have been presented by the University of Edinburgh every year since 1919. In 1918 Janet Tait Black née Coats, part of the renowned threadmaking family J & P Coats, made provision in her will for the creation of two book prizes, to be awarded annually in memory to her husband, James Tait Black.

Student expertise

The James Tait Black Prizes 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.

Each year 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.

In 2013, the awards were extended to include a new category for drama. Since 2017 the University has also been running a MOOC in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival. The free online course – called ‘How to Read a Novel’ – draws on the James Tait Black fiction shortlist, and has attracted more than 30,000 participants from across the globe.

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