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Book prize names six of the best in search for winner

SCOTS authors James Kelman and Muriel Spark are among half-a-dozen novelists in the running to be named the best-ever winner of Britain's oldest literary award.

The Best of Best of the James Tait Black Prizes, a one-off event, will honour the best novel to have been recognised since it was first awarded in 1919.

The shortlist also includes Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy and Caryl Phillips.

The award is being made to celebrate the 250th anniversary of English literature study at Edinburgh University.

The James Tait Black prize commemorates the best work of fiction and the best biography published in the previous year, with the winning authors each receiving £10,000.

The roll-call includes some of the most celebrated names in fiction, including EM Forster, DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch, William Golding and Bruce Chatwin.

Winners of the biography prize have included John Buchan, Antonia Fraser, Doris Lessing and Gitta Sereny.

The six candidates for the best-of-the-best honour are all drawn from the fiction list. Graham Greene won with The Heart of the Matter in 1948; Muriel Spark with The Mandelbaum Gate in 1965; and Angela Carter in 1984 with Nights at the Circus, a prize she shared with JG Ballard for Empire of the Sun.

James Kelman's A Disaffection took the award in 1989, Caryl Phillips won for Crossing the River in 1993, and Cormac McCarthy for The Road in 2006.

The winning book, which will be announced in December, will be selected by a judging panel including broadcaster Kirsty Wark and award-winning author and writer-in-residence at the university, Alan Warner.

Regius Professor Greg Walker, chairman of the James Tait Black Prizes at Edinburgh University, said: "This Best of the Best award is a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the best writers in the literary canon. "It is fitting, in the year of celebration of 250 years of study of English literature at the University of Edinburgh, that we recognise the wonderful contribution this prize makes to honouring great literature."

He added: "It has been an absolutely fantastic prize, and you almost have a world team of authors in the first 20 or 30 years ... It has been, overall, a pretty stunning list of winners."

On the decision to focus on fiction and not on biography, he added: "The view that prevailed was that fiction is timeless. You can pick up a book from the 1920s and it still moves you.

"You pick up a biography which all the reviews said was absolutely outstanding, and would last a century, and you think, 'It is talking about things we no longer think about', or the values underlying a biography have changed substantially, even in 20 years. Some obviously last, but they don't last time, and the scrutiny of shifts in culture, in quite the way that novels do."

The shortlist was selected by scholars and students of literature at the university. The James Tait Black Prizes were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband's love of reading. They are the only major British book awards judged by scholars and postgraduate literature students.

Each year, more than 300 books are read by professors of literature and postgraduate readers prior to the conferment of the prizes.

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