Olivia Laing, who this weekend won the £10,000 James Tait Black award for her debut novel Crudo, will not be taking all of her winnings home with her. Instead, the acclaimed author has announced she will be dividing the money between her fellow shortlisted writers, because “competition has no place in art”.
Established in 1919, the James Tait Black prizes have in the past gone to names from Angela Carter to Cormac McCarthy. Crudo, in which Laing channels the spirit of the writer and performance artist Kathy Acker, had been shortlisted alongside three other novels. Judge Alex Lawrie said Crudo was “fiction at its finest: a bold and reactive political novel that captures a raw slice of contemporary history with pace, charm, and wit”.Accepting the prize at the Edinburgh international book festival, Laing said it was an honour to win because the shortlists are chosen by English literature academics at the city’s university, assisted by a panel of postgraduate students.
The fellow shortlistees she will share the prize with are: Will Eaves, who was picked for Murmur, Jessie Greengrass, shortlisted for Sight, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires, chosen for Heads of the Colored People.
“I said in Crudo that competition has no place in art and I meant it,” Laing told the award ceremony. “Crudo was written against a kind of selfishness that’s everywhere in the world right now, against an era of walls and borders, winners and losers. Art doesn’t thrive like that and I don’t think people do either. We thrive on community, solidarity and mutual support and as such, and assuming this is agreeable to my fellow authors, I’d like the prize money to be split between us, to nourish as much new work as possible.”
Laing, who is also the author of acclaimed non-fiction including To the River and The Lonely City, said on Monday that while “prizes are a wonderful way to showcase a group of authors … the act of picking a winner is corrosive and part of a capitalist model that doesn’t have a place in art”.
She added that her decision “was very much prompted by Boris Johnson and Brexit, and a sense of wanting to fight back against this endless culture of winners and losers,” she said.
Lindsey Hilsum, who won the biography award, also chose to share her £10,000 winnings. Hilsum, the international editor of Channel 4 News, won for her book on the late war correspondent Marie Colvin, In Extremis. At the ceremony, she announced she would be sharing her winnings with the Marie Colvin Journalists Network to support women in journalism.
Colvin was killed while reporting from the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr in February 2012.
“Arab women working as journalists often struggle against the odds with hostile editors and even families who think they shouldn’t be working out in the field,” said Hilsum, who helped establish the network which she said hoped “will be an important part of [Colvin’s] legacy.”
Judge Simon Cooke said In Extremis was “a uniquely informed, passionate and balanced testament to Colvin in all her human complexity”. It beat a shortlist including Akala’s Natives, Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, and Susannah Walker’s The Life of Stuff.