Alastair Niven

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Alastair Niven

Alastair Neil Robertson Niven

(1944-02-25) 25 February 1944 (age 78)
Edinburgh, Scotland
EducationDulwich College; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; University of Ghana; University of Leeds
OccupationLiterary scholar and author
AwardsBenson Medal, 2021

Alastair Neil Robertson Niven OBE LVO Hon FRSL (born 25 February 1944)[1] is an English literary scholar and author. He has written books on D. H. Lawrence, Raja Rao, and Mulk Raj Anand, and has been Director General of The Africa Centre, Director of Literature at the Arts Council of Great Britain and of the British Council, a principal of Cumberland Lodge, and president of English PEN. In 2021, Niven was chosen as the recipient of the Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature, awarded for exceptional contribution to literature.[2]


Born in Edinburgh, Scotland,[3] Niven was educated at Dulwich College in London and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[3][4][5] and was then a Commonwealth Scholar for two years at the University of Ghana,[4][5] where he "first researched in the field of African literature",[4] receiving his Master's degree and lecturing in English literature there.[3][4][5] He next lectured in English literature at the University of Leeds,[4][5] where he received his Doctorate,[3] and then taught English Studies at Stirling University,[4] where he was given charge of Commonwealth literature.[5]

Scholarship and academic work[edit]

In the 1970s, Niven wrote the first of several books.[5][6] His 1978 study, D. H. Lawrence: The Novels, was reviewed as "an excellent introduction to Lawrence as an artist and as a thinker",[7] and as "particularly useful for its full treatment of the neglected or downgraded novels".[8] Niven's 1980 book, D. H. Lawrence: The Writer and His Work was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review as "a brief yet substantial commentary on the Lawrence work," though with "few fresh insights." The review noted that Niven "does focus some welcome attention on several less-lauded works," and that Niven's "defense of Lawrence's underrated plays should interest any serious Lawrence scholar."[9]

Niven was Director General of The Africa Centre in London from 1978 to 1984.[10] He was at various times "an executive member of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies and a member of the Commonwealth Institute Working Party on Library Holdings of Commonwealth Literature".[5] From 1987 to 1997, he was Director of Literature at the Arts Council of Great Britain, and from 1997 to 2001 was the British Council's director of literature.[11]

Booker Prize work and other literary activities[edit]

He was a judge for the Booker Prize in 1994,[12] and for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.[13] In 2017, Niven argued that allowing American authors to contend for the Booker award would not lead to American dominance, pointing to authors from other countries having won recent international literary awards.[14] The following year, he opposed efforts to drop American authors from contention for the Booker Prize.[15] In support of the wide international eligibility of applicants, he described "the development of the English language into a number of different Englishes, which can then be compared and contrasted" as "one of the unifying features of the literature."[6]

In 2000–2001, Niven served on the International Advisory Board of the Raja Rao Award for Literature.[16] He was Principal of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Foundation of St. Catherine at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor from 2001 to 2013,[10][17] and "held the unique double of being Director of Literature at the Arts Council of Great Britain (later Arts Council England) for 10 years and Director of Literature at the British Council for four."[10][13] He was president of English PEN from 2003 to 2007,[10][18] and Chairman of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.[10]

In the 2012 Birthday Honours, Niven was made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO), personally conferred by Queen Elizabeth II.[19][20] He was a jury member for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.[21]

In 2017, he was Chair of Judges for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.[22]

In 2019, he supported a fundraiser to preserve an antique annotated copy of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover used as an exhibit in the famous obscenity trial, R v Penguin Books Ltd. Having written two books about Lawrence, Niven commented: "He has served me well and the least I can do now is help in his hour of need."[23]

Niven's memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours, was published in February 2021.[24]

Awards and honours[edit]


In addition to his books, Niven "is the author of over fifty articles on aspects of Commonwealth and post-colonial literature, and has also written extensively about the welfare of overseas students".[28]

  • The Commonwealth Writer Overseas (1976)
  • D. H. Lawrence: The Novels (1978)
  • The Yoke of Pity: A Study in the Fictional Writings of Mulk Raj Anand (1978)
  • D. H. Lawrence, the writer and his work (1980)
  • Under Another Sky: The Commonwealth Poetry Prize Anthology (1987)
  • Truth Within Fiction: A study of Raja Rao's The Serpent & the Rope (1987)
  • Enigmas and Arrivals: An Anthology of Commonwealth Writing (1997)
  • "Jack Mapanje: A Chameleon in Prison", Poetry Review 80, no. 4 (1990–91): 49–51[29]
  • In Glad or Sorry Hours, Starhaven Press, 2021, ISBN 9780936315485


  1. ^ Miranda H. Ferrara, ed. (2004). The Writers Directory 2005. St. James Press. p. 1246. ISBN 978-1-55862-528-0.
  2. ^ "RSL announces 44 new Fellows and Honorary Fellows". The Royal Society of Literature. 6 July 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d "Alastair Niven". DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f H. H. Anniah Gowda, The Literary Half-yearly – Volume 13, 1972, p. 201.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Hena Maes-Jelinek, Commonwealth Literature and the Modern World, 1975, p. 179.
  6. ^ a b Leanne Dohy, "10 Questions for Alastair Niven", Calgary Herald, 8 May 2003, p. E2.
  7. ^ J. Michaels, "Alastair Niven, DH Lawrence: The Novels", International Fiction Review (1979), p. 179.
  8. ^ H. T. Moore, "DH Lawrence: The Novels, by Alastair Niven", The Yearbook of English Studies, 1981, p. 354.
  9. ^ Dennis O'Gorman, "D. H. Lawrence: The Writer and His Work", Los Angeles Times Book Review, 30 November 1980, p. 12.
  10. ^ a b c d e "Alastair Niven, LVO, OBE". Harris Manchester College.
  11. ^ "Niven, Alastair (Neil Robertson)",
  12. ^ Full details of the winners, judges and shortlisted books for all the Booker prizes (1969–2008), The Guardian, 10 October 2008.
  13. ^ a b "Man Booker Prize announces 2014 judging panel". BBC News. 12 December 2013.
  14. ^ "British novelists need not fear an American takeover of the Booker prize". The Guardian. 22 October 2017.
  15. ^ Cain, Sian (2 February 2018). "Publishers call on Man Booker prize to drop American authors". The Guardian.
  16. ^ "Professional Notes", World Englishes, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Wiley-Blackwell 2001), pp. 117–118.
  17. ^ ALA Bulletin: A Publication of the African Literature Association, Volume 28, 2001, p. 16.
  18. ^ Sharp, Robert (13 December 2007). "Speech by Alistair Niven at PEN AGM 2007". English PEN.
  19. ^ "No. 60173". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 June 2012. p. B3.
  20. ^ "The Director of The Nehru Centre invites you to an evening with Shanta Acharya" (PDF). June 2015. Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  21. ^ "Chinaman wins Asian literary prize". 22 January 2012.
  22. ^ "The 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation". The Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  23. ^ Flood, Alison (24 May 2019). "Lady Chatterley trial: thousands raised to keep judge's copy in UK". The Guardian.
  24. ^ "Operating as usual". Starhaven. 30 December 2020. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  25. ^ United Kingdom list: "No. 56070". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 2000. p. 24.
  26. ^ "Alastair Niven". The Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  27. ^ "Honorary Fellow, Alastair Niven OBE LVO, wins Benson Medal". Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford. Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  28. ^ ALA Bulletin: A Publication of the African Literature Association, Volume 28, 2002, p. 16.
  29. ^ Adrian Roscoe, The Columbia Guide to Central African Literature in English, 2007, 153.

External links[edit]