MArgaret Drabble was a bright young star with five novels to her name in 1971, when she was convinced to join her old friend JB Priestley on the judging panel for a new book prize. “Jack told me I should spend the expense (which came on wine) picking out some really nice half bottles to drink on my own, which I did,” she recalled.
Drabble argued for a biography of playwright Henrik Ibsen, Priestley was passionate about a novel by Gerda Charles, and their fellow judge, critic Anthony Thwaite, defended a collection of poetry by Geoffrey Hill. The glory of the new brewery-sponsored prizes was that all three could have prizes, so it all went smoothly, without any of the squabbles that had already begun to plague the Booker, launched two years earlier. These arguments had included one about the literary quality of a certain Margaret Drabble, who (according to Booker judge Dame Rebecca West) would insist on keeping her voice down while writing on the dishes.
The USP of the Whitbreads, who morphed into Costas 14 years before being abruptly dropped this month, was that they didn’t accept that kind of literary snobbery. For 50 years they extended a wide and equal network across different genres, supporting bookstores as well as writers and publishers (later panels would include a bookseller). Drabble doesn’t remember much about that first awards show, except that Hill was “pretty grumpy.” The following year, poetry was dropped as a category, in favor of children’s fiction. It would take 15 years to recover, as part of a list that had by then grown to include first novels alongside novels, children’s fiction and biographies.
Yet poetry, so often relegated to the literary ghetto, would become one of the big winners of the awards, winning nine of 36 Books of the Year, an overarching category introduced in 1985 that brought the medieval epic Beowulf and metamorphosis from Ovid to the shelves of England in the late 1990s (thanks to those rhyming rockstars Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes). It was a low-key collection – The Kids by Hannah Lowe, inspired by the life of a primary school teacher – that became the big final winner in February.
“Winning the Costa Book of the Year means that collections that would normally have sold only hundreds of copies have sold tens of thousands, which has been great for expanding readership in the UK to people who might never have thought that poetry written at that time had everything to offer them,” says Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, which published both the posthumous Lowe’s Laureate and Helen Dunmore in 2017, Inside the Wave.
But it’s a sad economic fact that the gain from poetry was usually the loss from the book trade. A shadow of a sigh passed through the room – originally a banquet hall in Whitbread’s East End brasserie, and later a moshpit in the West End – each time a poet was declared the winner. It’s because the industry knew it would make more money with a well-known novelist, a timely non-fiction work, or a landmark debut album.
But even category winners could get a big boost from the prize. Last year’s winning debut novel, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water, for example, was already in the running to be Waterstones’ book of the month when the Costa news broke, and the chain has sold 20,000 paperback copies. . It’s now one of Waterstones’ best-selling books of the month, second only to another debut album, Gail Honeyman’s 2017 bestseller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. The British-Ghanaian writer’s troubled love story already had booksellers on its side, but after his victory over Costa it became “huge”, says fiction category manager Bea Carvalho. Many former winners of the different categories of the prize are still on the shelves, points out Carvalho. “The great thing is that they tend to last.”
The Costas’ left-field successes aren’t limited to early romance, however. British Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey had worked hard for years, producing seven novels before Black Conch’s The Mermaid hit the jackpot. “When it was shortlisted I was amazed, when it won novel of the year I was stunned and when it became book of the year I was flabbergasted. I I still am,” says Roffey, who had funded his own publicity for the novel. “None of the mainstream publishers would touch me. I’ve been around long enough to know the score of the small publishers: they go out of their way to publish you but have no money for promotion.
What the Costas have demonstrated, she says, “is the gap between what the publishing industry currently thinks and what is true… They think middle-class readers who, qu ‘they like it or not, are the main buyers of books, will never benefit from a novel written in Creole by a white Trinidadian about a black mermaid, but that is not true The Costas have integrated a book which had been A Penguin Random House imprint is already planned for her next novel.”All these years of going on in uncertainty and scarcity,” she sighs.Although she knows that literary fiction will never be a a sure calling, the £30,000 prize has given her the luxury of taking a year off from her teaching job and cutting back on the ‘busman’s holiday’ circuit of ground-breaking masterclasses and public speaking. next novel so hard.
Part of the value of the awards is the buzz they generate through a razzmatazz that culminates in the ceremony itself. Roffey was unhappy in that her victory fell into the social abyss of the Covid pandemic, so she missed out on celebrity judges such as model Jerry Hall, actor Hugh Grant and rower Matthew Pinsent who were brought in previous years to sprinkle stardust on the judging process. “I remember very enjoyable awards dinners,” says Drabble, “although once I sat next to Theresa May, who didn’t seem at all interested in books.”
Spouses Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn found themselves on a particularly dizzying ride when they clashed with their novel, Spies, and their biography of 17th-century chronicler Samuel Pepys. “I won by a hair,” says Tomalin. “Our rivalry for the same prize generated a lot of publicity: we were invited to pose for a photo while hitting each other on the head with our books (we declined). It was all a little embarrassing, but it was worth it, as many copies of our two books were sold.
Frayn and Tomalin were established stars at the time of their showdown. Hard as it may be to imagine today, Philip Pullman was not, when the final part of his now-canonical His Dark Materials trilogy became the first children’s novel to be crowned book of the year. 2001. Pullman was 55 and had previously refused to have his first books entered for awards. Judges chairman Jon Snow said: “If I’m being honest, the tide was against Pullman at the very start. We were afraid to give such a literary prize to a children’s book, but then we thought of CS Lewis and that was it.
“It made a huge difference to my reputation and my sales,” says Pullman. “After the Whitbread, I was a little known, whereas I wasn’t before. The Carnegie Medal I won for Northern Lights was a big thing in the world of children’s books, which is neither known nor highly regarded by the rest of the reading public; but the nature of the Whitbread/Costa award ensured that news pages as well as book pages took notice. Whoever created the prize in this way did something very smart and very generous. This put the children’s book on par with the other four winners in the category, and it speaks volumes about the value of children’s literature.
Pullman’s win was part of a new golden age for children’s books, when it began to be studied in universities and the YA market took off. By the time Mark Haddon followed him to the catwalk in 2003, with an early “crossover” The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – published in both adult and YA editions – no one blinked. eyes. It was, said presiding judge Joan Bakewell, “quite exceptional in the way Haddon is able to express the voice of the child and enter the language of the boy.” It’s extraordinary because of the limits he has imposed on himself. None of the judges experienced anything like that.
In 2012, novelist Joan Brady – who in 1993 became the first woman to win the book of the year award – railed against the corporatization of literary prizes. “Canada has the Governor General’s Literary Awards. The United States has the National Book Awards. Australia has its first awards. France has prizes from the Academy. Germany, the German Book Prize. Don’t British writers also deserve national recognition? ” she wrote. In some ways that’s a fair point – commercial sponsors are fickle and subject to their own fluctuating fortunes – but today’s austerity politics are less likely than ever to break through. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.