Shocking: How the Costa book awards changed reading — and pitted husband against wife Books

MArgaret Drabble was a bright young star with five novels in 1971 when she was persuaded to join her old friend JB Priestley on the judging panel for a new book award. “Jack told me to spend the fee (which came with wine) by selecting some very nice half bottles to drink myself, which I did,” she recalls.

Drabble advocated a biography of the playwright Henrik Ibsen, Priestley was keen on a novel by Gerda Charles, and her colleague, the critic Anthony Thwaite, advocated a collection of poems by Geoffrey Hill. The glory of the new brewery-sponsored awards was that it allowed all three to receive awards, allowing everything to run smoothly without the bickering that had already begun to weigh on the booker having started two years earlier. Among those arguments was one about the literary quality of a certain Margaret Drabble, who (according to Booker judge Dame Rebecca West) would insist on lowering the tone by writing about washing dishes.

The unique selling point of the Whitbreads, who morphed into the Costas 14 years before their abrupt scrapping this month, was that they didn’t accept that kind of literary snobbery. For 50 years they spanned a broad and egalitarian web across genres, supporting bookstores and 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 literature. It would be 15 years before it was reintroduced, as part of a list that by then included first novels alongside novels, children’s literature and biographies.

Bright young star… Margaret Drabble was a fellow judge for the first Whitbread Awards for Best Book of 1971. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

But poetry, so often relegated to the literary ghetto, became one of the big beneficiaries of the awards, winning nine of the 36 Books of the Year, an overarching category introduced in 1985 that brought the medieval epic Beowulf and Ovid’s Metamorphosis to book shelves England’s late 1990s (thanks to rhyming rock stars Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes). It was a more low-key collection – Hannah Lowe’s The Kids, inspired by life as a school teacher – that became the final overall winner this February.

“Winning Costa Book of the Year has seen collections that would normally have sold only hundreds of copies sell tens of thousands. It was wonderful for broadening the readership in the UK to include people who might never have guessed that poetry being written had everything to offer them at this time,” said Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, which publishes both Lowe and Helen Dunmore’s 2017 posthumous winner, Inside the Wave.

But it is a sad economic reality that the gain in poetry has usually been the loss in the book trade. A shadow of a sigh went through the room – originally a banquet hall at Whitbread’s brewery in the East End and later a mosh pit in the West End – whenever a poet was crowned the overall winner. That’s because the industry knew they would make more money from a well-known novelist, a timely nonfiction book, or a groundbreaking debut.

But the category winners could also get a big boost from the award. Last year’s first winning novel, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, for example, was already lined up for Waterstones’ book of the month when Costa News broke, and the chain has sold 20,000 paperback copies. It’s now one of the Waterstones’ best-selling books of the month overall, second only to another debut, Gail Honeyman’s 2017 bestseller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. The British-Ghanaian author’s stylish tale of troubled love already had booksellers on her side, but after her Costa win it “got huge,” says fiction category manager Bea Carvalho. Many previous winners of the prize’s different categories are still on the shelves, Carvalho points out. “The great thing is that they tend to last a long time.”

“Amazed, speechless, amazed” … Monique Roffey. Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Costa Book of the Year

The Costas’ achievements at left field aren’t limited to first novels, however. British writer Monique Roffey from Trinidad toiled for years and wrote seven novels before The Mermaid of Black Conch hit the jackpot. “I was amazed when it was shortlisted, stunned when it won novel of the year, and stunned when it won book of the year. I still am,” says Roffey, who crowdfunded her own promotion of the novel. “None of the mainstream publishers would touch me. I’ve known about small publishers long enough: they put their heart and soul into editing but don’t have money for advertising.”

What the Costas has shown, she says, “is the divide between what the publishing industry thinks right now and what’s true … They think that middle-class readers, who, like it or not, are the primary buyers of.” novel in Creole by a white guy from Trinidad about a black mermaid, but that’s not true. The Costas have mainstreamed an outlawed book.” A Penguin Random House imprint is already in the starting blocks for their next novel. “All those years of just moving on in uncertainty and poverty,” she sighs. While she knows fiction will never be a sure calling, the £30,000 prize money gave her the luxury of taking a year off her job as a teacher, reducing the “busman’s holiday” cycle of master classes and public speaking that was so difficult to get to the next novel.

Part of the value of awards is the excitement they create through a hoopla that culminates at the ceremony itself. Roffey was unfortunate in that her win fell amid the social abyss of the Covid pandemic, meaning she missed out on the presence of celebrity judges including model Jerry Hall, actor Hugh Grant and rower Matthew Pinsent, who have been brought in to sprinkle her in previous years Stardust about the judging process. “I remember some very enjoyable awards dinners,” says Drabble, “but once I sat next to Theresa May, who didn’t seem particularly interested in the books.”

Rival partners... 2002 winners Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.
Rival partners… 2002 winners Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn. Photo: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Spouses Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn found themselves in a particularly dizzying merry-go-round as they confronted his novel Spies and her biography of the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. “I won by a hair’s breadth,” says Tomalin. “Our rival for the same award caused a lot of publicity: we were invited to pose for a photo, hitting each other over the head with our books (we declined). It was all a bit embarrassing, but it was worth it because it sold a lot of copies of both of our books.”

Frayn and Tomalin were established stars at the time of their duel. As hard as it may be to imagine today, it wasn’t Philip Pullman when the final part of his now-canon His Dark Materials trilogy became the first children’s novel to win Book of the Year in 2001. Pullman was 55 and had previously refused to submit his early books for any awards. Judge Chairman Jon Snow said: “To be honest the wind was against Pullman from the start. We were worried about giving a children’s book such a literary award, but then we thought of CS Lewis and that was it.”

Philip Pullman with his 2001 Whitbread winning The Amber Spyglass.
Philip Pullman with his 2001 Whitbread winning The Amber Spyglass. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA

“It’s made a huge difference to my reputation and my sales,” says Pullman. “After Whitbread, I was kind of well-known, which I hadn’t been before. The Carnegie Medal I won for Northern Lights was a big deal in the children’s book world that isn’t well known or very important to the rest of the reading public; but the nature of the Whitbread/Costa prize guaranteed that both the news pages and the book pages took notice. Whoever set up the award this way did something very clever and very generous. This put the children’s book on a par with the other four category winners, and that says a lot about the value of children’s literature.”

Pullman’s victory was part of a new golden age for children’s books as it began being studied in universities and the YA market took off. When Mark Haddon followed him onto the podium in 2003 with his “crossover” debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – released as both an adult and youth release – no one batted an eyelid. It was, said jury chair Joan Bakewell, “quite exceptional in the way Haddon is able to express the child’s voice and empathize with the boy’s language. It’s extraordinary because of the limitations he’s put on himself. None of the judges knew anything like that.”

“Don’t British writers deserve national recognition?” …Joan Brady. Photo: John Stillwell/PA

In 2012, writer Joan Brady — who became the first woman to win Book of the Year in 1993 — railed against the corporatization of literary awards. “Canada has the Governor General’s Literary Awards. The US has the National Book Awards. Australia has its Premiers’ Awards. France has academy awards. Germany, the German Book Prize. Don’t British authors also deserve national recognition?” she wrote. It’s a valid point in a way – commercial sponsors are fickle and subject to their own fluctuating fortunes – but it’s less likely than ever to catch on in today’s austerity. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

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