Apples vs pears

Farewell – at last – to the Costa book awards. Or, as one former judge put it on Twitter: “Oh no! … What a shame!”

Known as the Whitbread book awards from their foundation in 1971 until 2005, the Costas may lay claim to a half-century of doling out literary prizes; they may even have helped to sell a few books. The official version is that Costa Coffee is “incredibly proud” of what the awards have achieved, “trailblazing diverse and fresh voices, tackling a broad range of themes and ideas”, and so forth. Pride comes before – what was it again? Costa won’t say why he has decided to call time (to the distress of their many fans). This generous silence leaves everyone free to speculate. Perhaps the prize fandango didn’t seem such a good use of the Costa brand and its cash after all, despite the company’s healthy post-lockdown revenues. No potential successor is said to have come forward to take over.

A change of sponsor is only one of the many ways in which prizes are forced to change course. In the beginning, the Whitbreads couldn’t quite decide how many categories there were; Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns was the only poetry winner until Douglas Dunn’s Elegies came along fourteen years later, and was crowned the first overall winner.

Ah yes, the “Book of the Year” fiasco. As one disgruntled judge put it: “This is an exercise in comparing apples with pears, tomatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, and does not really make sense.” That was Julian Critchley speaking of the year (1995) in which Kate Atkinson beat four chaps, including Roy Jenkins and Salman Rushdie, to the overall Whitbread prize, with her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum. (This was not the first or only time when the best debut novel beat what was supposed to be the best novel to the overall prize.) Rachel Cusk, meanwhile, another judge, showed how much Whitbread’s largesse meant to her by distancing herself from the “superficial” nature of the competition and proclaiming that “it is hard to get the boorishness of beer out of the Book of the Year.” Neither authority on the subject noted the more prosaic fact about choosing a “Book of the Year”: that there are more apples than pears. Going merely by the numbers, a poet, in most years, stood a better chance than a novelist of winning in their respective categories.

Perhaps readers are continually making their own versions of such ultimate judgements, choosing this biography over that collection of poetry, and so on; but in this case, the process was hilariously formalized and, from the contenders’ perspective, humiliatingly exaggerated. The “Book of the Year” earned its author, by the late 1980s, £20,000, making the Whitbread, in this sense, more valuable than the Booker at the time. The losers, meanwhile, came away with specially bound copies of their books. “It must have been a strange, but very life-like sensation”, Hugo Williams observed in the TLSof one such loser, “to get back your book coated in leather and smelling of goat’s cheese when the jackpot had seemed so close.”

Back in the 1970s, the sum of £1,000 for the winner of each Whitbread category seemed like a good deal; not surprisingly, a correspondent to the TLS pointed out that the cash, and the acclaim, was already being given to writers who didn’t need it, by judges who weren’t qualified to judge. Why, wrote Phoebe Masterson, had Kingsley Amis or Laurie Lee, “distinguished and delightful” though they were awarded, prizes to Rumer Godden and to the “talented pop artist” Alan Aldridge (whose illustrated volumes of Beatles lyrics had already sold in their millions ), when the money would have meant so much more to a talented writer who needed to “sit down and write without worrying about paying for his daily bread”? We assume that the debut novel category, which didn’t become a fixture until 1981, was partly meant to address such concerns. But then why not a debut poetry collection, a debut biography, or a debut children’s book?

Yes, we will miss all this, blander Costa days included – not to mention those occasions on which, say, the judges publicly changed their minds about their decision (The War Zone by Alexander Stuart making way, in 1989, for The Chemical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke). Anthony Holden, considering the choice the judging panel faced in 1999 between Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, said it would have been a “national humiliation” if the latter had won. (It didn’t.) And then there was the spokeswoman who once said: “We would reinforce the message that the Whitbread is not a literary prize in any way.” We are not entirely sure what she meant by that. But, looking back, we would reinforce that message, too.

There are many reasons to try to keep up with the work of the Turkish-American writer Elif Batuman – see Claire Lowdon’s recent review (May 27) of Batuman’s new novel, Either/Or, for some of them. One reason to do so is particular to collectors of TLS cameos in fiction, and may be found in her earlier novel The Idiot. Here, a Turkish- American freshman goes bemusedly about her new life at Harvard University. We are grateful to have been tipped off about one of the initial causes of this youthful character’s bemusement:

When it came time to choose classes … I applied to three literature seminars and got called in for one interview. I reported to the top floor of a cold white building, where I shivered for twenty minutes on a leather sofa under a skylight wondering if I was in the right place. There were some strange newspapers on the coffee table. That was the first time I saw the Times Literary Supplement. I couldn’t understand anything in the Times Literary Supplement.

A door opened and the professor called me in …

The freshman tells her interviewer: “I like words … They don’t bore me at all. The professor declines to accept her application.

As every Etonian schoolboy knows, Brexit has been bad for the UK’s independent publishers. The cost of exporting books to the European Union – reported in NB last summer (July 23) – now deters many of them from trying to get their publications across the Channel. But what about getting books into the UK?

One answer to that question is offered by Little Dead Rabbit (Prototype, £16.50). This zippy piece of concrete poetry by Astrid Alben, written under lockdown, comes interleaved with die-cut pages devised by the graphic designer Zigmunds Lapsa. The idea is to create an “inescapable interplay between text and image”; As with the pages reproduced above, the die-cut shapes may encourage the eye to pause in its customary left-to-right progress and acknowledge “the gasps and gaps of language”.

Giving a reading last Saturday, during the Uncorrected book fair (see NB, May 27), Alben recalled a snag: only one British printer could be found who was equipped to tackle Little Dead Rabbit‘s die-cut pages; but given their reluctance to take it on, the book eventually had to be printed in Latvia. At the time, around August last year, “the border between the UK and the EU had become impervious, obstructing the movement of books”. “We had no choice but to take care of shipment ourselves.” The subsequent smuggling operation involved “trains, a car, a ferry, a blanket, a bottle of vodka, a channel crossing and plenty of finger-crossing”. Penguin Random House, take note: this is how it’s really done.

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