It all began in 1919, when the University of Edinburgh presented the James Tait Black Prize to Hugh Walpole for his novel, Secret City and, in the biography category, to H. Festing Jones for his memoir of Samuel Butler.
The James Tait Black has the distinction of being Britain's oldest literary award and, with it, a trend was born. Over the years, book awards have proved wildly popular, with prizes for individual genres, first books, etc. You name it, there's a prize. Typically, recognition is given for the "best" book in a given category -- novel, biography, poetry, science fiction/fantasy, mystery, graphic novel, children's book, young adult -- which seems a tall-enough order to judge. The Costa Book Awards, however, take complexity to a new level, aiming to reward books of high literary merit, published in the UK and Ireland, that the general public would find satisfying. A tall order indeed, and an ambitious one because, while the Costa Book of the Year ultimately goes to one worthy book, its judges first must create and consider short lists from six literary genres: First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children's Book and Short Story. Each category, except Short Story,* has three judges, typically an author, a bookseller and a journalist, who select four books from the hundreds entered. Of these four, one becomes the category winner. Then, according to Costa, "A nine-member judging panel, including the author from each of the original category judging panels, together with the Chairman and three other people in the public eye who love reading, then read the five winners and select one of them as the overall Costa Book of the Year." Are you still with me?
The Costa Book Awards were launched in 1971, when they were known as the Whitbread Literary Awards. Costa Coffee, a UK corporation, took over in 2006 and, from the get go, the objective was to celebrate the most well-written, enjoyable books published in a given year. The question naturally arises, "Enjoyable to whom?" Further, would a loyal biography reader be content with a collection of poems as winner? One also wonders if children's books ever win? (Well, yes, in 2001, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass took the top prize. For more information on the evolution of the Children's Book Award, click here.) This dilemma, surely, is the reason for the category winners. And the prize itself? Winning authors in each category receive £5000 (about $8000), with the overall winner taking home an additional £30.000 (about $49,000). The four-book short list for each category was announced on November 26, 2013, and the category winners were revealed on January 6, 2014. They include:
First Novel: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Note: the US title for this book is Where the Moon Isn't: A Novel.
Novel: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.
Poetry: Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts.
Children's Book: Goth Girl: And the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell.
The Costa Book of the Year will be announced in London on January 28, 2014. Until then, you can peruse a list of past winners here, with Hilary Mantel's fine Bring Up the Bodies, taking the overall prize in 2012. For a list of winners from the past 20 years in Denver Public Library's collection, click here.
*In an effort to be even more populist, Costa has made the contenders for its Short Story Prize available for anyone, anywhere, to download and read or listen to via its website. Once you've done that, you can vote for your favorite.