Let’s talk about the Costa Book Awards for a second.
For the uninitiated, the Costa Book Awards started in 1971 (though they were originally the Whitbread Book Awards, for Costa’s parent company), celebrating “the most enjoyable books of the year”. And yes, it is Costa as in Costa Coffee. Who charge too much for an Americano and are now owned by Coca-Cola. But like it or not, they have established themselves as one of the most prominent voices in the literary scene here in the UK.
And well, literary types in the UK definitely don’t like it, because the awards tend to focus on commercial fiction, books that are maybe more lowbrow and could more easily slot into that “enjoyable” description. Basically, the awards are seen as pedestrian and mainstream, inferior to prizes like the Booker, awarding books that sell well in high street bookstores (or worse yet–airports) but don’t have anything important and literary to say.
And I get it, publishing is a business just like everything else. There’s reason to be a little grumpy about that. It’s definitely on everyone’s minds as COVID-19 has led to a surge in book sales and delayed release dates resulting in 600 (!) books being published in the UK just last week. With the Costa Book Award winners announced in late November, the prize is clearly designed to drum up Christmas book sales, and a new set of complaints about the award’s commercial focus over literary prowess.
My recent read, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, was a winner of the Costa Book Awards in 2019, under the “best first novel” category.
It’s a Gothic love story set in England in the 1820s, focused around a murder mystery and the titular character, a Jamaican slave who is freed upon her arrival in England, but finds herself locked into indentured servitude and the subject of racist scientific experiments. Yes, it’s a lot, and yes, it has lots of important things to say about racism, sexuality, and history–but with that Costa Book Awards label, it hasn’t gotten as much attention in literary circles, written off as (grr) “women’s fiction”, which completely changes the way the book is marketed and sold. I came into this book with as open a mind as I could, and I’ll admit that the Costa sticker on the front made me a bit hesitant, my internal biases categorising it as a guilty pleasure.
So I surprised myself when I turned out to really enjoy this book–it is easy to compare it to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, although with fewer supernatural elements. The author’s note at the end established that main character Frannie’s experience being ‘given’ among various English gentry households is rooted in history, and Collins does a great job capturing the tone and feel of historic Gothic novels while the narrative still feeling contemporary and fresh. It is mostly plot-driven rather than character-driven, like much commercial fiction, but it is still very much worth a read.
I look forward to seeing what books are named in the Costa Awards this year–and working on my own biases against commercial fiction. Enjoying a book can just be that, and it’s high time that the literary world realised that too.
THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON on Amazon.co.uk: