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The Costa Book Awards make history

2 January 2013

7:32 PM

2 January 2013

7:32 PM

The Costa Book Awards has made its own history tonight by selecting, according to its press release, an all women shortlist* for the first time. Here are the category winners, each of whom bags £5,000:

1). Mary and Bryan Talbot win the Costa Biography Award for Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, a book that examines two father-daughter relationships: James Joyce and his daughter Lucia, and Mary Talbot’s relationship with her father, who was a James Joyce scholar.

2). Hilary Mantel takes the Costa Novel Award for Bring up the Bodies, the brilliant and demanding Booker winner about which quite enough has been written.

3). Francesca Segal’s The Innocents snaps up the Costa First Novel Award. It is set in a Jewish community in London, and is apparently modelled on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

4). Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul secures the poetry prize. (This is also fancied to win the T.S. Eliot prize).

5). Sally Gardner, a dyslexia campaigner who was described as ‘unteachable’ as a child, wins the Costa Children’s Book Award for Maggot Moon.

These authors will compete for the 2012 Costa Book of the Year Award, which will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday 29th January 2013. The judging panel is to be chaired by Dame Jenni Murray, and will comprise Jenny Agutter, Katie Derham, Mark Watson, Sophie Ward, Wendy Holden, D.J. Taylor, Daljit Nagra and Marcus Sedgwick.

For reasons I don’t wholly understand, an almost all women shortlist is headline news in 21st century Britain. The victory of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s ‘graphic work’ (to quote the Costas’ press release) in the biography category is much more interesting. This is the first time that such a book has won such a prize. Giles Coren wrote in the Spectator last year that critical recognition of the form is long overdue. The decision to consider these books for prizes suggests that the literary establishment is trying to be more relevant; but few actions could be more condescending than this very public manoeuvre. Who are the judges to decree that the Talbots’ truly excellent and original book is or isn’t ‘literature’ (whatever that might be)?

This question runs deeper than prizes, far into the realms of bookselling and marketing. Coren may be interested to learn that the Nottingham branch of Waterstones draws a distinction between what it terms ‘Graphic Literature’ and ‘Graphic Novels’. The old snobbery is alive and well.

* You’ll notice that one of the categories has been won by a married couple.

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