Article published on April 1, 2016.
Before getting involved with nb I’d never really bothered that much with book awards. I had a vague sense of the main players and could probably name a winner at a stretch but it was hardly my chosen subject on Mastermind. Quite honestly, the major book awards – the ones that get the headlines and sponsorship – your Bookers, Baileys and Costas – seemed a bit highfalutin for a general reader like me, and the smaller awards I was barely aware of.
However, in 2014 I was asked to read the Man Booker shortlist for nb and I’ve been following the various awards ever since, reading shortlists for the Baileys prize, Costa award and the YA prize, and keeping abreast of all the runners and riders in everything from the IMPAC to the TS Eliot Prize. And whilst I haven’t enjoyed all of the books that the awards have thrown my way – in truth, I’ve only been blown away by one (Richard Flanagan’s A Narrow Road to the Deep North – a book I would not have considered reading otherwise) but what a one it was – actually reading the awards longlists, shortlists and even just winning titles has proven to be an absolute joy, an eye-opening experience and an unparalleled discovery. And I encourage my fellow readers to give it go.
Don’t worry, it’s not all about the Booker, Costa and Baileys: there’s an impressive line-up of awards that cover nearly every genre, and yes whilst literary fiction is the mainstay of the pre-eminent awards, there’s a surprising scope to what’s on offer.
In 2015, for instance, winners included Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (Man Booker), Ali Smith’s How to be Both (Baileys), Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Costa Novel), Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets (Costa Poetry), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (Costa First Novel), Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (Costa Biography), Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (Costa Children’s and overall winner).
Perhaps less well-known awards singled out Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster (Hawthornden), Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (IMPAC), Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier (Betty Trask), Jonathan Beckman’s How to Ruin a Queen, Liz Berry’s Black Country, Ben Brooks’ Lolito, and Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out (Somerset Maugham), Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (Carnegie), Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (YA), David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey (Guardian Children’s), and Andrew McMillan’s Physical (Guardian First Book).
And all that despite the absence of several prizes, notably the National Book Awards. Although the Bord Gais Irish Book Awards, which have a similar emphasis on popular fiction and non-fiction, filled the void somewhat with a rostrum that included Anne Enright (The Green Road), Sinead Moriarty (The Way We Were), Jane Casey (After the Fire), Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sinead Gleeson (ed. The Long Gaze Back) and Louise O’Neill (Asking For It), and that’s not to say anything of the non-fiction and children’s categories.
To my mind, it doesn’t come much better than that as a reading list and these awards are definitely where I’d start for anyone wanting to test the waters or any reading groups looking for a good, solid foundation. And although the Folio Prize is this year’s casualty, there’s still plenty to get your teeth in to. So don’t be put off by thinking the book awards are too lofty or superior, whether you go all-out with the Bookers and Baileys or find your niche with the YA Prize, the RONAs or one of the other awards on offer, you might just come across the book you’ve been waiting for. And if not, at least you can say you’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt.
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