Folowing the announcement that Coda has been shortlisted for the Biography Category at the 2009 Costa Book Awards, we’re delighted to welcome Ian Jack, editor of Granta between 1995 and 2007 as our first guest blogger.
On January 5 we’ll know if Simon’s last book, Coda, has won the biography category in the Costa awards. The other contenders on the shortlist are The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo; Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead; and The Music Room by William Fiennes. Farmelo’s book explains itself in its title. Moorehead’s concerns the life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, a young contemporary of Marie Antionette and a friend to, among others, the Duke of Wellington and Talleyrand. Fiennes has written a memoir about his childhood in a moated castle with an older brother who was an epileptic. I haven’t read them. They’re probably all very good books. But what a shame it would be if Coda didn’t win because (a) it’s such an exceptional book ‘ his rival titles sound like many other books, and (b) it completes an outstanding literary achievement, the Smoking Trilogy, no book of which ever won a prize though all three of them richly deserved to.
Simon had bad luck with literary prizes, at least in my time as his editor, and the one consolation of failure this time will be that he won’t be alive to see it. I remember the British Book Industry Awards in 2005. Simon was shortlisted under autobiographies. I hesitate to use the word ‘corrupt’ about the business of literature, but the fact is that an author could get on the shortlist only if his or her publisher agreed to ‘take’ (that is, buy) a table at the award-giving dinner and to promise the organizers that the author would turn up. If you couldn’t guarantee these things, then the place on the shortlist might well go to someone else.
Granta was a small and not particularly prosperous publisher, but prizes sell books. We bought a table. Simon agreed to come. At a hotel in Park Lane, we went down a red carpet and through a crowd of photographers waiting for a proper celebrity to arrive (‘Jordan’ the model had also written, or had caused to be written, an autobiography). The dinner took place in the ballroom, where television crews crawled between the tables so as not to be in shot for other television crews. Richard and Judy were our hosts and entertainers, and the awards would be part of their book show, which then ran on Channel Four. We ate our chicken and obeyed orders to laugh and clap at appropriate times. Smoking was embargoed. Then the awards began.
Michael Palin won something and Sheila Hancock won something else. Gazza the footballer went up to receive the sports book of the year award – though his book was written entirely by Hunter Davies – and burst into tears on the podium. I think Simon said that was the one genuine moment in the entire evening. Then it was the turn of autobiographies. The one thing I was certain of was that Bill Clinton wouldn’t win. First, he wasn’t in the room - why on earth would he be? – and his absence broke what seemed to be the rules. Second, why would anyone want to give a prize to a self-serving ‘life story’ by a former US president? That night all of us who sat beside Simon and Victoria, including Granta’s publisher, Gail Lynch, thought The Smoking Diaries had a very good chance. Both critically and commercially it had been a storming success.
’And the winner is: Bill Clinton!’ He appeared by video link from sunny California, saying what a great honour and privilege, etc, and Simon said, without any noticeable bitterness, ‘Ah, so you don’t have to be here after all.’
We consoled ourselves by considering the other winners. What kind of literary prize was it that would dole out awards to poor Gazza, who hadn’t written his book, or have a shortlist that included Jordan, who hadn’t written hers either? A crap kind of literary prize, obviously. But even when Simon got on the shortlists of a more refined kind of prize, where London W11 predominated as the postal address of the organisers, where the organisers imagined Gazza to be the illiterate spelling of a wronged statelet in the Middle East and Jordan the river that ran nearby: even in these apparently ideal prosecco-quaffing and quail’s-egg-munching conditions, Simon somehow failed to win. The Smoking Diaries failed at the Pen/Ackerley Prize for memoir in 2005, The Last Cigarette in the same prize two years later. The winners in those respective years were Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy and Brian Thompson. Respect, as the saying goes, but have you heard much about their books since? Did they alter our view of autobiography - how it can be written, what it dares do?
It would be nice to imagine that literary judges have a kind of collective conscience that runs down through history, so that the living or let’s say active ones can repair the errors and omissions of those that went before them. In this spirit, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Costa.