‘Indies dominate Costa lists,’ said the heartening headline in last week’s Bookseller, reporting on the shortlists for the various categories of this prestigious literary prize.
Even more heartening to record, Quartet Books will be represented in the First Novel Award category with our just published Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla.
My views on the role of independent publishers in the vitality of publishing and bookselling may be thought old-fashioned, for I see publishing as an art rather than a science. It consists of instinct combined with the ability and courage to take risks, and requires a certain faith, an approach that certainly seems to be vindicated by the Costa selection.
The large conglomerates are hindered in their vision, under pressure from accountants and publicists mesmerised by the cult of celebrity and always looking for ‘market trends’ or the newest version of the previous airport blockbuster.
The independent sector is able to think outside the tramlines and back new writing talent that might otherwise be stifled.
The way the book trade now operates often seems to be doing its best to shut the independents out and limit our markets, but in the end we are not to be ignored. We perform an essential part in nurturing the future for good writing of all kinds and preserving a platform for literature, sadly today a neglected term.
From the time of its foundation in 1972, Quartet’s policy was to aim for idealism and innovation, while speaking up for minorities and the underdog. Ground-breaking books that alarmed other publishing houses were always welcome at 27 Goodge Street. An early case in point was Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex, published after the originators got cold feet.
By the time I took over in 1976, the company had an established reputation in the fields of politics, sociology and biography. We built on this by developing a highly successful jazz list, including books on Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. We then became leaders in the area of illustrative photographic books, adding Helmut Newton, Angus McBean, Norman Parkinson and John Swannell to our catalogue. In due course Nicholas Coleridge’s Tunnel Vision chronicled, in an innovative style of journalism, his years of snooping and eavesdropping wherever the great and beautiful hung out around the world.
Alongside these developments, Quartet published an impressive array of writers early in their careers, including Maeve Binchy, Lynn Barber, Christopher Hitchens, Antony Lambton and Hanan al-Shayk, who is today one of the best-known Arab writers of fiction in the English-speaking world. Our sister imprint, The Women’s Press, had a spectacular success with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and achieved notable sales with other black female authors at a time when the conventional wisdom of British publishing held that such writing could not possibly sell.
Social issues have stayed to the fore with Quartet, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s autobiographical Prozac Nation being a prime example in 1996 , followed up by her subsequent titles, Bitch and Bitch Rules. Angela Carter and Jennifer Dawson brought important collections of short stories to Quartet (Fireworks and Hospital Wedding), and writers of the stature of B. S. Johnson and Dennis Potter were also published.
At the time when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was represented on the Quartet backlist with a novel at which Penguin had previously turned up their noses – and suddenly there was a demand for copies.
We were never afraid to court controversy, and with The Palestinians gave a platform for the honesty of Jonathan Dimbleby’s deeply felt text and Don McCullin’s expressive photographs. It created quite a ripple, as did Tony Clifton’s God Cried, about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The incursion of Israeli forces into Gaza in 2008-9 has come under incisive moral scrutiny in our recently published Eyes in Gaza by Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, two Norwegian doctors who under bombardment continued with their humanitarian mission in the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
Ripples of a different kind were set going when we published The Sieve of Time, the memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, the great cinematographer who filmed the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, feeling that at the age of ninety she had the right to have her stature as an artist considered, despite the shadows of the Nazi past.
Another book no other publisher dared to touch, which came from the Quartet stable early in 2010, was Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth. It had the temerity to question the basis for the whole scientific orthodoxy on the causes of climate change, and the verbal violence of the attacks from the other side in the argument boosted its sales through several reprints.
Quartet has continued by a process of evolution to move on from the house established by its founders, but without overlooking its past values. The music list has moved into the fields of pop, rock and rap, with titles such as Ben Watson’s Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
Quartet has never lost sight of the need to help with launching young fiction authors in the twenty-first century. As Good as It Gets and The Vending Machine by Simon Nolan are cases in point, together with Gary Indiana’s Resentment, described by reviewers as ‘a work of genius’ and ‘one of the decade’s great novels’.
Now we have Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla in the limelight of the Costa selections. ‘A laugh-out-loud, toe-curlingly funny, coming-of-age book from a brilliant young British talent,’ say the Costa judges in their initial summation.
The Costa Book Awards (previously the Whitbread Literary Awards) set out to recognise some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland. Nikesh Shukla is a London-based author, filmmaker and poet who has had his work represented on radio and is presently developing a sitcom for Channel 4.
Coconut Unlimited, Nikesh’s first novel, follows the adventures of three hip-hop obsessed Asian boys, Amit, Anand and Nishant, at an all-white private school in the 1990s. Their peers see them as try-hard ‘darkies’ while their own community thinks they’re ‘toffs’, a long way from the ‘real’ Asians of Southall. Feeling stuck, they form a band, ‘Coconut Unlimited’, an adventure that leads to them having to dodge disapproving parents and real-life drug dealers, while trying, unsuccessfully, to rap.
Warm, nuanced and above all hilarious, Coconut Unlimited is another first novel for the present age of which Quartet can be immensely proud.