A couple of weeks ago, a post by Clementine Beauvais set the cat among the pigeons here on ABBA by questioning whether reading a bad book is always better than reading no book at all. The debate that followed veered at times into a related but slightly different topic, one always likely to be sensitive with authors. What, if anything, makes a book a “bad book” in the first place? The arguments divided commenters into two broad and messily intersecting camps. The first group wished to apply their preferred canons of taste and quality: was the book formulaic, clichéd, incoherent? The second prioritised utility: even a book that was “bad” by other criteria it might still be good for a particular reader at a particular time. By that rule, there was no such thing as an intrinsically “bad” book.
I don't think we can do without either of these approaches entirely – but rather than reopen the argument about poor quality books I’d like to think about how these ideas apply at the other end of spectrum, when we’re singling books out not for opprobrium but for praise. How do we decide whether a book deserves a literary prize?
Children’s books are in strange position here. Adults, aware that they are not children’s literature’s primary audience, can feel quite uncomfortable about choosing books “over children’s heads.” When adults honour a book with a prize, is it because they deem it the “best” by the measures of literary quality they would apply to books written for people like themselves, or are they trying to ventriloquize the judgements of children – whose criteria for a good book may be quite different?
Different prizes deal with this problem in different ways. At one extreme we have the Costa Children’s Book Award, which is chosen by a panel of three adult judges, with – as far as I know – no child input at all. At the other, the Red House Children’s Book Award sells itself in part on the claim that it is “the only national book award voted for entirely by children.” Somewhere in the middle sits the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, in which the votes of hundreds of children are put into the mix, but the final decision is made by an adult panel. Of course, these prizes (and others) are doing slightly different things, but the variety of methods for choosing the “best” book suggests some confusion, even discomfort.
The sense that there are systematic differences between adults’ and children’s tastes is one factor in play here, but there are others. For example, there is the opposition between the technocratic idea that there exist expert readers who by virtue of their expertise (as writers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, etc.) are more qualified than other people to arbitrate quality, and the democratic idea that the way to choose the “best” of anything is by means of a popular vote. The authority of the Red House prize derives not just from the fact that the judges are children but also from the numbers involved.
All of this informs our original dilemma. Are there certain qualities, such as vivid writing, original plot and characterization, etc., that make a book “good”? Or is the quality of a book always to be judged in relation to the circumstances of its reading, so that a book that’s bad for one reader may be good for another, and the best book is the one that does the most good for the most people? In philosophy that would be called a utilitarian position; others may call it rule by lowest common denominator, although for them the question remains – who nominates the denominators? (And who are you calling common?)
the CBC’s criteria for nomination are entirely determined by an author’s sales rather than by anyone’s literary judgement, child or adult. If you are a millionaire celebrity author who can afford to buy thousands of copies of your own book you can thus guarantee not only “bestseller” status but also a nomination for a major literary award. Nor is this a new phenomenon. For years, it was an open secret that the “recommendations” of a major UK book chain could be purchased by publishers wishing to promote their books.
This approach goes beyond populism – rather, it is money masquerading as popular taste (in the case of the millionaire) or as elite taste (in the case of the UK chain) and trying to create a market in the process. Wordsworth once remarked that that “every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” Had Wordsworth read Fredric Jameson he might have added that what is true of great and original writers is even more so of trite and derivative ones. But the methods, arguably, vary.