Friday, 11 April 2014

Must All Have Prizes? Cathy Butler

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?)

Of course, there are other criteria in the selection of literary prize winners besides the ones I’ve mentioned. One is sales. In the United States, the children’s book world was surprised in recent weeks to discover that the right-wing “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh had been nominated as “Author of the Year” by the respected Children’s Book Council. It turns out that 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.

15 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Good question - who DOES decide? Here, we have the CBCA Awards, judged by adults, usually adults with some connection with children's books, eg teacher-librarians, children's booksellers, etc. We also have the YABBA Awards in Victoria(other states have their own versions.) Children get to nominate and vote for these. Interestingly, there's often some overlap, with some of te CBCA Shortlist appearing on the YABBA list.

Elen C said...

I'm currently considering these questions as I'm on a judging panel. So far - having only dented the TBR pile - my criteria has been 'do I immediately want to push copies of this book into the hands of particular children of my acquaintance?'. One stands out at the moment. It's a book with an original concept, entertainingly presented. And crucially, it's for children (not adult readers of children's books). For me, the 'original' element is a difficult one for children to judge, given that they haven't had as much exposure to storytelling. But they are better judges of 'entertaining' than adult judges, I imagine.

catdownunder said...

I have been working my way through the long list for the Carnegie. There is one book there which is an absolute delight - and another which is so dark that I could not recommend it to anyone but someone obviously not only thought it was worthy of publication but worthy of listing for a prize.
It is all very subjective but I have found that children will appreciate the most unexpected things and give wonderfully honest responses to all manner of writing.

Nick Green said...

I think literary prizes should be decided by those with developed literary critical faculties. That seems only logical. The 'popular vote' can be decided (and is decided) in any case by pure sales. That 'prize' will be delivered regardless; that vote is already open to the floor, who vote with their pocket-money.

In this way, books that might not have won the popular vote (i.e. big sales) get more of a chance to be discovered, bought, and read. Surely this is the only sensible purpose of a literary prize - otherwise it's just industry back-slapping.

Sue Purkiss said...

Cat, I just had a look at the Carnegie list. I've only read one of them - but going by the descriptions, most of them certainly sound like very tough reads! Nothing wrong with that, but it does seem to be a bit gloom-heavy. I suppose that's irrelevant - it's a question of which books were deemed to be the 'best'. Which brings us back to your point, Cathy...

catdownunder said...

One of them is particularly dark - some of the others gloomy and tough reading but one lacks all hope. I don't think that is justified, especially for the future generation. If you lack hope what are you left with?

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks for the comments. I think it's interesting that Nick (with his appeal to "literary critical faculties") and Cat (with her worry about whether the books are good for children) have so clearly exemplified two of the approaches I described. I don't think we can do without either, but nor do I think that either captures the whole picture.

C.J.Busby said...

Great post! It's a very interesting move, to turn the previous discussion on its head in this way. Having veered towards the elitist end of the previous discussion, unsurprisingly I also veer towards it in this one - I think Nick's right, prizes have a role in celebrating what's 'good' in terms of writing styles/originality etc. (and keeping those millionaire celebrities in their place!) A prize for the most popular book is too likely to become a prize for the one with most marketing clout behind it, most recognisable author, most shiny cover, cheapest price, whatever... These already get their rewards from sales, as Nick says.

But if we go with literary merit, the tricky issue is judging books AS children's books rather than by the criteria of adult literary fiction. Inevitably, it seems to me, the prizes are pulled in the direction of 'fine writing' at a sentence level, and emotional pull at a plot level, which biases towards older children's fiction, and darker (more lyrical) stories. I think this leaves whole swathes of fiction for younger children, that's not 'funny,funny' in a Roald Dahl prize way but is, as Elen says, 'entertaining' and fun and original and well crafted, very unrecognised. I rather despair of the many, many books being published now that seem to have one eye to the current prize-awarding trend of dark, emotional, damaged protagonists dealing with sad and gruelling circumstances, which are consistently billed as 'uplifting'...

C.J.Busby said...

Here's an interesting example of the problem. I read a book recently with a children's reading group in my local primary which was a real rip-off Dickensian tale of orphan woe and despair in 19th C London - every chapter was another dive into greater poverty, debt, sickness, despair, etc, with every god bit of fortune immediately counteracted by a greater misfortune, until the very end when everything was rapidly tied up and resolved and the orphans became landed gentry. My adult critical faculties told me it was just one big cliche from beginning to end - but the kids loved it. They'd never read Dickens - so the plot seemed entirely original to them, and they empathised mightily with the orphans' ups and downs. So that would be a bad book that was good for those children - worthy of a prize or not?

Abby Tobias said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emma Barnes said...

'm going to agree with C.J.Busby - at least to the extent that I hate the tendency of the adult-selected prizes always to go for grim or worthy subjects (lots about death, usually) as if a good book must have a sombre theme. This is also mirrored by a tendency to choose books at the very top of the age-range, as if books for older children must automatically be more deserving of praise. I'm glad the founding of the Roald Dahl Prize has finally acknowledged that there is skill and merit involved in writing funny books!

I think child-selected prizes are a great idea too - they are after all the intended readers. (Have to declare an interest because I've just won one - the Lancashire Fantastic Book Award - toots own trumpet!)

Gili said...

I've been on judging panels in the past, and there are so many other factors that come into play. Do we want to encourage this particular author? Who may have already won all the other prizes so maybe we need to give someone new a chance? Who is filthy rich anyway? Who writes very well but is sooo depressing? Who happens to be my best friend so it would look very bad? Who is a horrible person and a bully who threatened to set the press on us if we DON't give him/her the prize, so lets teach him/her a lesson? (true story) The books that one, when I was judging, were not necessarily my personal favorites, but those that all the various judges could reach an agreement upon.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Interesting to hear it from the judges' viewpoint - and good point about books written for children, not for adult readers of children's books. I take this into account when I'm reading review books. I might say,"Not my cup of tea, but it's not written for me, is it?"

It shouldn't be about, "Who won last time?" But that said, there are some writers, in my country at least, who only have to write a book to be on the shortlist and only have to be on the shortlist to win. There was a wonderful shortlist a few years back, but the winner was, predictably, the one written by the same writer who had won over and over - a writer whose books gather dust on my library shelves; the student who was reading the shortlist books with me was horrified to hear what had won. It was over- literary and full of purple prose.

I actually remember one children's lit judge, some years ago, telling me that they didn't think funny books had enough "depth" to win and when I pointed out a funny book with plenty of depth that hadn't won that year, she said they also didn't like paperbacks! Is this the kind of judging we want? Because adults know better than kids what they should be reading?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I believe on the whole, parents who are choosing a book as a gift, or helping a child to choose at a library, generally don't care about prizes. Certainly children don't care, and don't choose a book because of a certain sticker on it. The people who do care about prizes are booksellers, librarians, publishers and the authors themselves. All that matters is that this particular group understands and accepts how certain prizes are awarded... whether they be by children, or by adult judges or whether they are 'paid' for.

Catherine Butler said...

Dianne, I agree to a point - but I think there has to be more to it. If everyone knew - and freely admitted to themselves and others - that they had won the prize simply because their publisher had been buying up Waterstone's or because it was Buggins' turn, then why would they be pleased when they won? They must see it as at least in part an endorsement of the book and of themselves as writers. And I think they'd be right to do so, despite all the other factors involved.