Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Carnegie Controversy: Thoughts from the 5%

The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals celebrate its 80th anniversay celebrating the best Children's books and with these longlist announcements, comes a wave of controversy. There's been much talk around the lack of BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) authors, particularly on the Carnegie list. I'm here to explore and combat the snub claims and controversy.

1. This is a prize based on literary merit, NOT the author.

Firstly, I invite you to take a look at the CILIP judging criteria for the Carnegie Medal. Nominations for the 2017 awards opened on 1 September 2016 and ran until 14 October 2016. The award is judged on style, plot and characterisation, not based on theme or the author. There have been some questions around the bias of these criteria but these are the criteria that CILIP have put forward; criteria that CILIP hold as being objective. No set of judging criteria will ever be 100% free of bias. When you look at literature, how do you put in place a set of criteria that ensures the best books (in terms of literary merit) appear on the longlist? It is impossible but CILIP have set out the criteria that allows the judges to award the best books and limit bias.

"The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards." – CILIP website

If we were to take into consideration, the cultural background of any author, it would shift the focus of the award, moving it from the story to the storyteller. Including an author on a longlist based on the colour of their skin or their ethnicity is incredibly patronising and moves the goalposts of the award.

114 titles were nominated by librarians and only 20 of these made it onto the longlist. That's 17.5% of the nominated titles or to put it another way, for every 5 titles that did not make it onto the list, 1 title did. The 20 titles that were selected by the judging panel were deemed to better meet the criteria than the other nominated titles. One Twitter user commented as follows (image, right).

Twitter can be a social vacuum and while it works for some things, I'm not sure it serves as the right platform to debate this issue  as this string of tweets shows. The first tweet talks about diversity generally  not diversity of the authors or the books. There is a wealth of diversity when it comes to the longlisted titles. I'm currently working on a spreadsheet and will post this when my research has been concluded.

No books by BAME authors were ignored and to suggest this damages an award that for 80 years, has promoted incredible Children's and Young Adult (YA) literature and encouraged a broad breadth of themes to be explored. It is worth remembering that all of the nominated titles were recognised and championed by librarians.

To suggest that judges haven't noticed the BAME authors on this list or that they "haven't seen the missing pieces of the puzzle... [and] have never experienced not being included" is ludicrous and damaging. How much research has this person done into the Carnegie Medal - the nominations and judging processes, the criteria and the judging panel itself? She is right in one respect though. The judges have ignored the fact that some of the writers are BAME as they judged on the books alone. To suggest they had time to read all of these books and research which ones where BAME and deliberately ignore them  or anything of the sort  is a bitter pill to swallow while they looked after their families, worked and carried out the everyday responsibilities that their lives dictate alongside the careful reading and judging (not to mention the meetings) in narrowing down 114 books to the 20 featured on the 2017 longlist.

The reference to "the Britain that the Carnegie wants to narrate" (image, left) is ridiculous. 50% of the authors on the longlist are British and many of the stories on the list are not set in Britain and it's this inclusiveness that makes the Carnegie Medal such a special award.

2. The BAME argument is flawed since there ARE BAME authors featured on the longlist.

Let me back-track slightly. I previously mentioned that BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics but the inflammatory tweets of the majority seems to suggest that there is no authors of ethnic minorities featured on the list when, frankly, this is a lie. Oxford English Dictionary defines an "ethnic minority" as:

"A group within a community which has different national or cultural traditions from the main population."

Ruta Sepetys (author of Salt to the Sea) is Lithuanian. Glenda Millard (The Stars of Oktober Bend) and Zana Frauillon (The Bone Sparrow) are both Australian. The Carnegie medal is awarded in the United Kingdom  the same country where CILIP is based  and so, in this context, these authors would be considered BAME authors. However, the argument seems to be less of one around BAME authors than it does Black and Asian authors and as my previous point outlined, the author him/herself is irrelevant in the judging of the nominated titles.

3. Every author should have the opportunity to write about whatever they choose to.

I don't think it's entirely fair to suggest that themes encompassing immigration, refugees, detention centres (etc.) are only rewarded if you're white in relation to the Carnegie Medal. It casts a negative light on the prize when it's one of the more inclusive awards out there. It looks at all books that have been published in the United Kingdom. It does not discriminate against authors outside of the U.K..

The kind of thinking implied by this tweet suggests that only Black and Asian authors should be able to discuss themes of immigration, refugees (etc.). This mentality that you should only write what you experience is dangerous thought because it limits the different lenses with which we can view important issues in our world and also limits discourse and discussion. This kind of thinking also has the potential to sway the kinds of stories that an author might tell rather than allowing them freedom to write from the heart.

If we had a write-what-you-are/write-what-you've-experienced mentality, then I should only write stories that feature a protagonist that is a gay man with a chronic illness. It's the equivalent of saying that I cannot write about witches because I am not a witch or because I am not female, I shouldn't write about female characters. This limits the infinite possibilities and perspectives that fiction offers us for both authors and readers.

4. Attacking the Carnegie questions 80 years of celebrating the best Children's and YA literature.

The criteria for this award are completely different to that of any other award as are the judges. Looking at the Costa Children's Book Award 2016, there were four books on the shortlist and no longlist published. Patrice Lawrence's Orangeboy was shortlisted for the award though only one of the titles on this shortlist, Ross Welford's Time Travelling with a Hamster, made the Carnegie longlist. The winner, Brian Conaghan's The Bombs that Brought us Together, did not make it onto the Carnegie longlist.

The judging panel also differed greatly from that of the Carnegie - an author-illustrator, a journalist/writer and the owner of a Children's specialist bookshop. The judging criteria too are also different:

"The judges’ brief is to select well-written, enjoyable books that they would strongly recommend anyone to read."

This is just one example but if you compare both prizes, the Costa Book Award is awarded to a well-written, enjoyable book (and there is nothing wrong with this) whereas the Carnegie is judged beyond surface enjoyment.

I'm quite saddened that The Guardian and particularly The Bookseller – the leading book industry media channel and magazine, have taken inflammatory opinions from Twitter and pasted them into an article alongside the generic opinion from CILIP's Nick Poole without looking at some of the other opinions on Twitter that counter and contrast the snub claims. All they have done is accelerate and misdirect attention towards damaging one of the world's oldest and most prestigious book prizes rather than allowing a platform for those that disagree. I'm annoyed too that CILIP released a generic reply to the controversy instead of producing an engaging article that tackles the claims of racism and inequality head-on. I understand that the judges are not allowed to comment which is unfortunate since some of the comments are targeted towards the judges who are unable to defend themselves.

One of the nominated authors raised an important point about the gatekeepers or diversity who, ultimately, are the publishers and everything is a ripple effect to this. A writer pens and submits their story, An agent only makes money when the author makes money and so, if the publishing industry dictates certain kinds of stories, the agent will likely supply these kinds of stories to publishers.

The lack of diverse stories on Children's and YA bookshelves would reinforce the claims this author makes but regardless of whether you agree or not, there is a clear lack of BAME stories on bookshelves. Instead of focusing on this issue, we're attacking the Carnegie; damaging 80 years of literary merit and recognition in the field. Inflammatory tweets are problematic and sometimes misleading, and do not provide a solution or a way forward so that we can focus our energies onto the positive ways we can push for change.


You're welcome to challenge my points and I suspect I may get some rather fruity comments tweeted my way. However, my opinion is my opinion and it is backed up by research. I won't be bludgeoned into submission by people that can shout the loudest and are suggesting a boycott of an incredible award that has done so much for Children's literature over the years and spit in the face of Andrew Carnegie, for whom the award is established (in his memory). What will a boycott achieve? What satisfaction will that bring other than to take away an accolade that rewards Children's author and further shrink the media coverage and awards that Children's books receive?

Matt Imrie, former CILIP Carnegie Medal judge, wrote an article on the controversy which I would strongly advise you to read. Matt raises some really important points and shines a light on the judging process for the Carnegie Medal.

To those that are "appalled" and "disappointed" by the longlist, I ask you:
  • How many of the longlisted titles have you read before you tweeted your views?
  • How many of the nominated titles did you read?
I'm willing to bet that the only people that read all 114 books are the judges themselves.