Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The problem with awards, by Keren David

The latest kerfuffle over children's book prizes, concerns the shortlist for the Branford Boase award. I love the Branford Boase. I'd only love it more if I'd actually won it, but at least I was shortlisted, along with my editor, the very wonderful Maurice Lyon, back in 2011. This is still something that makes me incredibly proud and pleased, seven years later.  

Some great things about the Branford Boase -  it's for debut authors, and their editors. So there's a recognition of the editor's role in spotting talent, nurturing it, and helping to shape the winning book. As it's for debut authors, you only have one shot at it. So after you stop being a debut, there is no need to feel any angst whatsoever about the judging process. And third it commemorates two women who died far too young, the writer Henrietta Branford and the editor Wendy Boase. 

So I was a little perturbed when I read some of the comments from this year's judges, as reported in the Guardian. Philip Womack, a fine novelist, a discerning critic and a generally good egg, was reported as saying that of the 60 submissions read by the judges, about a third had a very similar narrative: “There’s an ill child at home, who notices something odd, and is probably imagining it, but not telling the reader. They’re all in the first person, all in the present tense, all of a type,” he said.

“There are some adventure stories around today, but they tend not to be debuts. Most of these stories tend to be so enclosed, so claustrophobic, so depressing and formulaic. It seems to me to be rather a worrying new trend,” he said. “While each had its own merits, it became clear that there was a formula, and – which is my own opinion, and not necessarily that of the other panellists – it does make for a rather depressing children’s literary landscape.”
Now, I have huge respect and liking for Philip but (how to put this?) I don't really think this was his finest hour.  To accuse the authors of 20 books of working to a formula, is too dismissive, too crushing, especially when we are talking about debut authors. When you are working on your first book, you are not always very aware of what is out there, nor what might be considered trendy, or over-used. I remember finding my way to first person, present tense for my first book, and the thrill of realising that it gave me the intensity that I wanted for the character and the story.  I also remember  -  when I was nearly at the end of my first draft -  wandering into a bookshop and discovering that not only was there a section for teen readers (who knew?) but also, several other writers had chosen to write about knife crime, something that until that moment I had considered my very own. 
First time writers often write the book that they wish had been available for them to read when they were younger. I often felt claustrophobic as a child and teenager, I think I would have loved a book which gave me insight into that particular feeling. My own family and its particular psycho-dynamics were an utter mystery to me. I loved stories about families (Noel Streatfeild, Antonia Forest, Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays), but some (not all) outdoor adventure stories left me cold (Lord of the Rings, for example. Watership Down. Oh, how I yawned). 
Philip's comments reminded me of the critics who dislike Jane Austen because she tells stories about love, marriage, society, families. They criticise her for ignoring the Napoleonic wars. And often these critics are men, and they don't like women writers and their domestic dramas. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own: "This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." 
I turned to the comments of fellow judge, critic and founder of the Branford Boase award, Julia Eccleshare, for more context. In an article in The Bookseller, she points out that the prize tells us what publishing considers the 'next big thing', and that every year there are books published which focus on specific contemporary concerns. 
While in the past, she says domestic dramas may have centred on external change, such as moving house, something for which a solution can be found: "today’s fictional children are being faced with problems which have no such simple resolution.
"Many deal with things going wrong in families: family breakdown, accidents, deaths, mental health problems from depression and addiction to borderline personality disorders, all of which it will be impossible for a child to resolve as the issues are insurmountable.
" Any story revolving around characters, whether adult of children, whose approach to daily life is different provides unpredictability, new challenges  and an unending raft of complex situations to navigate. It certainly provides adventure because life is different and it’s an adventure which gives readers every opportunity to develop empathy and understanding, one of the key expectations of today’s fiction."
Outdoor adventure is difficult to write about now, she says, with mobile phones and protective parents. "Action with complex characters but set on a tiny scale was dominant." 
Now, I far preferred this explanation to those of the  no-doubt-well-meaning but slightly blundering Womack, in that no one is being told that they have written anything "depressing", and there is no suggestion that they are following a formula or copying the success of  -  say -  John Green. Their publishers may have the success of those books in mind, but I doubt that the authors do. Your first book is generally the one that you MUST write, it comes from the heart, and any formulaic scratching around for trends and brands comes later.
So, if you didn't make it onto the Branford Boase long or shortlist, and then read Philip's comments and felt utterly crushed, then blow your worries away. You've done brilliantly to be published. Your book will find readers who love the unique things that you have to say. Your reward will come when they email you, when they tell you how your book changed them. Prizes are the cherry on the top of the cake. The cake is the thing.  
By the way, how does one apply to be a judge for something like the Branford Boase? I would love to be considered. Because, just as I consider my books to be uniquely wonderful and deserving of glittering prizes, I feel the same way about my ability to read 60 books and discern which ones are worthy of honour and glory.
While I'm waiting, I shall carry on working out the plot for a new book. It's about  - sorry, Philip -  agoraphobia. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

I have to admit, I do write a lot of first person, though never present tense, which I don’t much like. For the reasons suggested, my fiction is set in other times and places.

But really, it has always been the case that parents tend to be killed off or moved elsewhere before the story begins, to make those outdoor adventures possible. While I see your point, as a slush reader I also see his. You do get tired of the same old same old. Which is not the fault of the authors who are not responsible for what other people entered!

LuWrites said...

Great post, Keren. I was only longlisted for Branford Boase... but am with you on the judging panel idea. I'd be absolutely brilliant at it. How do we apply?

Sue Bursztynski said...

You may have to ask. The current panel is made up of a festival director, a couple of writers(one for children) and a teacher librarian. Sounds okay to me. Hopefully they change around every couple of years like the judges of the Childrn’s Book Coubcil of Australia.


Hello there Keren, Thanks for the post - it's good to see the Branford Boase making people talk and think - any coverage for debuts is great. There are plenty of things to answer here but I'll try to be brief: Firstly: I'm making a general statement about a particular kind of book which now, for various factors including societal trends and previous successes, has become prominent among debuts, which was not the case last year in previous years, and which I in particular find depressing. I'm not saying they shouldn't exist, and in fact have said that when they are done well they can be very effective. On the whole, these narratives tend to be incremental, slow and inward-looking; perhaps there is more of an adult sensibility to them than I think there should be in a children's book.

Secondly: if you're not aware of a trend or a formula doesn't mean that it's not trend-following or formulaic. I had no idea what I was doing with my first book and lots of people said it was sub-Harry Potter - which it was and wasn't. (Kirkus Reviews in particular introduced me to the idea of a "MacGuffin", of which I had not heard before). The "Zeitgeist" does has some value, and one does pick up things whether one realises or not. You learn and carry on.

Thirdly: I love Jane Austen, and I don't think this is the same kind of criticism. Do we want books for children to look inward or outward? I'm not saying these kind of books shouldn't exist; but that they should be handled with care as it's much harder to make something dramatic and exciting when it's focused only on the internal.

Fourthly: As I stated at the end of the blogpost for Minerva Reads, all of these books had merit, and I hope that all of the longlisted authors move on to great things. And also I look forward to your book on agoraphobia (which I'm sure will be as brilliant, moving and exciting as your other books.)

Best wishes, Philip

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for commenting, Philip, and giving us further thoughts on the Branford Boase Prize entries.

Stroppy Author said...

Whether or not the debuts knew what was out there (and who launches on a career without doing research? that seems a bit odd), the editors do. I'll leave aside the writers for a moment, as it's not individual writers who make trends but publishers. If there is a theme in entries this suggests that publishers are moving in a similar direction or - to be cynical - jumping on a band wagon they hope is heading for the prize table. I'd put it down to zeitgeist and publishing trends, though I wouldn't be surprised if CW degrees have something to do with both. Debuts rarely publish their first novel - most have a string of unpublished novels behind them, and should have had time/nouse to read around and explore the market. Which is not a point against or in favour of this type of book.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for a great post Keren and for bringing in Julia Eccleshare's comments. Her thoughts are always balanced. The Branford Boase does so much to encourage new talent and some years will inevitably produce a more exciting/varied list than others. We are dealing in creativity not pigeon-holing. My son was shortlisted a while back and I know he told the story he wanted to tell and would've wanted to read.

C.J.Busby said...

What Stroppy said... I think there is a lot of this that's down to publisher /creative writing MA zetgeist, led by what wins prizes (Carnegie has a huge influence). It's slightly inevitable that 'prize' offerings would cluster around these forms/themes. Yes, the authors write what they want to, but the ones that are put forward for the Boase, or chosen to be published in the first place, are hitting the 'sweet spot' for editors. I also agree with Philip that there is something more adult in the sensibilities that dominate the literary prizes bit of children's publishing - what's seen as good writing rather than merely entertaining. None of which is to disparage these particular books - but there is good writing in adventure and fantasy too, which doesn't seem to be as celebrated. Children need a wide range - they are as different in their tastes as adults.

Christopher Vick said...

I think I'm with C J Busby on the 'wide range' thing. One of the reasons I love books for young people is the diversity. And I don't mean the 'diversity' of ethnicity, colour, religion, gender and what have you, I mean the diversity of subject, approach, style, voice, tone etc. I guess every few years that divesity may appear to be threatened by an overwhelming 'trend' that seems to be pushing other types of book to the margins. That may not be a good thing, but it might be somewhat inevitable given the power of market forces (yep, even in our 'creative'business). In terms of external v internal: Both GK Chesterton and Neil Gaiman are attributed with saying that fairy tales don't exist to tell children dragons are real, they exist to show that dragons can be beaten. That's always really struck me as true. However, it's probably evolved a bit; the dragons may be internal or external, and perhaps the books don't show they can be 'beaten,' but that they can be coped with; faced up to, made less scary. On the writing to trend question: Like Lu Hersey who commented above, I was lucky enough to study on the Bath MA Wrtiing for Young People. Our tutors were very clear: 'don't write to trend'. They reasoned that firstly, by the time you finish it, and by the time it is sold and then published, trends may well have changed. Secondly that whilst being influenced is okay, ultimately you really DO have to write the book you want to write (as Dianne notes above)and the one you would want to read, because it will probably be a better book :)

Katherine Roberts said...

Well, I won the Branford Boase with a fantasy adventure (Song Quest)... but that was almost 20 years ago, when there weren't nearly so many debuts around, so I guess debut authors today are - by necessity - likely to be more savvy about the market and what is likely to sell than I was.

Bear in mind hardly anyone had the internet in those days. I didn't know anybody who had published a book, and had no idea I was even writing a children's book at the time... I imagined it might end up on an adult fantasy genre list, if anywhere. Then I read (and loved) Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, and decided that if his book qualified as a children's book then so did mine. My logic for approaching children's publishers was this: there were a lot more children's publishers than adult publishers willing to look at unsolicited fantasy, so I had more chance of getting my book past the slushpile... it got picked up by Barry Cunningham for Element Books, before he set up The Chicken House. There's history for you.