Monday 20 February 2017

Thoughts on the Carnegie Longlist 2017

I wanted to share my thoughts on the recently announced Carnegie longlist - and particularly the lack of any BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers on it, and felt Twitter wasn't the best way to do it due to character limits, so have spent part of the weekend writing a blog post. 

I should note for people who don't know me that I'm white, so I'm aware I'm writing outside of my lane here. I did consider offering space on my blog for a BAME writer to make a post on this subject, but I feel they're already spending a lot of time trying to educate people when they should be able to spend their time writing their books. White people in and around publishing can't just step back and let PoC do the work to fix the problem.  

(Having said that, if this platform would be useful to you and you're a BAME person with something you want to say about the topic, tweet or DM me @yayeahyeah and we'll sort something out.)

I am trying to give a quick overview of the problem here. I would massively recommend reading Kat Cho's post here and those she links to at the end, for more detailed views.

Ok, firstly I think it's important to point out that the longlist is being criticised not in isolation, but as yet another sign that BAME writers are undervalued. It's been pointed out that there are only around 8 UKYA novels coming out from people of colour in 2017; Lee & Low's survey has shown the lack of diversity in the US publishing world as well, and a scan of past Carnegie shortlists will show that the issues are not new to the prize in 2017.

I would also say that this is a topic that people tend to react to very impulsively a lot of the time - I know I've been guilty of that in the past, when I was less aware of the issues. 

Criticism of societal racism ISN'T saying that individuals are horrible people who hate those of different races; the way people immediately get defensive about this makes me worry that some of them don't understand the difference. 

I know one of the Carnegie/Greenaway judges and she's a lovely person who works really hard for kids; I am sure the same is true of all of the rest of them. Similarly I think the vast majority of people in YA/MG publishing are wonderful people who want what's best for children and teens.

So those of us who are worried by an all-white longlist aren't saying "The people involved here are awful for coming up with this list", we're saying "This is yet another example of structural racism benefitting white people."

I know that the defence of the list from people at CILIP and past judges has boiled down mainly to "it's a level playing field" and that they're judging by objective criteria. 

In my opinion, the level playing field argument struggles because firstly it's so difficult for BAME authors to get published - as mentioned above, there are around 8 UKYA books by BAME authors being published this year. Also consider Malorie Blackman's comment about a friend of hers having been told there was no space for her book at a publisher because "we already have a book by Malorie Blackman." (This was a number of years ago; hopefully progress has been made since then but statistics suggest that progress has been slow.) 

Tied into this argument is the idea of the criteria being completely objective.

For me, looking at the above criteria in particular - especially points 1, 3 and 4 - it's incredibly hard to judge these things objectively. 

The current judging panel, as far as I can tell, is 11 white women and 1 Asian man. (My sincere apologies if I've got this wrong.) 

Talking to my friend Wei Ming Kam about this - I have real issues with the 'convincing' criteria, but was finding it hard to express them - she said "It's logical that teens speak differently to each other when alone than when around adults, even more so when differences of race/class/sexuality etc come into play. We can assume that the authors have done the work to ensure that dialogue etc is as similar to teens as possible or desired." I would definitely agree with her here.

Of course these aren't the only criteria that are subjective - I think many of them are, to a point. I feel personally that The Serpent King, which was longlisted, wasn't really well-constructed, certainly not compared to Orangeboy, Chasing The Stars or Where Monsters Lie (all of which are nominated and eligible.) For me, TSK had an incredibly powerful last third or so, but the first two thirds could have been cut by 100 pages and made it a much better read overall. Having said that, I know several people who considered TSK to be one of the best novels of last year and they would definitely say it WAS well-constructed - I'm certainly not claiming that I'm right and they're wrong, just that the criteria is less objective than people are suggesting.

One of the other claims I'm seeing is that the ethnicities of authors on the list doesn't matter, as there is a wide range of representation of characters and subjects. I would ask people using this argument to think about how good the representation is in books written by authors tackling characters outside of their own race. While I believe some people do this really well - Kate Elliott's Court of Fives has attracted lots of praise from people of colour for the way she portrays her biracial heroine - it can also be a minefield. In particular, Native scholar Debbie Reese's thoughts on Beck are required reading, I would say. Again, I feel it is potentially difficult for white people to fairly judge how good representation of other races is; I would hope the judges are taking into consideration reviews by people of those races.

The other big issue I have with comments about the ethnicity of authors not mattering - especially when people making these comments are school librarians - is that given how few books by BAME authors are published, it seems it would be easy to end up with all or nearly all white authors if you're not paying attention to author ethnicity. As well as the issues with representation, this also reinforces BAME children thinking they can't be authors themselves - if they never see people of their race writing a book, why would they assume it's a possible career path for them? 

So, where do we go from here? Alan Gibbons has called for an open debate discussion, which is a good idea, but it does feel like people have been talking about this for a long time with little actual progress being made. 

That's not to say things aren't getting any better - I'm thrilled by a few recent developments in publishing, notably Stripes announcing A Change Is Gonna Come, an anthology for BAME writers which features some amazing authors and is seeking new voices as well, and Walker bringing Angie Thomas's magnificent The Hate U Give to the UK.

Looking at this year's Carnegie, the longlist is done now, and isn't going to be changed, obviously. I'm excited that at least one librarian is talking about shadowing the list but also reading the nominated books by BAME authors with her reading group as well. I would love to see more librarians doing this, or instead shadowing the Branford Boase longlist, which contains more diversity amongst its authors.

As for future years? I really hope there's a more diverse judging panel, to be honest. I'm not sure how likely that is, but I think that it may lead to a more diverse and well-rounded choice of books. I also hope that the judges in future years are aware of the ongoing conversation, look to see how people represented in the books - especially those books written by authors of different races - feel about them, and take this into consideration when discussing the literary merit.

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