Saturday, 14 September 2013

On YA


Thoughts, here, at length and not disposed onto the electronic page in a wholly coherent manner, about YA. These thoughts were not occasioned by this year's Hugo YA category pother, a kerfuffle that left me strangely unmoved, or rather which touched me with the same sad-eyed sense of mildly alienated indifference many ordinary people feel about the Hugos these days. Rather they were occasioned by the Man Booker Prize shortlist.

In fact, the proximate cause of this blogpost is my friend and colleague Robert Eaglestone, who himself blogged positively about the 2013 Man Booker shortlist. Now Bob is a very perceptive and knowledgeable critic, and especially so when it comes to contemporary fiction. He teaches it, reads omniverously and heartily, and writes excellently about it in many forums. He recently published the OUP Very Short Introduction to Contemporary Fiction, which you should buy; it covers a great deal of ground in a short space, and is one of those books where it's hard to see how it could be better done. Another thing about Bob is that he is not in the least a 'high culture' snob; quite the reverse. He really has no prejudices against any genre of writing, or any specific axe to grind. Anyhow, I read his blog and tweeted him: 'Nice Booker blog! Disagree with yr conclusion though: No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist (and longlist).' He replied robustly: 'as any fule no, sf has its OWN prize (and Crace SF-like). The Kill (crime) was on longlist. YA is YA. It's a good shortlist.' I said:
Historical fiction and womens' writing have their OWN prizes too! So?

YA and (to a lesser extent) SF and crime are where the novel is most exciting today. Booker looks provincial in ignoring that
And he:
Do you really believe that? I'm genuinely not convinced that YA is where it's at (lots of cool YA stuff, I agree).

Nor (sorry) SF either (good though) nor crime, from what I've seen. Literary fiction exciting though, I think: experimental, engaged with world and issues, doing interesting things content and formwise. V pleased by the Booker stuff I read this year
This blog, then, is by way of me trying to get my ducks in a row as to why I think YA is so important in that context.  I'll stress I’m not quarrelling with Bob's assessment of this year's Booker shortlist as good. I can’t engage with his assessment at all, in fact, since I've not read any of the titles on the shortlist (not yet, anyway). I did read the whole of last year’s longlist, and blogged reviews of all the titles, and I really wasn’t very impressed. But maybe this year is much better. I can't speak to that.

And the first thing to say is that I absolutely share the aesthetic predilections Bob hints at in his tweets: I too like books that are stylistically and formally innovative, challenging; I like novelty; I like works that push the envelope and expand my sense of what’s possible in the world. My tastes in this have been shaped by a particular environment—university as student and then as teacher—where the long shadow of Modernism is still umbrageously present. This results in a characteristically ‘Booker’ title: like Will Self’s Umbrella, last year; which I read with respectful admiration at how clever it was but without any larger sense that it was actually saying anything relevant or important. Beyond establishing that Self is a very clever fellow. One of the dangers with books like this is a kind of tacit complacent self-congratulation: to read Ulysses from cover to cover is in part to feel smug about oneself that one has fucking read Ulysses from cover to cover! It’s not Mills and Boon, after all. Of course maybe I'm only talking about myself when I say that ...

But—here’s the thing. Although this is what I personally like, and even what I do—I often write ‘clever’, which is to say ‘clever clever’, and which wins nobody’s soul—I am increasingly of the opinion that this is not the genius of the age. It used to be, for a bit, between about 1904 and 1922, but really: it no longer is. The genius of the age is otherwise.

Now, of course, art can be about anything at all; and I’m not trying to be prescriptive. But this is how I'm looking at it. The three big things, to which art can speak with relevance and importance, are the three things that dominate and shape contemporary culture itself; the things that make our parents and our and our children’s generations different from the preceding 400,000 years of human history. There are lots of things that are relevant to our lives now that were relevant to human existence in 1500 or 20,000 BC, of course; and art can be about those (of course!). But I'm talking specifically about three things that seem to me to set our present existence apart. Things future cultural historians will look back and say 'ah, these were the parameters of the Great Human Revolution of 1950-2020 ....'

One, the least of them I now think, is technology; which is one of the ways SF scores over regular lit—it is, broadly better, at articulating the suddenly accelerated pace of technological change. But as I get older I’m not so sure about this. New technology clearly has transformed life, especially social media and computing tech; but ‘tools’ and ‘machines’ have been around for thousands of years, and feature in world literature going back millennia. So let's put that on one side.

Two is globalisation, diversity. This is a genuinely big deal, I think. Humans have gone from spending their whole lives in one small geographical ambit with a small group of fellow villagers all of the same ethnos and religion (encountering cultural and racial otherness, if at all, only when male and young and in the army) to living in a global village and rubbing shoulders with people of all sorts of different races and creeds and cultures. This, I’d say, is a very good thing (diversity is strength) but the suddenness with which it has happened is something the historians of the Year 20,000 will look back on and peg as the great revolution of the age, bigger by far than the Industrial Revolution. We’re still in the very early stages of learning how to handle it, how to live with one another; and one of the great themes of late 20th and early 21st century fiction is precisely this—postcoloniality most prominently, the whole Brick Lane or Zadie Smith mode of novel-writing. This is good (novels can help us apprehend this change, to get used to it and learn how to live with it) and actually it’s one area where the Booker got it right. In the 80s I mean, Rushdie and post-Rushdie, the Booker did trace the shift away from ‘English’ small scale domestic fiction to postcolonial fiction. Now the shortlists routinely include examples of postcolonial writing (quite rightly: in fact I'm not sure I can think of a list since that 80s that hasn't), and the judges can rarely be faulted on their international spread. Now, speaking for myself I tend to think that art represents this ‘difference’ better via metaphor than via realism. Reading a novel about growing up a young girl in Zimbabwe is fine; but the alien, the monster, the symbolic other speak more eloquently to our actual experience of Being-in-the-world. This though, I can see, comes close to special pleading on my part, because I love sf so much. But, you know: re (let's say) racial diversity in the States—Star Trek had a bigger and more lasting impact there than James Baldwin. Still, I don’t want to get on a hobby horse.

Really what I want to think-aloud-about is childhood. This, you’ve guessed it, is my third big thing. Not childhood as a biological category, which of course has always been with us; but childhood as a new cultural idiom. By this I mean more than that the concept of the ‘teenager’ was invented in the 50s (although I think that’s broadly true). I mean the way that concept has mushroomed into this defining feature of a vast amount of cultural production. It's not just that there is now this new thing, a transition period from being 10-or-so to being ‘grown up’; and it's not just the way that this transition has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 48 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’). It's that this category now determines almost all contemporary cultural production.

This is our culture. I mean, ‘youth culture’ as a specific marketing category invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s—pop music, movies, TV, pulp fiction and comics, games—has become Culture. Pop music is clearly (it seems to me) one of the great art forms of the second half of the 20th-century, and it’s all about youth. Cinema becomes big-hitting only when it channels youth -- comic books adaptations, and so on.

This is what interests me about the category of YA. It’s not something I’m especially expert in; I read it a little, but not as much as I might. Nonetheless, it strikes me as evidently one of the modern world's major art forms. I suspect it gets overlooked because ‘we’ have made a fetish of adulthood, maturity, perhaps because so many of us (alright: because *I*…) secretly feel that we’re immature individuals souls walking around in grown-up bodies. I blogged about exactly this a while ago, actually. That blogpost isn't me at my most eloquent, now that I come to look at it. But I think it's groping towards something important.

The thing about YA is that there never has been and never will be a YA title shortlisted for the Booker. Even SF and Crime get occasional token nods (usually these are SF and Crime novels that play enough of the complexity, innovation, envelope pushing game). But YA never. Judges look down on it; which is to say, ‘we’ look down on it. And this is exactly the problem.

I think the Booker was ‘right’ about the direction fiction was shifting in the 80s—Rushdie et al, postcolonial and international literatures. But I think they’ve been ‘wrong’ for nearly two decades now.

What were the really big novels of the end-of-90s and the 00s? There have been a great many really good novels of course; and even some significant ones; but the ones that had the biggest social and cultural impact, that spoke to most people, that in a sense define the literary culture (in the way that Dickens and the Brontes, say, ‘define’ the 1840s) are surely: Rowling's Harry Potter; Philip Pullman; Meyer's Twilight books and maybe The Hunger Games trilogy. Of these I’d like to make the case for Pullman as the most significant, because he’s the best writer of the lot—but though I’d like to make the case, I can’t, really. Because Potter and Twilight were just orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not just that vast numbers of children read them. Vast numbers did; but so did vast numbers of adults. These books have had a much larger cultural impact than all the Man Booker shortlisted novels over the same period combined; and they have done so for reasons that speak to crucial concerns of the moment. They are more relevant than elegantly sophisticated novels by Deborah Levy or Jim Crace. They are, in their ways, more eloquent about what matters today.

Take the Twilight books. There are lots of ways in which these are very bad books, of course: clumsily written, derivative etc etc. BUT! They speak to and move millions, and I’m uncomfortable simply mocking that. It (the mockery) seems to me symptomatic of an attitude that defines ‘aesthetic merit’ solely in terms of stylistic or formal innovation. These novels are about something important (sex) and they write about it in an ahem penetrating way—sexual desire as a life-changing force that is at the same time something that doesn’t happen; sex as something simultaneously compelling and alarming, that draws you on and scares you away in equal measure. There are no Booker shortlisted novels that are about that. Indeed the post-Chatterley novel has taken it as more-or-less axiomatic that sex is something to be explicitly and lengthily portrayed in writing. The mainstream fiction attitude to sexual representation is ‘adult’ in the several senses of that word. I have no problem with that myself; I'm not advocating prudery, or Victorian sexual morality. I'm suggesting that that’s not actually how sex manifests in the lives of a great many people.

Or take Harry Potter, bigger even than Meyer. Formally conservative and stylistically flat novels, yes—but this series is one of the great representations of school in western culture. Perhaps the greatest. School dominates your life from 5-18; more if you go to college. When you’re 25 and reading fiction, school has been literally two thirds of your existence. It is our gateway to the adult world, our first experience of socialisation outside the family. It’s a massive thing. When do Booker shortlisted novels ever apprehend it? They don’t—the most you will get is a little background of character A’s schooltimes past, by way of fleshing out their characterisation as adults. Because it is as adults that we’re supposed to be interested in them. School is a massive, global phenomenon. Yet where are the other great novels of school life?

This (to digress for a moment) is one of the things starting to occur to me as I get ready to teach a Childrens' Literature course at my institution over the coming academic year. I'm talking about two broad ways of thinking about ‘the Child’. One is to concentrate on the child—to see him/her as precious, to be nurtured and so on—because they are going to grow into adults, and adults are what we really value. So you don’t abuse children, because that leads to messed-up adults. So, you educate children so that their adulthoods are equipped with the tools to succeed. The other way, though, is to see the child on his/her own terms, to value childishness in itself, not because it’s on the way somewhere else. It seems to me that a great deal of modern society takes the first view; and that, though it’s a rather lesser question, so does most fiction—we’re interested in a character’s childhood only insofar (buried secrets, sexual abuse, whatever) it feeds into the character’s adulthood. What Salinger called all that David Copperfield crap, portraying youth as the road to somewhere else—what's remarkable about Catcher in the Rye is that it’s one of the first novels to treat youth as youth, without looking forward to where youth might go. It's a pretty stuffy novel in lots of ways (I re-read it recently and there's lots that's quite creaky about it) but it does have that. Although the David Copperfield snipe is in another sense unfair: though Dickens’s novel does trace David’s life from childhood into adulthood, one of the things I love about Dickens is his ability to immerse his text in the experience of childhood itself, to see life as a child actually sees it, not as a proto-adult does. And of course people often denigrate him—compared say, to ‘properly adult’ writers like Eliot or Thackeray—as somehow an immature figure, a child who never quite grew up. Bollocks to that. Feature not bug, people! Feature; not bug.

That, though, is not my main point. My main point has to do with broader cultural trends. Booker likes complex, challenging art: either big and complex, or else sometimes (as with the Tóibín) compressed, lapidary, allusive and elusive. It never, ever rewards primitivist art. But ‘primtivist’ art has been the main current of the second half of the 20th-century. Pop is primitivist compared to contemporary classical or jazz, and that’s its whole point—because primitivism can capture energies and aspects of existence the hippopotamus-trying-to-pick-up-a-pea Complex Art simply cannot.

So this, in a nutshell, is my problem with the Booker prize. Imagine a music prize that has, through the 70s and 80s and up to the present, shortlisted only abstruse jazz, contemporary classical and Gentle-Giant-style prog rock concept albums. I love my prog rock, and partly I do so because it ticks all those aesthetic boxes I mention above—it is complex and challenging and intricate music (and I am a preening middle-class pretentious twat). But I wouldn't want to suggest that prog has had anything like the cultural impact or importance that pop, punk or rap have had. That would be silly. So how would you tell the judges picking those shortlists about the Ramones, the Pistols and the Clash? How would you persuade them that they’re missing out not just good music but actually the music that really matters?

29 comments:

  1. I remain sceptical. If Rowling's depiction of school-life - and it is a woefully old-fashioned form of school-life - is one of the factors why she was so successful... then why didn't all those popular schoolboy/girl series of the mid-twentieth century enjoy the same level of success?

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  2. Why do you think Rowling was so successful, then?

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  3. Because this is all a big virtual reality simulation, she's the paying customer, and we're just part of the setting...

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  4. I don't think I agree with your assumptions.

    If I may, and please forgive me, can I summarise your argument? It seems to me you make two distinct points:

    a) YA is "where it's at", in the sense that it is most representative of the culture of the age, and therefore YA should be recognised by the Bookers (and presumably other awards).

    b) YA addresses themes that are important in modern life to an extent, and in ways, that other literature often fails to do, and therefore the Booker should recognise it.

    Have I hopelessly misrepresented you?

    I have three problems.

    Firstly, looking at b) - it may or may not be true that YA is addressing themes that other literature isn't addressing (to be honest I don't read either enough YA or enough other contemporary fiction to say), and if that's true then that's laudable. But that's not enough reason to give out Booker Prizes. The remit of the Booker Prize is to recognise the best novel published that year in the UK by an Irish or Commonwealth author. Addressing unusual and important themes certainly helps a book be good, but it is not sufficient - anyone can write a novel about certain themes, but writing a good novel, let alone writing the best novel of the year, is a very different thing. If you're right that YA addresses themes that are missing from the rest of fiction, that would certainly be a reason why authors should look at what YA is doing and try to incorporate some of those things, or just switch to YA altogether. But it's certainly not a reason why YA books should win awards, or even be nominated for them - not unless they may actually be the best book of the year. Execution must matter as much, if not more, than idea - otherwise, I know a bunch of unpublished (in some cases un-written) authors with great ideas and themes that deserve some big awards...

    Secondly, and in the same way, it may be true that YA is the where the spirit of the age displays itself most prominently, but that too is not a reason to give a book an award. The Booker Rules say 'the best novel in the opinion of the judges', not 'the novel that is most representative of the spirit of the age'. There already IS an award for being hip and with it and in tune with the zeitgeist and being representative of the spirit of the age: it's called great big wads of money. JK Rowling clearly got something right, and her reward for that is that she's now exceedingly rich - I don't see why 'we' should also give her the literary awards as well. If anything, quite the contrary - the Majority, and its favoured writers, have the satisfaction of being the Majority, and the practical advantages that flow from that, and, if anyone, it's the minority, niche-interest writers who most deserve the moral encouragement and financial support of these awards. Indeed, the Booker itself was explicitly intended to help improve the sales of authors who deserved more attention than they were getting - calling for it to recognise a particular genre because it's popular and succesful is almost perverse! I hear about popular and succesful authors every day, I LIKE hearing some recommendations for more literary authors once a year!

    Third: wait, I'm going to hit the word limit, aren't I? Back in a sec...

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  5. Are you saying then that the cultural products that truly matter are the ones that are most popular? I've been trying to figure out how your position could be other than that, for instance that popularity alone shouldn't cause us to look down our noses at something (which I agree with), but I keep falling back to reading this as valorizing popularity over everything else. Star Trek over James Baldwin? Really? Egads, dude.

    How this all plays out with awards depends on how much you care about the awards, and I can't say I stay awake at night worrying about the Booker. But still, to take your music example, if popularity were everything, then the music prize of 1977 shouldn't go to either the Pistols or abstruse jazz, it should go to Wings. Or maybe the competition should just be between groups that made it to #1 on the charts, which would then allow the Sex Pistols to be in competition with Wings (which would, indeed, be a lot of fun). Or maybe everything should be eligible. A noble sentiment! But the problem for awards is focus. Look at the big music awards in the U.S. -- should the Booker be like, say, the Grammys, and have 7,324 categories? (I've inflated the number a bit, but it's not too far off...) Or be more like the MTV Video Music Awards? Yes, of course -- that's what the Booker needs: more Miley Cyrus! She's popular and zeitgeisty!

    Are awards, in your view, just rough drafts and/or crib sheets for the cultural historians of the future?

    Personally, I want more awards for things that have a harder time getting attention than things that are already bathed in attention. I'd rather they intervene in the culture than reflect it.

    By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison's Empty Space to make it to the list -- and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it's complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless "primitivist" is stripped of much meaning.

    The Booker is a big spotlight, and shining it on things that are already easy to see seems to me a waste. But of course, as with anything, whether something can be seen depends on where you're looking from, and who's doing the looking. Still, I'm really not shedding any tears that Harry Potter, the Twilight series, etc. didn't make the longlist. They're doing just fine on their own.

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  6. OK, third: to what extent IS it really true that YA is the spirit of the age? This one has two parts.

    First (3a), the sales evidence. What were the big novels of the '90s and '00s? I really don't think you can honestly count Pullman's books and not count, for instance, Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, or Fifty Shades of Grey! When I see billboards advertising books, when I hear most people talking about books, they're not advertising YA or talking about YA, they're all James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham and Ian Rankin and Martina Cole, and the dozens of their bloody-paged emulators. If you want the fascination of the modern world, it's not youth, it's psychopathy (the psychopaths who kill and the borderline-psychopaths who catch them). Likewise on TV, whether it's NCIS and CSI for the masses or Breaking Bad and Hannibal for the critics.

    But in any case, headline authors can be misleading - it's the depth of the market that matters. Even Rowling at her height was only something like 7% of the UK fiction market. The presence of a few big names does not always adequately represent the breadth of a sector. In particular, YA is a genre where a large proportion of books are bought on behalf of the reader, rather than by the reader themselves, and even when the reader does buy the book they're likely to be less informed buyers. These factors both encourage markets where sales are concentrated in a small number of household names - so if YA sold the same number of books as SF, you'd probably expect the biggest sellers to be in YA, with a smaller number of authors monopolising the market through name recognition (this of course happens in all genres, but in some more than others).

    So is YA where it's at, commercially? Certainly it's a part of the picture, but I don't think there's enough evidence to say that it's THE place to be.


    And secondly, (3b), there's the cultural context. Let's not get the post-war Golden Age get confused with the current era. In the Golden Age, there were big population booms in the developed world, teenagerhood came to be defined, and youth-driven pop culture came to the fore in an unprecedented way. That was the age of youth. Now? Now most countries face very low or declining rates of natural growth. Life expectancies are getting longer, far faster than health expectancies, which themselves are outstripping working lifespans. It used to be that the young were the big growth sector - now it's the old. The old are becoming a larger and larger share of the population, they're becoming more politically influential, and they're rapidly colonising the new spaces opened up by contemporary communications technology. We may think of the internet as a thing for the youth, but in reality the two biggest demographics on the internet are pensioners and middle-aged women [citation needed, I know - maybe they're not actually #1 and #2, but the numbers are surprising, and together they certainly outnumber the youth]. The media remains obsessed with youth, to be sure - it still thinks we're living in the seventies. But we aren't. If you really want to capture the zeitgeist, write about old people!

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  7. The YA books you mention undoubtedly matter in terms of cultural trends and influence - perhaps even worryingly so - but to claim that they are 'more eloquent about what matters today' is another argument altogether. I seem to have a different view of what constitutes eloquence (and depth and nuance and any number of other challenges). The Twilight series?? I echo Matthew: egads!

    We don't need literary awards to recognise popularity. Sales have already done it for us.

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  8. Fascinating comments, guys; thanks.

    vacuouswastrel: 'The remit of the Booker Prize is to recognise the best novel published that year in the UK by an Irish or Commonwealth author. ... Execution must matter as much, if not more, than idea' Agreed. My point is slightly different (indeed, without wanting to sound harumphy, I'm not sure you've quite take the larger point of my post, more broadly). What gets rewarded under the rubric of 'execution' is a fairly narrow range of purely technical criteria: prose style; formal experimentation; complexity. I'm arguing that the main drift of late 20th-C Art (which is, broadly, 'primitivist' -- see: Pop, cinema, video games) gets ignored by those criteria. There are other ways in which art can be excellent than those quasi-Modernist notions.

    You quite rightly say 'The Booker Rules say: the best novel in the opinion of the judges' In many ways my personal taste coincides with that of the judges. But my tastes are eccentric, in the strict sense when you take a larger view.

    I really don't think you can honestly count Pullman's books and not count, for instance, Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, or Fifty Shades of Grey! When I see billboards advertising books, when I hear most people talking about books, they're not advertising YA or talking about YA, they're all James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham and Ian Rankin and Martina Cole, and the dozens of their bloody-paged emulators.' I agree (as I say in the post) that Pullman isn't in the same stratospheric place as Rowling and Meyer. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey (which, of course, started out as Twilight fanfic, and which basically reproduces Twilight with a little more explicit sex) seems to me rather to reinforce my point than contradict it. Dan Brown hit it very big with one novel; but doesn't seem to me to have left his mark on the noughties in the way Rowling (say) did. And this is the point: lots of writers sell huge numbers of books; and sometimes those books are pretty poor (James Patterson; John Grisham and Martina Cole all seem to me to be like this). But the case with Rowling and Meyer is that they did more than just sell lots and lots of books. They really did capture a noughties zeitgeist.

    I agree there are more and more old people today, as a proportion of the general population. But many of those old people wear jeans and listen to rock music and surf the net. Youth culture got all the way along.

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  9. Matthew: Are you saying then that the cultural products that truly matter are the ones that are most popular? No I’m not saying that. Lots of very popular things turn out to have no larger cultural significance of staying power. But I am saying that, when we look back over the 90s and 00s, Rowling and Meyer were more than just popular.

    Star Trek over James Baldwin? Really? Egads, dude. Egad wherefore? Whence egad? Baldwin was a better writer than Trek scriptwriters, no question; but Trek surely had a larger cultural impact on the way race relations functioned in the States post 60s. And there were things Trek, as a text, did really really well. It was often very eloquent with imaginative metaphor; and it achieved something quite notable in terms of characterisation with its Kirk/Spock/Bones triad,
    .
    How this all plays out with awards depends on how much you care about the awards, and I can't say I stay awake at night worrying about the Booker. Quite right. There are better things to lie awake at night worrying about. The 5-foot long snap-jawed stag-louse that lives under your bed, for instance.
    But still, to take your music example, if popularity were everything, then the music prize of 1977 shouldn't go to either the Pistols or abstruse jazz, it should go to Wings. I don’t think that’s what I’m arguing (though I do love Wings). There’s popularity, and there’s longer term significance. Musical experts early in the century were sure that Stravinsky was going to be the most important influence on the course of 20th-century music. He wasn’t; Robert Johnson (let’s say) was. The experts weren’t even aware of the existence of Johnson, but if we went back in time and pointed them at him, they would surely say: ‘but his music is so crude and simplistic, the playing so clumsy! He lacks the complex resonances of great art!’ Nevertheless, the inheritors of Robert Johnson command the field; because his mode of art captures something more complex modes cannot. We have enough hindsight on 1977 to see that punk was important in ways not true of the various #1 hit records.
    A noble sentiment! But the problem for awards is focus. … Are awards, in your view, just rough drafts and/or crib sheets for the cultural historians of the future? This is a really good question. In my experience, most awards are curated in good faith. Nonetheless, there is some point in holding the culture of Cultural Prasise to the account of hindsight. As I say in the post: it seems to me that the Booker was mostly off the mark in the 1970s—lots of books won that have vanished today; but they were mostly on the mark in the 80s and early 90s. The prize tracked the big thing of fiction at that time, which was the way it opened up to postcolonial, international and multicultural experiences. But by the same token, I think the Booker disappeared up an ivory tower in the noughties, and ignored the significant novels.

    Personally, I want more awards for things that have a harder time getting attention than things that are already bathed in attention. So, to stick with the Booker: Salman Rushdie (who had a lot of attention, much of it malign, in the 80s) did not deserve the prize? It should have gone to a mute inglorious unsung Milton toiling in obscurity?

    By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison's Empty Space to make it to the list -- and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it's complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless "primitivist" is stripped of much meaning. Harrison is by no means a primitivist writer: he is a write I admire almost without limit, but an immensely complex, ironic, complicated artist.

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    1. Ahh, excellent! Thank you for the clarifications, and for patience with my questions. I've honestly been thinking about your point about the Booker in the '80s and '90s a lot today, and I think you're right, and yet I still don't know what to make of it, partly because of ignorance -- I just don't know enough about how the Booker is administered and how public perception of it has changed over the years (which can affect how it's administered). Or even how my own age and education play into it: the '80s and '90s were when I got excited about "serious litritcher", and the canonical force of the big prizes occasionally guided my reading and sense of what was/wasn't important. I'm not sure I know how to separate that from my current sense that the recent years of the Booker are, indeed, generally forgettable. So much has changed in the landscape of publishing, marketing, awarding, academicizing, etc. that I feel myself smashing my head against the limits of my literary-historical knowledge.

      As for Star Trek and James Baldwin, I will just say that I am glad culture is not a zero sum game in which only one thing can win. My egads was 1.) a result of my deep fanboy love of Baldwin, and 2.) that it's an impossible and, well, perhaps even distasteful comparison. The ways (and whys) in which Baldwin as man, Baldwin as writer, Star Trek as TV series, and Star Trek as cult phenomenon affected culture were vastly different, via different means and toward generally different ends, with different ripples into the present and, I hope, future. I just don't think it's a productive comparison. But, again, Baldwin fanboy speaking.

      All right, now I must go shoo away that stag-louse from under the bed...

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  10. I don't regard prose style as a mere matter of execution, which could then be rightly categorised as purely technical and possibly narrow in range. Style is intimately linked to a writer's way of coming to the world.

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  11. Lee: 'The YA books you mention undoubtedly matter in terms of cultural trends and influence - perhaps even worryingly so - but to claim that they are 'more eloquent about what matters today' is another argument altogether. I seem to have a different view of what constitutes eloquence (and depth and nuance and any number of other challenges). The Twilight series?? I echo Matthew: egads! We don't need literary awards to recognise popularity. Sales have already done it for us.'

    Well, to repeat myself: I think Twilight is more than just 'popular'. There are lots of immensely popular examples of popular cultural production that seem to me worthless. Nor, actually, do I personally like the Twilight books very much. But they strike me as am extremely significant part of the noughties culturally landscape. Why is that, do you think? (I don't mean, why do you think I think that; I mean, what was it about these not-very-well-written, derivative books that connected them so profoundly with so many millions of people? Saying 'all those people were fucking idiots' seems to me the least interesting of possible explanations)

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  12. Excuse typos, guys: typing at haste, with small children hanging off my arms urging me to come play Donkey Kong Country.

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  13. I do agree that it's an important (sociological?) question: 'What was it about these not-very-well-written, derivative books that connected them so profoundly with so many millions of people?' (Though I'm probably quicker than you to regard millions of people as fucking idiots ...) But should cultural significance in itself be one of the criteria for an award like the Booker? Why? (I also suspect that it's not all that easy to distinguish between significance and fads until some time afterwards. )

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  14. "not all that easy to distinguish between significance and fads until some time afterwards" Very true.

    To repeat myself (again): at the heart of this post is the observation-cum-prophesy -- no YA title has ever been shortlisted for the Man Booker, nor ever will be. Why do 'we' look down on this mode of art to the extent we, evidently, do?

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  15. How much of this is just marketing-category snobbery, though? What about Empire of the Sun or Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha?

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  16. Maybe you need to be much more specific about what you mean by cultural significance. Also, is every fad unique (relatively, I suppose) or a variation on a single cultural paradigm?

    I probably don't disagree about your prediction regarding YA titles/Man Booker - or maybe not. Predictions are notoriously inaccurate. And it depends a good deal on how we define YA: quite a few novels sit uneasily in such categories.

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  17. Again, I don't see what the Bookers have to do with any of this. You want to argue that Twilight is more culturally significant than, say, the latest Toibin novel? OK. But the Bookers are meant to recognise the 'best' novel, not the most 'significant'. So their frequent failure to recognise the most 'significant' novels is hardly a failure at all - they're not trying to pick the most significant novel, so it's not a failure when they don't.

    You want to argue that the definitions of 'good' should be broadened? OK. But there's nothing in that idea that means they should necessarily be broadened to include Twilight just because it's popular, or even because it's allegedly 'significant'.

    Now, having said that: I don't see why Twilight is all that significant anyway. I don't see what it's changed in the world, other than encouraging some percentage of romance novels to have vampires in them, which is hardly earth-shattering. [Even Harry Potter doesn't seem to have done all that much to reading habits outside of Harry Potter books, let alone to real life, though I guess it's too soon to tell the full effects]. I think you may be getting lulled into the seductive glamour of popularity - popular books always look more important in their day. But actually, if you're going to talk about 'cultural historians', it's usually the mega-successes like Twilight that end up utterly forgotten. We talk about Dickens today, and Hardy - not about Correlli. We talk about Conrad and Faulkner - not about Winston Churchill (not that one, the other one - the one who was so famous-for-all-history that 'our' one, the Nobel-winning writer and war prime minister, had to be known as "Winston S Churchill" so that people wouldn't confuse him with the famous one - the one who dominated the bestseller charts for a decade!).


    [I think David is also correct: the main reason no YA book will win the Booker is that any book that might win the Booker won't be marketed as 'YA'!]

    As for why Twilight (and the Da Vinci Code, and so on) has been so succesful: mostly pure luck, I think. We're in an era where it's possible for success to snowball to an unprecedented extent. Massive promotion and a highly self-referential media (in which 'the media is talking about X' is itself considered a worthy story for the media to cover, and so on) can produce massive break-out successes. Which particular book happens to be that success... I suspect that's mostly a matter of chance (after a certain low threshold of readability is crossed, of course). [Although as a generalisation the big successes tend to be ones where a niche genre book escapes into the wild, and can thus appear new and exciting to the general public].

    ((I don't accept, by the way, that wearing jeans and listening to rock music qualifies as 'youth culture'. It may have begun as youth culture, but that's not what it is now! Bobby Darin was youth culture once, but that doesn't mean that Bobby Darin fans have anything to do with, or are represented by, contemporary YA novels))

    (((((oh, and I think that Schoenberg is the made who had the biggest impact of 20th century music - first, by breaking up what had come before, and then by setting the path that the remnants of traditional music followed to their doom. I think the 20th century popular song tradition has to be seen not as something that succeeded for internal reasons, but as the reaction to what had come before - in exactly the same way that ars subtilior in the 14th century, late renaissance polyphony (eg gesualdo) in the 16th century and high baroque in the 18th century were all replaced by dramatically more 'primitive' and understandable musical styles once they had become too obscure for the general listener to appreciate. )))))

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  18. Vacuouswastrel has made some very good points, and I suspect that the element of luck relates to what I mean by a single cultural paradigm: we seem to need our trends and enthusiasms, but they may be essentially interchangeable. Once tulips were a bubble, recently it's been 50 Shades of Grey. Which brings me to my next point (or perhaps a corollary): is the Harry Potter/Twilight/50 Shades phenomenon even a literary or at least a reading-related one? Especially when it comes to Harry Potter, I don't believe it has all that much to do with the books, the number of them sold notwithstanding.

    Regarding YA lit, one of the most interesting questions is why, where, and how our understanding of adolescence changed. And I'm not sure that YA novels 'treat youth as youth, without looking forward to where youth might go' - or at least not as straightforwardly as you suggest, Adam. One of the main characteristics of these novels is that they encompass the search for agency, which implies reaching for independence and beyond, i.e. adulthood. In a broad sense, we are all teens: we are all still becoming.

    Wearing jeans as a marker of youth culture? Maybe once. Maybe for some. But my twentysomethings don't wear jeans if they can help it -- well, 4 out of 5 of them don't. They have an entirely different sense of style. As do my own contemporaries.

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  19. Vacuouswastrel, Lee. I have the feeling I'm not going to persuade you of my point of view, which I daresay reflects poorly on my powers of persuasion. I take of your main points to be:

    1. the cultural dominance of the Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena in the late 90s and noughties (together with their various, prodigiously successful spinoffs, like 50 Shades) is entirely void of any larger significance; it was just a matter of 'luck', purely random shuffling of the pop-cultural cards.

    2. Schoenberg is the truly cultural significant music of the twentieth-century; pop music was a mere reflux against 'what had come before'.

    3. The fact that fifty years ago old people tended to wear suits & ties and now tend to wear jeans and sweatshirts, and listen to rock music, and surf the internet -- this fact has nothing to do with the expansion of 'youth culture' into every crevice of society. It has, rather, something to do with Bobby Darin, although I may have missed exactly what. The broader point here I take to be: 'youth' and the pressure to be young is not the commodified value that greases the wheels of capitalism, in the sense I am arguing it is in this post.

    Fair enough. I must say, I disagree quite strongly with all three of these positions. But we can agree to disagree, let a thousand flowers bloom and so on.

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  20. I'm happy for us to disagree - far more fruitful than bland agreement. And I do appreciate that you're deliberately exaggerating what I've suggested - and mocking it, if in a friendly sort of way. We're certainly not far apart when it comes to the wheels of capitalism. But I'm of another generation and live in another country, and so I see the expansion of youth culture as less pervasive than you do. Of course it's happened; it's just not as dominant as you suggest, and there are significant counterforces. When I see Angela Merkel wearing jeans & a T-shirt to address the nation, I'll be convinced that I'm wrong.

    Aee you trying to make the point that YA novels need to be included for Man Booker consideration simply because they deal with youth and youth has become central to our culture? If so, then it would be just as logical -- well, I suppose I mean illogical -- to argue that novels which address eating have to be included because obesity has become such a culturally significant phenomenon.

    I'm too ignorant about music even to hazard a comment.

    But no, I'm not convinced that Harry Potter and Twilight have had a lasting and profound influence on the direction of our culture(s). Which does not mean that they have no influence. Or that their popularity is not something of real and sustained interest to cultural historians and sociologists and psychologists and even to creaky grannies cum translators like myself.

    All of which seems to me to be irrelevant in terms of the criteria for a single, dedicated literary award. But would I like to see a topnotch YA novel be nominated? Of course I would! I've even been guilty of writing the damned things - YA novels, I mean, not award-worthy ones.

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  21. Gracefully done, Lee.

    Going off at a slight tangent, but the case of Merkel interests me. I wonder if it has something to do with being a woman, in a culture that is in many ways still socially conservative about a woman holding power? Tony Blair considered it a positive electoral advantage to pose about in suits but no tie and to play an electric guitar. Obama tootles on his saxophone. This is not how World Leaders used to deport themselves, decades ago.

    To other readers: modesty has clearly prevented Lee from self-publicity. But interested parties will find samples of her writing here -- http://lleelowe.com

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    1. Like Matthew, I too have been thinking a lot about your views - hopefully not inflexibly! Humans have probably always yearned for a lost youth (and health) - witness the legendary fountain of youth - but it's obviously only in recent times that some of us have had the better health, longer lifespan, and leisure time to incorporate it (even if only symbolically) in our lives. And yes, this has meant that capitalism both exploits this desire and feeds it.

      (You've embarrassed me by linking to my website, but thanks. I really don't much fancy self-promotion.)

      Merkel - I'll have to save that for another time! (I've often thought I ought to write something about being an American Jew married to a German theologian and living in Germany...)

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  22. A Tale for the Time Being is science fiction. It isn't "slightly sf-nal" it's a full blown sf novel.


    (And if you mean, must be published by an sf house, that would rather discriminate against women in the UK wouldn't it?)

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  23. Farah: thanks. I have now bought a copy of A Tale for the Time Being, and will read it as soon as I've finished The Lumineers.

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  24. One more thing to note -- Nina Allen disagrees with this post rather brilliantly here: http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/?p=1242

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  25. I wanted to comment, but it got out of hand, so it turned into a blog post... http://www.mmcgrath.co.uk/?p=2494

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  26. Another tangent, and only briefly: if we are looking for (and at) major art forms, I think games such as GTA should not be overlooked. Do you know if any critics connect the dots? Pointers welcome!

    And thanks especially for linking to Nina Allan's post, which I'd never have seen otherwise.

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  27. I think you can say that the cultural impact of Harry Potter and Twilight demonstrate that YA is an important literary genre that deserves to be considered when we talk about what are the best books written this year without meaning that J.K. Rowling herself deserves a Booker prize. Surely there are better YA novels than Harry Potter.

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