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