Sunday, 26 February 2017

FROM YOUR EDITOR Carnegie Snubs BAME Authors

Last week, the Carnegie Medal longlist was announced and not a single black, Asian or minority ethnic author made the cut. Words & Pictures Co-editor, Ellie Brough, discusses the response to this snub.  













‘The prize itself has never been won by a BAME author.’ 

When I read that sentence in the Guardian article discussing the outrage of children’s authors in response to this year’s Carnegie Medal longlist, I had to stop reading for a second. Never? Really? The award has been around for eighty years; surely we must at least be making progress? But no: there’s outrage because this year’s longlist does not feature a single black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) author. The typical response I would have to this is, ‘It is 2017, surely we’re beyond this?’ But in light of the political events of the last year, we seem to be going backwards and not forwards when it comes to equality.

I also couldn’t help but recognise my own privilege when I realised I wasn’t aware of this fact. I hadn’t thought of it, because I didn’t have to. So I’m thinking about it now as I’m currently rereading Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, a book that delivers the same emotional response from me as a grown woman as it did when I was 14, staying up to 4 am to get to the end, my pillow damp with tears, and causing me in some embarrassment when reading on the tube... How did this outstanding novel not win the Carnegie Medal when it was published? How is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights, winner of the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, not on this year’s Carnegie longlist?

Several BAME authors were included in this year’s nominations, including Malorie Blackman, Patrice Lawrence and Nicola Yoon but none of their titles made the shortlist. CILIP (the Chartered Institue of Library and Information Professionals) who are responsible for the Carnegie have defended the longlist, saying while it ‘acknowledges and respects the concerns expressed’, the longlisted books were ‘judged on merit and on an equal playing field’. The old argument, ‘maybe they just weren’t good enough,’ is being flung about on Twitter. But really? Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars wasn’t good enough? Patrice Lawrence’s OrangeBoy, shortlisted for several other prestigious awards including the Costa Book Prize, wasn’t good enough? Quality is not an issue. So why are these authors not getting the recognition they deserve?

Patrice Lawrence said to The Guardian: 

‘There is still a really big issue that if you are a white author who writes about black lives you get on [awards lists], but if you are a black author then you don’t. It really comes down to the powerful role of gatekeepers in prestigious literary prizes. If they are not looking for diverse authors, there is an issue.’

This issue of gatekeepers not seeking out diverse authors is unfortunately true of all of the publishing industry, not just literary prizes. Minority writers aren’t getting publishing deals, they aren’t getting shelf space in shops, they aren’t getting awarded and we don’t seem to be making any progress in addressing this issue. At the recent SCBWI PULSE event, We Need to Talk about Cultural Appropriation, discussion of this issue was the most heated part of the evening, with blame for the lack of representation being flung across the room at publishers, at retailers and at authors themselves. The main obstacle to making progress in this matter seems to be fear. Fear that including a minority title on a shortlist will result in less profit, accusations of tokenism or being labelled controversial, and these fears, unfortunately, are enough to make people say, ‘why invite the hassle?’ Changes are being made, roads are being forged, but it is always with baby steps. But isn’t enough, enough? Why can’t change happen now and why can’t we shout about it?

That is what children’s authors Alex Wheatle and Sunny Singh are asking for and they have called for a boycott of the award. Wheatle has already asked his publisher not to submit his upcoming novel, Straight Outta Crongton for next year’s award, but Singh adds that there needs to be a collective action to the boycott and white authors must join if we hope to see any change. As she says:

‘It’s all very well for already marginalised people to do a boycott, but if you’re already excluded, what difference will it make not to enter?’

So what do you think? Is a collective boycott of one of the UK’s most prestigious children’s awards likely to happen? If it does, will it make a difference? I would like to be optimistic and say that the wonderful community of children’s publishing could pull together to make change happen, but in a world where shouts for progress and change are being drowned out by fear and bigotry, my optimism may be misplaced. Maybe this issue will be the turning point? The naive child in me, who cries reading a children’s book on the way to work, hopes so. 

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Ellie Brough is Co-editor of Words & Pictures.

5 comments:

  1. I too am dismayed that the strongest BAME showing in years has not made it to the longlist. But personally I am horrified by the idea of a boycott because of all people in the industry, it has been the librarians of CILIP and elsewhere that have been most vocal on the subject of diversity, and most supportive of other voices. My own books tend to be discovered via the advocacy of librarians. The longlists have featured BAME authors in the past, including me, but not so much in the shortlists, and never in its 60 year history has there been a winner with a BAME background. But I think rather than exclude ourselves with boycotts, it is in all our interests, librarians and authors alike to come together and ask ourselves, why has this happened? What can we do about it? How can we change things? There is enough division in this world. Let this be an issue that brings us together rather than drives us apart.

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    Replies
    1. I agree. Librarians do an extraordinary job bringing books which might disappear in a market-driven publishing environment to the attention of readers.

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  2. I agree with Candy, and I'm not sure what a boycott would achieve, other than a lot of bad feeling and bewilderment. I suspect that all the discussion over this year's shortlist will already have focused minds and shone lights, and next year's will be different.

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  3. I would disagree with the word snub - eight eligibleBAME authors were nominated, you may as well say that 95 authors were snubbed as there is a long-list of 20 and a 115 total of eligible titles were nominated or even Publishing snubs BAME writers.

    Standing judges are unable to comment but I can imagine they are horrified and hurt by these accusations and the emotive language used

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  4. If there's one esteemed group of people we do not want to hurt, that'll be librarians who give so many unsalaried hours to support children's authors and illustrators.

    I would also disagree with snub. I am sure that the whiteness of the Carnegie list, this year and in past years, is absolutely NOT a conscious decision by the judges.

    BUT the library sector MUST do something radical about the diversity of its workforce and so CILIP about its membership and how it recruits/selects judges.

    I took this from The Bookseller (Nov 2015) so it's possible (but I fear, unlikely) that the situation has changed:

    "The workforce also has lower ethnic diversity than the national UK Labour Force Survey average statistic, with 96.7% of workers identifying as "white", almost 10% above the national workforce average. The sector has an ageing pool of workers, with the highest proportion (at 55.3%), in the 45-to-55 age band."

    Of course we all know what this awful government are doing to libraries which only makes diversity of culture, ethnicity, ability, faith, gender, socio economic status, age... even harder to achieve.

    So in this current world situation, where diversity is seriously threatened across the board, wouldn't it be great if one of the most prestigious prizes in #kidlit really took a stand.

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