So: the shortlist for this year's prestigious Carnegie Medal for best children's novel has been announced:
• One by Sarah CrossanThe Carnegie is always an interesting prize, and doubly so if one happens to be teaching a course on children's literature (as I have been doing this term). There are at least two ways in which it merits discussion: one, since the judges just have a really good record of choosing strong, thought-provoking, worthwhile books; and two since many school English teachers, mandated by the national curriculum to teach contemporary fiction, take their lead from the prize, bulk-order the winning title for their school libraries to teach it. That gives this medal a special place in the broader culture of 'young people reading'.
• The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
• There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake
• The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
• Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders
• The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
• Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
• Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine
I don't know who is going to win the 2016 title; though it would be a brave person who bet against Frances Hardinge's marvellous Lie Tree. I'm more interested in meditating a little on whether there is an identifiable trend in recent Carnegie winners—the last six titles, say, to take us back to the beginning of this decade. (Going by this list, 2016's trend seems to be 'lies': for not only do we have Hardinge's The Lie Tree, Nick Lake's There Will Be Lies and Robin Talley's gnarly, affecting love story Lies We Tell Ourselves, there are also such titles as The Rest of Us Just Lie Here and Lie Colour One. But putting that to one side for a moment.)
In what follows I appreciate I'm running the risk of generalising and therefore flattening the specificity of what is a properly diverse set of novels. But I do wonder if a general taste for dystopia has now assumed a culturally dominant force. The Hunger Games is one of the best-selling series of the century so far; Harry Potter takes its charming old-school, er, school into pretty dystopian territory when Voldemort comes back and establishes a fascist dictatorship. Other series like Noughts and Crosses, Divergent, and The Maze Runner spin variations on the same dystopic vision. Game of Thrones, popular among teens and adults both, is a dystopian Fantasy of rare grimness and horribleness. Once upon a time James Bond (the movies, I mean: Fleming's novels were always dour and self-hating) was camp and colourful and carefree escapism; now it is scowling, dark and testicle-crushing. Superman used to be bright colours and antic adventure; Batman's bashing-up bad guys would be embroidered with on-screen POW! and SMASH! pop-ups. Now we're staring down the barrel of Batman Versus Superman, which so far as I can see will be two grown men joylessly punching one another in the rain for two hours.
I don't want to overstate things. There's still a lot of joy in a lot of popular culture, of course. But it does seem to me as if the really popular culture-texts, the ones with the most extensive global cultural penetration, all skew dystopic. And whilst the Carnegie titles haven't enjoyed quite the sheer scale of success of Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight, they are interesting and significant texts nonetheless.
So is there a trend? The prize has been running since 1936, but I'm going to concentrate on the 21st century, and our decade in particular. The 2001 winner was this installment of Pratchett's Discworld sequence; and as charming and funny and clever as any of them.
Hopping forward to 2008: Reeve's Arthurian novel won, a book that creates a notionally 'realistic' 6th-century in order to think about the power and endurance of legends and the legendary:
Then to 2009, when Gaiman's Graveyard Book won. Now I don't want to sound like I'm sniping at Gaiman's success (and this novel has been very successful indeed); and there's undeniably a lot to like about this novel, a retelling of Kipling's Jungle Book in a postmortem world of graves, ghouls, ghosts and vampires. I suppose we could say it's 'about' death, but although it is inventive and enjoyable I wonder if it doesn't, ultimately, pull its punches on that existentially desolating subject. I wouldn't call it cutesy. I might call it cute, but cute is OK. I do think it's a little, well, safe.
We might say: that's only right, since it's a children's novel. But to say so would be to ignore the turn the Carnegie took in the 20-teens: and I think that the start of this decade does mark a turn. First off, the final volume of Patrick Ness's excellent Chaos Walking trilogy (the first two installments of which had been shortlisted and longlisted respectively) won the prize in 2010.
There's a great deal to say about this trilogy, much more than I can manage here. It starts as the story of an all-male settlement on a distant planet, men and boys who have somehow been altered so that they cannot help but hear the cacophonic thoughts of others. Ness's cleverly-rendered 'Noise' (some playful typography that never becomes egregious) uses telepathy to capture the claustrophobic oppressiveness of a certain kind of toxic interpersonal environment. Twitter used to be fun when I started using it; it's getting more and more like Ness's 'Noise', and increasingly I find myself wondering if I should be a Todd and run away. We start the Chaos Walking trilogy believing that the women of Prentisstown have all died of the 'germ' that infected the men and made them telepathic; and also that this bug was released upon the human settlers by the alien aboriginal Spackles. The truth, we soon discover, is otherwise: the women are still alive, though elsewhere, and the Spackle are not to blame. But although Ness's storytelling is always lively and interesting, and although he is a funny as well as a moving writer, he is absolutely unsparing in his representation of the way violence harms the self as much as it harms others. The scene in the first book where Todd stabs a Spackle to death is genuinely upsetting to read; and the descent of the various populations into war in the end makes grueling reading. Prentisstown, and its Donald Trump-ish fuhrer Prentiss, are the stuff of a straightforward dystopian vision.
Ness won the 2011 prize as well, for the heartbreaking A Monster Calls.
The cover sports two Carnegie medals, as you can see, since Jim Kay also won that year's Kate Greenaway prize for illustration (awarded by CILIP, the same people who administer the Carnegie). As well he should: his images for this book are amazing.
But the whole book is amazing. The monster is a sort of giant animated yew tree, and it calls, always at 12:07, on 13-year old Conor. Conor's mother is dying of cancer; his father lives on the other side of the Atlantic, and his grandmother, who cares for him, is distant and cold. He's bullied at school and something of a loner. The monster tells him three stories, and in return Conor must tell the creature his own nightmare. But the monster's stories deliberately eschew moralising; they are tales of human suffering and loss. In his waking life, as when he finally fights back against his bullies, Conor seems to be in some sense possessed by the spirit of his troublesome monster. His mother's condition worsens, and at 12:07 she dies in the hospital. If I describe this book as 'Not Now Bernard, but for bereavement' I in no way mean to belittle it. Not Now Bernard is, in its way, a kind of masterpiece.
A Monster Calls began as an idea of Siobhan Dowd's, herself a previous Carnegie winner, and herself dying of cancer. But the premise stands or falls on how well the monster is written, and Ness does an extraordinary job with that. His monster possesses just the right touch of the sublime:
This in turn grounds the emotional directness of Conor's relationship to his dying mother, which you really would have to have a heart of stone to read without being touched.
You couldn't call A Monster Calls a dystopia. But neither it is a bag of laughs, and Ness here brings the same unflinching approach to psychological trauma here that shapes the representation of actual violence in the Chaos Walking books.
The 2013 winner, Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, certainly is dystopia, though: and dystopia of a remarkably old-fashioned, Nineteen-eighty-four-ish stripe.
That's Standish Tredwell on the cover there: a misfit, dyslexic, one-blue-eye-one-brown-eye kid in an Orwellian alt-historical 1950s (I'm guessing) Britain called the ‘Motherland’: deprivation and oppressive surveillance, disappearances and secret police, children at Standish's school beaten, sometimes to death, for noncompliance. Standish lives with his Gramps in a ramshackle house in distant 'Zone 7' whilst the Motherland North-Korea-ishly pushes ahead on a grand and pointless moon rocket project. It's a well-written but surprisingly dispiriting read, Maggot Moon; or I thought so. But more to the point, there's something queerly old-fashioned about this dystopia. Hunger Games, or in their more schematic ways Maze Runner or Divergent, construct dystopias extrapolated from the experience of modern teens; Maggot Moon extrapolates a 21st-century teen dystopia from the experience of 21st-century teen's grandparents, all boiled cabbage and nosy neighbours, shonky totalitarianism and petty spite. It's a strange and oddly nostalgic mode of dystopia, this; though dystopia it certainly is.
Which brings us to Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary; 2014's winner and easily the most controversial recipient of the Carnegie Medal.
Teenager Linus Weems is asked by a feeble-looking blind man to help him load something into his van; duped and drugged Linus wakes up in a windowless underground bunker. The only only way in or out is an elevator, which his captor, 'The Man Upstairs', controls.
Over time various other people are deposited in this prison; the youngest a nine-year-old girl. Linus records it all in his diary, and the Man Upstairs withholds food until the captives kill one another. Some die, or commit suicide; others kill. Eventually the elevator stops running; the inmates deduce that the Man Upstairs had passed away, or moved on, or been captured, and resign themselves to their fate. It's a heroically grim and forbidding story with an exceptionally bleak ending: everyone else is dead, and Linus's diary entries trail off to indicate that he too has expired.
Now there's a kind of Saw-lite vibe to The Bunker Diaries; and a stubborn refusal to permit the readers any kind of catharsis which is either boldly admirable, or else just annoying. But the reaction to the book's win was way out of proportion to the matter at hand. It approached hysteria in the Telegraph, and the Guardian, reporting it, managed to slap a picture of the (I don't doubt, charming and personable) Brooks onto their website that made him look like a stare-eyed loon.
From that report:
Brooks was named winner of the Carnegie on Monday, joining a long roster of prestigious winners which includes Arthur Ransome – who won the first ever award in 1936 – Alan Garner, Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman. The Bunker Diary, which was turned down by publishers for years because of its bleak outlook, is told in the form of the diary of a kidnapped boy held hostage in a bunker. Awarding him with the medal, judges said he had created "an entirely credible world with a compelling narrative, believable characters and writing of outstanding literary merit".There's no actual masturbation or rape specified in Brooks' novel: this is what we might call 'projection' on the evidently rather fevered imagination of Lorna Barbara. But it is undeniably a grim read
But writing in the Telegraph, in a piece headlined "why wish this book on a child?" and describing The Bunker Diary as "a vile and dangerous story", literary critic Lorna Bradbury vigorously disagreed. She called the book "much nastier" than other dystopian fictions such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, writing: "Here we have attempted rape, suicide and death by various means, all of it presided over by our anonymous captor, the 'dirty old man' upstairs who it's difficult not to imagine masturbating as he surveys the nubile young bodies (including a girl of nine)."
Saying that the novel "makes versions of the imprisonment narrative for adult readers, such as Emma Donoghue's Room, based on the case of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who locked up his daughter for 24 years, look tame", Bradbury questioned whether books like Brooks' were "good for our teenagers".
Also grim is last year's potent winner, Tanya Landman's Buffalo Soldier:
This centres on Charlotte, a slave girl in 1860s America who becomes free with the Emancipation Proclamation but finds her life is no better off, and in some respects is worse. It is a vivid and powerful piece of writing, but far from comfortable: Charlotte's parents raped and murdered and Charlotte herself raped and threatened, she decides she'd face a slightly reduced risk dressed as a boy. And it is as a boy, 'Charlie' that she joins the US Army, and becomes one of the Buffalo Soldiers, African American regiments (but with White officers) sent out to subdue Native Americans. Part of the point of the book is the way the brutalised subaltern in turn will find and brutalise any sub-subaltern power presents to them: the freed Blacks in Landman's novels are at the bottom of the social heap, until they meet the Native Americans. Charlie ends up in a relationship with one Indian, 'Jim', and I wouldn't say the novel is bleached of all hope. Nor can we really call it dystopian, unless 'dystopia' seems to us a reasonable description of the Civil War-era and postbellum USA. Which we might well think.
So where are we? To one degree or another, all the 20teens winners of the Carnegie medal have been either dystopias or else narratives of trauma, suffering and misery. All of them. And one way of getting at the point I'm trying to make is that these titles (with the possible exception of A Monster Calls) are dark in an unrelieved way: tragic but without catharsis. Indeed a thumbnail definition of today's Grimdark might be: a commitment to tragedy that is by definition non-cathartic.
What does this say about youth culture today? Because whatever it does say will, again by definition, say something important about 21st-century culture more generally, determined as that latter quantity is so hugely by YA,from Potter to MCU, from pop to SF. Why the scope and persistence of this taste in dystopia? The more hopeful reading might be the Jamesonian one: that dystopia is actually our age's way of 'doing' utopia, an age that can no longer believe in the wide-eyed ingenuousness of the epoch that wrote all those unironic utopian books, but which doesn't want to give up the idea that things might be made better.
Jameson's thesis in his Archaeologies of the Future is that dystopia represents an ‘Anti-anti-utopianism’ which is, in a counterintuitive way, utopian:
What is crippling is the universal belief . . . that the historic alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible, and that no other socioeconomic system is conceivable, let alone practically available. The value of the utopian form thus consists precisely in its capacity as a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and . . . the systematic nature of the social totality Maybe that's right; but I find myself wondering if Jameson's approach is the best way of talking about all this. It is, in a manner of speaking, a kind of assertive mourning for the injustices of the present, aimed at working through the horror towards something better. But maybe Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholia better glosses the present-day vogue for dystopia by leaning more on the latter quantity. Young readers connect with books like The Hunger Games or The Bunker Diary because they feel, in some symbolic sense, trapped in a desperate game designed by adults to control and kill them. The real tragedy of the circumstance is that their suffering, absent catharsis, is not even tragic. 'Within depression,' Kristeva notes in Black Sun, 'if my existence is on the verge of collapsing, its lack of meaning is not tragic – it appears obvious to me, glaring and inescapable.' Those last two words describe the premises of many of these Westeros-Panem YA topographies very neatly.
[This new mode of] Utopia as a form provides the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible. It does so ... by forcing us to think the break itself . . . not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break 
The counter-intuitive part of all this, for a middle-aged fogey like myself, is that in many ways young people today have 'it' better than any previous generation. Quite apart from material improvements in the quality of life, the future belongs to them, as it always has. They can hardly lose. But then again, perhaps that is the problem. 'Perhaps,' Kristeva also wonders 'my depression points to my not knowing how to lose—I have perhaps been unable to find a valid compensation for my loss.' Difficult to see from where such compensation could be sourced. Chaos Walking and Buffalo Soldier are both, in different ways, about the terrible fallout from acts of colonial intrusion, but it may be that the relevant empire is less historical in these novels than it is the Empire of Trauma itself, under whose distant and implacable authority we all now subsist.