Death of Populism
published in The Bookseller, 14 July 2000, to mark the award
of the Carnegie Medal to Postcards from No Man's Land.
people talk about education they tend to forget one fact of
history: without a free public library service, the schooling
of the so-called 'common people' results in nothing more than
the provision of factory fodder. In our society, unless you
have unfettered access to information and the written mind of
our culture, and unless you know how to manipulate the means
of delivery - books, computers, the Net - you will be left in
an oppressed underclass.
is only because of a brilliant teacher, Jim Osborn at Darlington
Grammar School in the late 1940s and 1950s, that I could write
the book that won the Carnegie Medal, and it was mainly because
of public libraries that I was able to make full use of what
he taught me.
Osborn believed that his job was to enable me to go where I
could not go on my own as a reader and a writer, and to get
there as quickly as possible. He expected my reach to exceed
my grasp. He did not teach me what I already knew and give me
more of what I already knew I liked. He helped me select what
I read, trained my understanding of it, and revealed to me why
he read what he read and how he read it.
also expected me to select for myself and find my own way. Given
my family background, I could not have become an independent
reader without the aid of a free public library. There I navigated
my way through the stacks and sniffed out the books I didn't
know I wanted until I found them. But browsing the stacks was
only worthwhile because the librarians who stocked them believed
their job was to make available a collection which was as representative
as possible of all that was written in our language. They did
not think they should provide only what their borrowers said
Osborn and those librarians were not populists. They were democrats.
They knew populism is perfidious. It pretends to be democratic
when in reality it is brutally undemocratic. Many of these populists
have benefited from the best education available, and they have
used that education to gain positions of power. But once there,
they preach that we do not need what they had, but should be
given what they say we want.
is demagoguery with a smiling face. It is imposed by all who
want a narrow-minded population that can be exploited and ruled
with as little trouble as possible. The test of any politician
is how much they do to protect and encourage the production
of the written word, the fine and performing arts and scientific
research, which at the time of production may seem unnecessary,
strange, odd or difficult to understand, because it is on this
work that the health of a culture depends.
am not saying that all popular art is inherently bad and all
minority art is inherently good. From the earliest times of
English narrative there have been two kinds of writing. One
is popular and communal, using demotic language and familiar
ideas. Because it is sociable in nature, everyone can join in.
It appeals to a wide audience and acts as social cement. Knowing
about it is almost essential to your daily life. Today the most
obvious example of such storytelling is TV soap opera.
other is individualistic. It requires that the reader discover
how the writing needs to be read. It often seems difficult,
requires careful thought and generates a variety of responses,
some inward, some sociable. It questions the familiar and disturbs
the reader's conventions of thought and feeling. It does not
console, confirm and amuse, but rather tends to unsettle, revise
distinction between popular and singular is not a value judgement.
Both are necessary to our well-being. In both it is possible
to find writing of high skill and sensibility, and in both it
is possible to find incompetence and banality. The problem I
have is not with popular art, but with populism. Populism is
undemocratic because it excludes the individualistic and the
unpopular. It is an inverted form of elitism.
year the Carnegie jury has given the medal to a 'difficult'
book that belongs to the individualistic tradition and that
balances on the edge of what can be considered literature for
young people. The jury had plenty of books that belong to the
popular tradition to choose from. I wonder why it chose mine?
the 1970s, when there was unfavourable criticism of the Carnegie
and Kate Greenaway awards, the Library Association has improved
the process by which the books are chosen. And during the past
ten years the LA has been so successful in publicizing the awards
that they are now a public event that reaches beyond the specialist
communities of librarians and teachers. Good.
more needs to be done to explain why the juries choose the books
they do. In my view, closely argued reports ought to be published
each year. Not for any reason of accountability, but to contribute
to the debate about what constitutes quality in writing, and
what marks out children's and youth literature as legitimate
and thriving art forms.
do not write for any particular audience. I write novels. They
happen to be about the interior life of their young protagonists.
The readership is those of any age who want to view the world
from the perspective of that youthful state.
I wrote Breaktime, the first in a six-book sequence of which
Postcards from No Man's Land is the fifth, I made a few rules
for myself. The first was that any reader of fourteen or fifteen
upwards is as capable as I am of dealing with the English language,
if they want to. So no concessions.
second is that literature should be about all life, not only
easily approved parts of it. Everyone is safe between the covers
of a book. Fiction, Paul Ricouer says, is 'a laboratory for
thought experiments' that we may apply to ourselves as we read.
They also map the territory of everyday existence. So no taboos.
how a story is told is as important as what it tells. None of
my stories is told in the same way, because every story demands
its own way of telling, as does every scene in every story.
So no restrictions.
I know, twenty-five years after I started Breaktime, that my
young readers enjoy difficulty, they thrive on openness to all
aspects of human experience, and they welcome narrative play.
I know because they tell me. Their opinions do not affect what
I write or how I write it, but they do help to keep me going.
Receiving the Carnegie Medal has the same effect, and I am grateful.