Tuesday, 24 June 2014

CILIP Carnegie Winner 2014 announced:Reassessing The Bunker Diary (again...)

Yesterday afternoon, the winner of the UK's most prestigious book prizes was announced, and my utter disbelief, that winner was none other than the novel I reviewed back in March as being the most disturbing, distressing and utterly unsuitable book I have yet to encounter on the Carnegie Shortlist: Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary.

So why did it win? 

Setting aside my own personal opinions of the novel itself for just a moment, I want to consider some of the reasons why this book has been selected as the winner, despite being surrounded in controversy and regarded with disgust by several readers, both those I have read online and those I have encountered personally.

'The Carnegie Medal panel can’t resist a controversy,' 
The Telegraph's Lorna Bradbury writes, and I cannot help but wonder if this is the case. Certainly, there has been no attempt to shy away from controversial subjects, and the majority of the shortlists in recent years have included a deliberately contentious novel, thrown in among innocent children's books to place a cat firmly among the pigeons. In 2011, it was Jason Wallace's Out Of Shadows, which deals with racism, violence and class oppression in Zimbabwe, in 2012 it was Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Grey, which presented a harrowing presentation of life as a minority in the Stalinist regime. In light of this, it can't be denied that the judges are no strangers to putting books on the shortlist that pull no punches. 

But even considering their track record, The Bunker Diary stands apart from such novels. There is no lesson to be learned from the book. There is no theme to be presented. There is nothing to take away of any meaning. As I discuss in this article, there are themes that could be detected, such as the overriding atheist nihilist perspective on life, but only after extensive analysis of the plot, character and content. 

The upshot of the victory is an upsurge in publicity for both the medal and its winner, which will, of course, lead to greater book sales and awareness for both. Whether it is the journalists that are praising the win as marking a 'new direction' in children's literature, or those like myself lambasting the choice, it's all more publicity for the writer (who has produced several similarly disturbing reads) and the medal (which presents itself as the foremost prize for children's writing. While this is no bad thing, I find it a worrying prospect that this most depraved of books will soon be being placed into the hands of unwary children. Is the publicity gained by CILIP worth those many nightmares, I wonder? 

More to the point, are such themes as do exist in the novel right to be presented to children? (They are, after all, the target age group of the Carnegie medal, as much as 'Young Adult' is the word of the day). Of course they are not. But maybe, the judges and most of the readers remain, by dint of age and outlook, blind to this. I was lucky enough to join a discussion group on the book before the winner was announced, and found that I alone was horrified by it; none of the other adults or children in the group shared my opinions. 

The adults suggested they were less shocked as they were perfectly aware of the horrors of life, and of the issues around violence and drug use presented in the novel. The children, on the other hand, seemed to miss the point in several cases. Some remarked that the book was 'boring and repetitive', citing horrifying scenes such as the suicide of a character using his own glass eye as a knife and the attack of a rabid dog as 'exciting' highlights in an otherwise boring novel. So perhaps, it is nothing more than ignorance that has taken this novel to the top of the list; the adults already know what it's going to say, the children self-censor it to the point where they are blissfully unaware of the bleakness and depravity. 

There is also the argument that children and teen literature is taking a turn towards presenting more adult themes through dystopia that renders the Bunker Diary nothing more than a natural extension of such a trend. What this argument fails to consider is the context within which Brooks and other authors present their chosen subject matter. Themes of murder, drug use and cannibalism are just as common in Michael Grant's bestselling Gone series as in The Bunker Diary, but presented in an altogether different environment. Grant's works are set in a town surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield, in which mutations are triggering young people to exhibit strange powers. In other words, the whole thing is a science-fiction fantasy, and while every bit as well-written and -presented as Brook's novel, it is ultimately far-removed from what life 'really' is. Brooks, on the other hand, has a habit of writing far too close to reality in this and other novels, making the content all the more vivid and relatable. While I don't deny that as a purely literary feat, it is a great achievement to present such matters so vividly, it is not something that should be being pressed into the hands of children. 

The only other answer I can think is that the novel was selected as a winner was purely for its literary value, and having not read the remainder of the competition, I can't pass judgement in that regard other than to say that The Bunker Diary is, for what it is, well-written, but as I point out above, rather too well-written. I also don't think the value of that outweighs the potentially damaging effect that the novel may have on a reader that is no thoroughly prepared for what awaits. Given that the book will now be being presented in bookshops worldwide as what is essentially the 'children's book of the year' without any kind of warning or alert about the content is a thought that is alarming in itself. As adults who read (and presumably understood) the book, do the Carnegie judges not have a duty of care to ensure that, if this book is to be plastered across bookstores, it is done so in a way that makes it quite clear the journey to the final pages will not be at all pleasant?  

This, then, is my real issue with the book: it should not be presented to children in the way that a Carnegie medal winner inevitably will, and to me, selecting it as a winner is at best misguided, and at worst, irresponsible and dangerous. 

So what is it about? Is this time to reconsider?

One question that has been playing on my mind, aside from why the novel was successful in winning the prize, is precisely what Brooks aimed to achieve with it, and there are some clues in his reaction to receiving the award. In his acceptance speech, Brooks suggested an interest in challenging the 'ingrained' attitude that books must offer some hope, or reach a satisfying conclusion, and also stated that 'teenagers do not want' to be presented with what he termed 'artificial hope' in novels. He concluded that it would be 'patronising' to reward the readers who survived his harrowing novel with something even close to a happy ending. 

I have to take issue with this; if anything, an ending that provides a hint of positivity or hope acts to make the previous events more poignant. While it is a harsh fact of reality that happy endings are largely the realms of fairy tales, that doesn't mean that such depraved reality and utter nihilism that is seen in The Bunker Diary needs pressing into the hands of children that, in many cases, are largely unexposed (or so I would like to think) to the events and situations presented within. 

Brooks puts a lot of focus on how the number of young people 'reading for pleasure' is dropping and becoming a minority, but then produces a book that is impossible to enjoy, which seems something of a dichotomy to me. To me, reading for pleasure is something synonymous with escapism, and escapism is not in any way compatible with depravity, cannibalism, insanity or extreme and undiluted violence of character. There seems to be a thread within Brooks' work of moral ambiguity, and that reaches a head in The Bunker Diary. His comment about it being 'patronising' to provide all the facts or answer questions or offer hope strikes me as a sign he is out of touch with readers. 

This may perhaps be a less innocent age than the heyday of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Famous Five, but sometimes, we as readers want a sense of justice. We want the Good Guys to win and the Bad Guys to get their comeuppance. We want the hero to escape and be rewarded in some way for his endurance of the unendurable. Leave the grim realism to the newspapers; it's impossible to escape the sometimes horrible real world if we are only presented with the same in fiction. There is a line between fiction and reality that Brooks does cross expertly well, but it's arguable as to whether he does so in a way that warrants being given to unprepared, unsuspecting children. There is no education to be had from The Bunker Diary; even the obvious 'don't talk to strangers' that one would expect to result from the capture of the bunker's inhabitants does not exist. They were all powerless to prevent their capture. The only moral is that 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport', or in the case of The Bunker Diary, abandon us and let us kill ourselves. Not really a message we want to be presenting to children, is it? 

So the Carnegie medal is over for another year, and a novel that is unprecedented among the winners for its sheer and devastating bleakness has been blindly selected as a winner. I remain convinced that it even being selected for the shortlist was a mistake, and appalled that it won. Feel free to leave a comment about anything in the article, and as always, thanks for reading. 

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