I’ll just say it straight: book awards are ridiculous.
They are the garden gnomes of the literary landscape – fun, provocative, but ultimately ornamental. They have no more meritocratic substance than judging jambalaya over jelly at the village fete – it’s all a matter of personal taste. My disdain partly hearkens from a philosophical objection to the self-congratulating futility of judging art against itself.
But mainly it’s because I don’t win them.
Yet I cannot deny that, like our gnomish friends, book awards certainly make a statement. They may deliver a substantial sales fillip. They may denote a vital sea-change in industry norms. But they certainly confer a cherished imprimatur: This Book Has Merit.
As a middle-aged, female comedy writer, the most exciting list to which I now aspire is for hip replacement surgery circa 2053. I have no axe to grind - my debut, Who Let the Gods Out?, fared pretty well in Book Nomination Bingo, with a score of award nods (including the Carnegie), even prevailing at some lovely regionals (bless you Harrow, Ealing and Coventry). I fully embrace my mediocrity, will happily Salieri a path through my mid-list career and pray for sufficient PLR to afford cat food. And maybe one day, a cat.
But in a publishing pudding oozing with comedy talent, there is a truth universally acknowledged – Funny Books Rarely Win Prizes.
This maxim was writ large in the Carnegie & Greenaway longlists this week. The 40 selected books are bold, important, ground-breaking – but collectively, about as funny as a governmental briefing. And nor should they be – this is not to detract from the creators’ vast talents and achievements, nor from a prestigious prize that champions outstanding literature. All power to both and every book deserves its place.
But it does raise the recurrent question of why funny books are so rarely allowed to ascend to their Heliconian heights. Why do so few funny books make the shortlists – and more rarely, the winners’ podia – of major literary awards?
A cursory analysis of recent major shortlists suggests that comedy fares differently from award to award – although at best only earns one seat at any table. Accepting that what constitutes a funny book is debatable, I’d say you’d have to go back to Lissa Evans’s Wed Wabbit (2018) to find a funny on the Carnegie shortlist. I was delighted to see Jenny Pearson’s joyful The Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates on this year’s Costa – again, it’s Ms Evans (the other one) back in 2017 who’s the next most recent. Waterstones and Books are my Bag get shiny stickers for a broader range on their shortlists and the Branford Boase has shortlisted a comedy title pretty much every other year.
But did you hear the one about the funny book that won a major prize? Not terribly often.
In terms of reviews and awards, funny books are usually the poor relation to “serious” books, despite their commercial dominance, kids’ preferences and the vast range of “serious” issues addressed therein. We have the Lollies, but somehow that hasn’t filled the shoes of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize it succeeded – and in any case, I feel that setting comedy apart suggests it can’t hold the main stage. Comedy writers deserve to stand alongside the dramatis personae. There is no greater artistic skill in jerking a tear than coaxing a laugh. And I know which is in greater need at present.
Author narcissism aside, consistently overlooking comedy on prestigious award lists sends a damaging message to children: funny books are all well and good, but when you want a proper read… When I tweeted about this, I was Carnegiesplained the winning criteria. But there’s nothing that precludes a well-written comedy book – indeed, that’s how comedy luminaries like Frank Cottrell Boyce have infrequently claimed the prize (Millions, 2004). So it’s not the rules. Which just leaves the rulers.
I remember lamenting the shameful all-white Carnegie shortlist with a fellow children’s scribe back in 2017. We were trying to fathom what that coterie of literary intelligentsia had been thinking. I posited that maybe, in their opinion, those were legitimately the 20 best books that year? 'But it’s all a matter of opinion,' she pointed out. So they should have broader opinions.’
I admire publishing’s capacity to listen. The Carnegie listened in 2017. World Book Day listened about its celebrity-dominated offering that same year. I hope publishing is listening to the desperate need to diversify. Because diversity is key if we are to serve our readers properly. Diversity of creators and gatekeepers, crucially. But also diversity of thought. Diversity of opinion. Diversity of taste.
So come on Carnegie, crack a smile. Have some broader opinions. Or at the very least, my learned friends – try the bloody jelly.
Maz Evans is the bestselling author of the Who Let the Gods Out? and Vi Spy series (Chicken House) and the forthcoming The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife series (Hachette). She hasn't won much.