Philip Pullman has just been awarded the Carnegie of Carnegies. The Carnegie Medal is an annual prize for the best children’s book published in the United Kingdom, so like the Booker of Bookers (which Midnight’s Children won), Northern Lights, the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, has been picked as the best of the Carnegie winners over the prize’s entire history, which goes back seventy years.
When someone whose work you love wins a major prize, it confirms your trust in your readerly judgement. And when that person in his acceptance speech says, as Pullman did, that the prize ought to have gone to another writer (Philippa Pearce, the author of Tom’s Midnight Garden) who is the other person you were rooting for, your cup runneth over. Now I know that Pullman isn’t merely a wonderful novelist, he’s also a generous and sensitive soul who likes the same books I do.
This brings me to the first thought that occurred to me after I read about Pullman’s prize: has J.K. Rowling ever won the Carnegie Medal' The answer to that question is no. She has been short-listed for it more than once, but she hasn’t won it. She has won a whole boatload of other book prizes, including the Whitbread Prize for the best children’s book, but the librarians who vote the Carnegie Medal haven’t picked her for their prize. Does it matter' After a zillion copies sold in all the world’s languages, living and dead, and the undying love of nearly all of the planet’s children (and not a few adults, this one amongst them) we can safely say that the answer to that question must be no.
Still, the question lingers. Who are the people who haven’t given it to her' The Carnegie Medallist is chosen by an association of librarians: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, unattractively condensed into CILIP. Any writer who writes in English anywhere in the world is eligible, so long as the book is published in England. The books considered for the prize are chosen by librarians who run libraries for children: so it isn’t publishers who enter books for the prize, but CILIP’s members who call for them. They’ve been doing this for seventy years and have, in the process, made the prize important enough for Pullman, who has won the Whitbread Prize, to describe it as the biggest literary honour he has ever received.
The children’s writers who have never won the Carnegie Medal might give us a clue to Rowling’s exclusion. In terms of best-selling children’s writers, Rowling is in good company: neither Enid Blyton nor Jacqueline Wilson, both monster-sellers, ever won the prize. This doesn’t actually tell us much because popular as they were, Blyton and Wilson wrote like robots and no one in their right mind would have expected them to win anything remotely like a literary prize. A loser called Lezard (first name Nicholas) weighed in, in the Guardian recently, to argue that Rowling wrote awful prose and produced a string of examples from one paragraph to prove his point, where ‘said’ was clunkily qualified by an adverb: furiously, glumly, indignantly, loftily and so on. He has a point, but the reason Rowling isn’t to be classed with the bottom-feeders of children’s fiction like Wilson and Blyton is that Potter’s world is imagined and furnished and named with such intelligence and wit (at least in the first three books) that she makes Lezard’s pickiness about her prose precious and irrelevant.
Well, irrelevant to the first three books in the saga. I think the library gnomes at CILIP should have given Rowling the Carnegie for The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third installment of Potter’s adventures) which, as anyone with a smidgen of sense knows, is the outstanding book in the series. I remember reading the first two books in quick succession (my children and I weren’t part of the cult from the beginning so we had two to inhale right off) and thinking, this can’t last. So I waited for the third one, bought it in hardcover and began reading it, first warily (because it couldn’t last) and then with incredulous delight because not only was it every bit as good as Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, it was both fatter and better. Lupin/Moony is by such a distance the most attractive character in the Potter books that I’m continuously aggrieved about his not starring in the later books.
But I was right. It couldn’t last. The Potter books declined alarmingly from the fourth book on. They became thicker for one. I like fat books but in this case fat was less. Goblet of Fire was creaky and disjointed enough but it was the Order of the Phoenix which, retrospectively, makes the Carnegie judges seem clever and farsighted. That novel was so broken-backed and implausible that I couldn’t find the energy to suspend disbelief. Never has Rowling produced a pivotal character as charmless and boring as Dolores Umbridge. It’s the one Harry Potter movie I look forward to seeing because it can’t be worse than the book. The decline levelled off a bit with The Half-Blood Prince, though it wouldn’t have taken much to be better than Order of the Phoenix.
I have a theory about why things begin to go wrong with Goblet of Fire. The reason Prisoner of Azkaban is so good is that it keeps Voldemort firmly off-stage. The book invokes his menace, but through his minions. The heart of that book is a nostalgia for the intense friendships of boyhood, Harry’s father’s boyhood, reprised by Padfoot and Moony and Wormtail, with Harry standing in (at one point, literally) for his father, James. Young male bonding and betrayal, it’s wonderfully done. Then, in the fourth book, Rowling makes the terrible mistake of wheeling Voldemort on, placing him centre-stage, giving him a body, describing the embodiment in stupefying detail and laying on a duel between him and Harry for good measure. Evil oughtn’t be incarnated in a novel. Not halfway through a novel sequence anyway. It’s nearly impossible to do and you run the grave danger of making your readers giggle when they’re meant to be hypnotized by wickedness. And ever since then Rowling has gone on and on about the books becoming “darker” (by which she seems to mean snuffing out the odd character) and the books have become a collection of arbitrary portents that gesture enigmatically at some grand resolution. Well, the grand resolution is at hand, and I’m not hopeful.
But subsequent loss of form can’t have been the reason for not giving her the gong for Prisoner of Azkaban. Librarians aren’t astrologers. And I’d argue in Rowling’s defence that she had seven novels to bat through, where Pullman only had three and he couldn’t sustain his magnificently imagined world into the third book of his trilogy. Northern Lights was a masterpiece and it’s that book that won him the Carnegie and subsequently the Carnegie of Carnegies. By the time he finished The Subtle Knife and got to the third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, the trilogy had become hard going. He made the same mistake Rowling made in her fourth, only she introduced the devil and he, carried away by his splendid loathing of Him and the Hereafter, dragged in Angels and a divine regent, so he could have a go at God and all his works in the flesh, so to speak. But it didn’t matter: he had written Northern Lights and that’s better than anything Rowling or anyone else has managed. Still Rowling managed three hits in a row, a hattrick…the good librarians really should have given her the Carnegie for the third.