The James Tait Black Prize's Best of the Best award for fiction has brought a welcome renewal of interest in this venerable prize, which has been running since 1919.
In case you missed it, the shortlist from which the winner will be chosen in December features Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate, Caryl Phillips's Crossing The River, Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, James Kelman's A Disaffection and Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus.
It's an excellent list, reflecting the quality of past winners, and is itself a product of the careful and unshowy way in which the prize is judged, by academics and students rather than celebrities and Sunday readers. That many writers have won for a book few would call their best – as with Spark, Phillips, and even Greene, for instance – in no way undermines its value.
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In almost a century of prizes, though, one thing is striking: so far as I can see, there is not a single children's novel on the list. The competition rules are minimal and do not stipulate that children's fiction is ineligible. Even if their exclusion is official, however, rather than the result of oversight or lack of interest, the absence of children's books reinforces a weakness in most major literary prizes the world over: children's literature and its authors are the poor cousins of the trade.
In the century of the James Tait Black Prize, I scarcely need mention some of the novels that would have been eligible, all of them more enduring and original than many of their adult counterparts: Tolkien's The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings, EB White's Charlotte's Web, AA Milne's Winnie The Pooh, Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, CS Lewis's The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe... the list could fill the rest of this page, and more. Who among us doesn't know, and perhaps love, one of these books? They and their peers helped shape generations of readers and writers, and yet when it comes to the roll call of talents they are often invisible.
It was interesting that JK Rowling, the most commercially successful children's writer in history, felt she should write an adult novel, as if to prove she is the equal of any other novelist. That it was given a lukewarm reception is hardly surprising, her imagination being suited to stories that work for younger readers. I mean no disparagement by that; in many ways, I think writing for children is harder than for adults, given the inevitable gulf between the writer and his or her audience. The fact that very few writers can straddle both camps indicates that it demands decidedly different skills. CS Lewis is one who moved between both circles, but his versatility is as nothing compared with the maestro of that art, Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS began his career with Treasure Island but could as easily beguile grown-ups with sinister and very unchildlike tales, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which are as powerful today as they were in his murky Victorian times.
What surprises me about the lack of interest in children's books among the so-called critical community is that it reflects neither the history of great literature, which is studded with children's gems, nor ordinary readers' attitudes. The casual disdain many children's writers face is probably linked to intellectual insecurity on the part of the critics, as if books that are easy to read, or simply constructed, are automatically inferior. In my own experience, however, many of the finest writers in whatever realm are the most lucid, in language and style. It is the quality of thought, characterisation and storytelling that gives them their edge. By comparison, more complicated or pyrotechnic fiction can sometimes hide conceptual or literary inadequacies.
There are, of course, many terrible children's books on the market, and even more that are mediocre. The same holds for adult fiction. It seems to me that the literary flame-carriers could often be accused of double standards when it comes to honouring those to whom we, and future generations, owe a great debt. After all, without great children's stories, few of us would learn to love books, and even fewer would write them.