The Death of Populism

Aidan Chambers

First published in The Bookseller, 14 July 2000, to mark the award of the Carnegie Medal to Postcards from No Man's Land.

When 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.

It 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.

Jim 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.

Learning to browse

He 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 they wanted.

Jim 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.

Populism 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.

I 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.

The 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 and stimulate.

This 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.

This 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?

Since 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.

But 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.

Thought laboratory

I 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.

When 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.

The 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.

Thirdly, 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.

Now 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.





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