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On a year of literary prizes

It’s almost the end of the literary awards season, and the last few weeks have been eventful times for literary prizes.

I attended the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Melbourne lit scene in suits and cocktail dresses casting off its ‘bathrobe era’ attire (and found just how addicted we all are to our phones when I was told nervously by several writers that there is no internet in the Plaza Ballroom). The next morning I awoke to learn that Hilary Mantel had won the Man Booker for the second time, making history as the first British and first female author to do so. There was the Nobel Prize for literature; the press release came through that the inaugural Stella Prize is set for April next year, an exciting new fixture on the awards calendar; and then the shortlist for SPUNC’s Most Underrated Book of the Year award – of which I am a judge – was released, and I have spent the last few days in deliberations over the winner.

Some weeks are just great weeks in literary news.

But it was also a time that highlighted for me how much I’ve come to be interested in awards, how my year has been punctuated and in many ways, dictated by them, the months moving on a sea of All That I Ams and Foal’s Breads.

I’ve been in the position as Crikey’s literary blogger for almost a year now, and felt a responsibility to report on major awards. In between book reviews and essays, my year has unfolded in a blur of longlists and shortlists, and I’ve found myself coming to read the lists as keenly as a seasoned gambler might read a racing form guide.

I’ve learnt how to interpret them – publisher, gender divide, nationality, how many debut novelists are listed, amount of previous awards won by any of the nominees, how many times Australia has won and if indeed we are in contention at all. And the year spun on, always another prize to keep track of, always another work to add to the pile I so desperately wish to get to.

The past two years have been an interesting, and in some ways critical time in literary awards in Australia. The all-male Miles Franklin controversy, the resulting Stella Prize, Meanjin’s Tournament of Books, the notorious cancelling of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and its refounding again as the Queensland Literary Awards by a group of dedicated individuals.

In the midst of the controversy there was talk of why awards are important, and it’s a question I ask myself too. There are the obvious answers: they provide recognition for the author, boost sales for the publisher, highlight ‘important’ (whatever that now means) and well-written books for the wider community to read, and grant prize money to the author.

This last point is significant. I often think of George Brandis’ now notorious comment on Lateline in April this year, when he said of Campbell Newman’s decision to scrap the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards:

Well, I say that those who have attacked Campbell Newman for that decision are being very silly…As if any decent, bona fide, committed author is going to feel that he lacks the incentive to engage in his creative craft because there isn’t Queensland Government money at the end of the tunnel.

That was, depressingly, a comment from someone who holds the position as Shadow Minister for Arts. But the financial aspects are important, a precious commodity in the writing world because they buy for writers not things, but time; and there was much warmth in the room at the Plaza Ballroom last Tuesday when Premier Ted Baillieu said that he had made the deliberate decision to make the VPLAs Australia’s richest literary award – the major prize being worth a total of $120,000.

But even more significant are the debates and discussions that come out of these prizes. What they do is provide a focus, a moment in time, a screen shot if you like of where we are in the current moment, where our state is, where writing is. It provides a focus for the local literary scene, and in international awards, a way to gauge our standing on the international level.

Prizes are always subjective, but it’s the shortlists and longlists, and perhaps even more so, the works that don’t make it to the lists – as I’m finding particularly in my judging for the SPUNC award – that are significant. Out of these inclusions and omissions have come debates about the representation of women in literary awards, which has resulted in real action and in some ways a culture change (the Stella Prize being just the most high profile example), and we’ve looked at the representation of Australia and what it means to write Australian fiction with the expansion of the Miles Franklin criteria.

In the midst of the controversy earlier this year, Jeff Sparrow wrote a brilliant article on needing a new defence of literature, about why prizes should matter to ordinary people. It’s something that I struggle with too, and I’m not sure that I can provide one here. But these debates, this questioning has been important. It’s changing the landscape of awards, and the ways we think about our writing culture. Maybe next year I’ll have a clearer answer, but I’m excited to be part of it.

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