Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Pondering Meanjin’s Tournament
My recent post on the semifinals of Meanjin‘s Tournament of Books engendered some comments on the value or validity of the tournament itself – so I thought, having dedicated myself to reporting on the tournament, I should comment on what I think about it as an event.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t take literary competitions overly seriously. Literature (like any creative pursuit) just cannot be fit into a neat set of criteria against which to judge it. We could (should we so desire) judge the longest book, or the book with the most characters, or, well you get the drift, but judging the “best” book that, for example, depicts “Australian life in any of its phases” (the Miles Franklin) or that represents “literary excellence” (Prime Minister’s Literary Awards) is patently not a cut and dried thing. But, awards have value, the two main ones being that they:
- raise awareness and bring not just the winners but also short and longlisted books to wider attention, and that is never a bad thing;
- often involve MONEY for the winner, and that, too, is never a bad thing!
And so to Meanjin. Here is the Wheeler Centre’s announcement launching the tournament:
The inaugural Meanjin Tournament is a literary stoush like no other. The venerable literary journal pits classics against each other to determine one true candidate for the Great Australian Novel.
The Meanjin Tournament of Books is not your typical literary prize. It’s a sports tournament for people who don’t like sports, a literary smackdown that pits book against book in a bloody battle for ultimate victory. Join us as we launch the Tournament for 2011, announce the shortlisted 15 books, and ask you the audience to vote for a 16th contender. This year the shortlist is limited to novels by Australian women, of any era. The Meanjin Tournament of Books is certain to be the year’s bloodiest, most ruthless literary event.
“Literary smackdown”, “bloody battle”. That rather sets the tone, don’t you think?
This is not to say that the tournament doesn’t have intellectual or cultural value – as well as a promotional one. Lisa Dempster, Emerging Writers’ Festival director, said in a guest post on Kill Your Darlings that she was going to readalong with the tournament, and wrote on the value of shared reading. This made me think of “water cooler” television programs. You know, those programs that people like to watch in real-time so they can talk about it at work the next day, something that media fragmentation is undermining big time. But, for Dempster, it’s a bit more than this. She says:
I don’t just enjoy talking about books I have read; I also love the idea of having a shared reading experience, discovering new books, and being one of a community of people reading the same books at the same time …
She’s keen on ideas like One city, One book which encourages everyone in a city to read and discuss one book. I like the idea too … as long as it’s a book I’d like to (or, should I saw, be happy to) read!
But, back to the Tournament itself. Here is what they at Meanjin say it is about:
The Tournament is a literary prize… kind of. Finding a winner is less important in the Meanjin Tournament of Books than the arguing and debating of the competition. It’s about reading books you’ve always meant to read but never quite got around to, and about re-reading dog-eared favourites…
And that, I think, encapsulates perfectly the way I see this and other literary competitions. What do you think?