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Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2012

July 23, 2012
National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, viewed from Commonwealth Park on the opposite side of Lake Burley Griffin

Last year I attended and reported on the post-announcement panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, held at the National Library of Australia. I attended again this year and, since it occurred today, Monday, I’ve decide to devote this week’s Monday musings to it.

First, the winners:

  • Fiction: Gillian MearsFoal’s bread (My review)
  • Poetry: Luke DaviesInterferon psalms
  • Young adult fiction: Robert Newton’s When we were two
  • Children’s fiction: writer Frances Watts and illustrator Judy Watson’s (illus.) Goodnight, mice!
  • Non-fiction: Mark McKenna’s An eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark
  • History: Bill Gammage‘s The biggest estate on earth: How aborigines made Australia

Last year’s four awards were expanded to six this year by rolling the separate Prime Minister’s History Prize into them and, hallelujah, adding in a prize for Poetry. The awards are, I believe, the most generous of Australia’s publicly funded awards, providing $80,000 to each winner and $5,000 to each shortlisted author.

The panel members were Luke, Robert, Mark and Judy. Unfortunately, Bill Gammage is currently overseas, and Gillian Mears who suffers from multiple sclerosis had attended the announcement but needed to rest before her afternoon engagements. I was disappointed not to see her but of course can’t begrudge her putting her health first. The panel was chaired by local ABC radio announcer Louise Maher.

I won’t summarise the whole panel but just cherry pick a few interesting thoughts and ideas that came out of it. During a discussion about the writing process, in which Robert Newton said that he when he starts writing he rarely knows where his story is going to end, Mark McKenna offered a favourite quote from David Malouf:

I don’t write to record what I know. I write to find out what I know.

I like this. It makes me feel that we readers are on a journey with the author rather than being told what to think by the author.

There was, of course, the usual discussion about the impact of technology on books and reading and, while the responses weren’t quite as conservative as I felt they were last year, there still seems to be some resistance to thinking positively about change. I understand that. Livelihoods – of writers, publishers and booksellers – are at stake BUT, whether we like it or not, the change is coming (is here, in fact) and so our best chance is to embrace it.

Louise approached the question from a slightly different angle by asking how reading, which takes effort and time, fits into contemporary culture. Mark believes that the one-on-one aspect of reading is under threat, due I suppose to competition from other stimuli, and said that awards like these are important because they can bring more readers to books. (This point was, in fact, a bit of a mantra for him.) He suggested that the act of reading, the way we read, is changing and that the solitary experience is becoming rare. He noted that in just a few more decades the majority of people around will not have grown up with books the way we in the audience had. Their experience and expectations will be different, and books are likely to be produced in different formats with content and presentation varying between the formats. Mark also made the significant point that much of the change that is occurring is in the culture around the book rather than in reading itself, and I guess he’s right. The way books are sold – and published – is changing. Electronic books can’t be physically browsed in a bookshop. It’s not easy to lend an electronic book. You can’t get your electronic book signed. And so on …

Rob’s response that reading and technology will have to grow together was a pragmatic one. But he also commented, regarding the effort involved in reading, that he likes “the idea of books making kids work a bit”. Judy talked of inculcating a reading habit with children when they are young, and said she limits her (young) children’s time with technology. I liked Luke’s honesty when he said that attention span is the issue and that he can see it in himself, that he finds himself being drawn too often to “fiddly” little things on the Internet, like favourite blogs, and away from concentrated reading. But, he also said that he believes that our “emotional and spiritual” relationship with words will always be there. That makes sense. The forms and formats might change but our love affair with words and the ideas they express surely won’t! As one person said, we need to respect the new forms but recognise that the story, the empathy, will always be the thing.

There was a question from the floor late in the session regarding what difference the monetary prize would make to their lives. The answers weren’t really surprising but were interesting nonetheless:

  • Luke, who admitted to being more broke now than he has been for many decades, said he will pay off his debts and that the remaining money will give him a buffer enabling him to say no to jobs that he “shouldn’t” be doing, that aren’t, he said a little self-consciously, in response to his muse.
  • Rob said he’d buy a new surfboard and a laptop with working shift and caps lock keys, and that he’d consider taking some time off from his job as a firefighter to write full-time.
  • Mark said it would buy a little financial independence and provide some seed money for his new book, which will tell the history of Australia through some selected places that he will need to visit.
  • Judy also said it would take off some of the financial pressure and allow her to work on what she wants to rather than on jobs “for the money”.

A great session. I thank the National Library for again providing the opportunity for members of the public to “meet” the authors this way, and I thank the authors for giving up their precious writing time to talk with us!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Todd permalink
    July 23, 2012 6:10 pm

    I’m so glad Gillian Mears won the Fiction award – I thought she was a shoe-in for the Miles Franklin, so it’s nice to see her get some recognition elsewhere.

    I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there’s an excellent piece by her in the current Meanjin about dealing with her MS, and the effect this had on her writing process. It’s well worth a look: http://meanjin.com.au/articles/post/old-copmanhurst/

    • July 23, 2012 6:41 pm

      Thanks Matt … and yes, I’m pleased to see her win, given she didn’t win the MF. I went to an event at the NLA yesterday too with Anna Funder and will report on that later – but I was hoping Mears would get this. Thanks for reminding me re that article. I printed it out to read in quiet sometime, but haven’t actually done so. Will locate it and read it pronto!

  2. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) permalink
    July 23, 2012 7:09 pm

    Sounds like it was a great session, thanks for writing it up for us!

  3. July 23, 2012 7:18 pm

    I was so pleased to see Foal’s Bread win – I also, like the commenter above, was very surprised when it didn’t win the Miles Franklin. I thought it was an infinitely better novel than Anna Funder’s.

    • July 23, 2012 8:09 pm

      I haven’t read the Funder yet – but have it in my TBR. I was glad that Foal’s bread won though because it’s a great book and, slap my wrist, but I think it’s good to share these prizes around amongst the top books of the year.

  4. July 23, 2012 9:09 pm

    Louise did a marvelous job of chairing this session. She asked probing questions and ensured that each writer got equal time to talk. And the writers were interesting.
    Rob Newton needs to be in our schools motivating teenagers to read and write. Kids could relate to a firefighting author – he looks spunky too!

    As an ordinary Canberran, retired from teaching and a lover of reading ( when the author can speak without interruption ) I was delighted to have his session available to us – and for free. Thank you

    • July 23, 2012 10:11 pm

      Oh welcome Helen, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Did you go last year when it was chaired by Caroline Baum? That was good too. But yes, Louise did do a good job. I don’t know her well because I am a Radio National listener rather than a 666 listener but I did know who she was! How lucky we were to have this session – and free of charge, eh?

      As I watched Rob Newton, I was thinking of John Marsden and how inspiring he was to my children (but of course he is/was a teacher). I agree that he came across well. I’d like to read the book … particularly as I love that area. Interesting that he chose an area to set the book in that’s quite a way from where he lives.

      • July 24, 2012 6:24 pm

        No I did not go last year but I’ll be there in 2013.
        I loved the rhyme, rhythm, repetition and alliteration in Mice Tales – its an easy book to read aloud.
        I’ll be reading Rob Newton’s book next.
        And yes I agree that the Mears book was a
        well deserved winner. I missed the Funder talk on Sunday (booked out) and look forward to reading a précis of it .

        • July 25, 2012 12:49 am

          I nearly missed this year’s even though I went last year … Somehow I missed the advertising for it. I didn’t get the mice book but the illustrations look gorgeous. Will probably write up the Funder event in the next few days if I can get some inspiration going. She said some interesting things and I liked how she came across.

  5. July 23, 2012 10:28 pm

    Thanks for your cherry picking, Sue. I’m keen to get to Mears’s novel and as well as the Gammage book – I missed him @ SWF. John

    • July 23, 2012 10:35 pm

      Thanks John … glad you liked it. It was a shame he wasn’t there and I must say his book sounds really interesting. I look forward to your take on Mears’ book when you get to it.

  6. July 24, 2012 12:07 am

    Actually, with the kindle, it’s very easy to lend someone a book. Just thought I’d mention that as it seems to be an overlooked feature.

    • July 24, 2012 8:08 am

      Hi Guy, thanks. I was aware of that though I haven’t done it yet. Few of my friends – and many in that audience – don’t have Kindles or e-Readers, and I thought the DRM limited how much/many times you can lend it? Lending e-books in general is a little fraught still – understandably given the floodgates that could open – but my sense is that the gates are closed perhaps tighter than they ought. This aspect of e-reading will improve though I think.

      I thought I’d better check my understanding of lending Kindle books. I think this is right. You can only lend some books. You can only lend them once. And the borrower can only have them for 14 days. Is that your understanding?

      • July 24, 2012 11:29 am

        Well someone has had one of my books for months now. I’ll have to start fining them to get it back.

        I can lend any book I bought from Amazon. Not e-galleys I get from publishers. I’ve lent books out multiple times.

        • July 24, 2012 4:12 pm

          Ah, that’s interesting … Perhaps the reality is not as tough as the mantra. I have heard that with library borrowing of eBooks they can’t take it back if the book isn’t online, which could work with kindles but would be hard I’d think with other more multipurpose devices.

  7. July 25, 2012 10:37 am

    It sounds like you had the far better experience attending the not-quite-announcement announcement. ;)

    Very interesting about how the responses to the prize money all centre around the money not paving the way to riches and glory, but giving each writer “breathing room”, so to speak. Writing really is for the love of it. And that’s what matters in life, I think.

  8. July 26, 2012 11:59 am

    I enjoyed reading your comments: I wish I’d bestirred myself to attend :-)

    • July 26, 2012 7:16 pm

      Next year perhaps, Jennifer? I nearly didn’t as I had a busy morning but I enjoyed last year’s and was glad in the end that I decided to attend.

  9. July 27, 2012 2:50 pm

    Interesting post Sue. I will have to try and watch out for this session in the coming years. I’d love to make it sometime too.

    • July 27, 2012 3:28 pm

      Thanks Louise. They’ve done it for two years now … Let’s hope they continue to do it.

  10. July 28, 2012 10:21 pm

    Interesting and broad post. I’m also glad that Mears won and will look up this article. Must order Foal’s Bread, it seems such a beautiful work.

    Fun to read the financial comments of writers and more intriguing to read about how reading and writing are panning out in today’s climate. I’m reluctant to admit that book lovers are diminishing and that reduced attention spans are conditioning our taste. Certainly the commercial factor in producing books has never been stronger but in recompense I think there is a growing and heartfelt demand for independently minded (and published) works. My adult kids still read books which I take as a good sign.

    • July 28, 2012 11:51 pm

      Oh you must Catherine. You’ll like it I’m sure.

      I can’t believe book lovers are diminishing though I think the time we have for reading is compressed. Whether this has affected our taste/what we like to read is interesting to think about. I think taste is probably a bit more complex than something easily changed by our attention spans don’t you think?

  11. July 30, 2012 3:25 am

    Gummie: just had an e-mail exchange with a fellow kindle owner and she mentioned that she cannot lend a book she is currently reading. Apparently lending a book is a feature which can be enabled or not. Probably an option for the author or publisher?

    • July 30, 2012 8:19 am

      Thanks Guy … Yes that’s what I thought. I think it’s the publishers who tend to manage the DRM. Not sure how much say authors wold have but perhaps some. Perhaps most of those you’ve lent have been classics? Or you’ve just been lucky!

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