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Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Round 2

December 26, 2013

Round two of this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books has now been played – as of a couple of days before Christmas. Here are the winners

Round 2 Match 1: Tim Winton’s Breath defeated Kim Scott’s That deadman dance

Well, I must say I’m surprised. Much as I love both these books – both of which won the Miles Franklin Award in their year – I thought That deadman dance would be the eventual winner. But, as in all exciting competitions, it was not to be – and who am I to argue with the judge Maxine Benebe Clarke. I don’t know her but she’s apparently “a widely published Australian writer and slam poetry champion”. Interestingly, she, a poet, found Winton’s Breath easy to read but “early on in the reading of this book [That deadman dance], I confessed to a fellow poet and voracious reader that I’d re-read the first sixty or so pages three times, because I felt them so inaccessible”. I understand how that might happen, though I didn’t find it so myself. She did come to enjoy Scott’s novel, once she let go of her expectations of historical fiction which are that it should give her knowledge of the era or event without her being aware it’s happening. Hmm … sounds to me like her definition of historical fiction is a little narrow. She said she enjoyed the novel when she “stopped aching for this to happen”. However, as she chose another book that I love and that has stuck with me since I read it, I won’t complain. She chose Winton because:

I found myself, despite my lack of knowledge of surfing culture, fighting for air, caught in a crazed obsession, the book which almost suffocated me under the deep blue, before landing me back on shore, face-grazed, foamy and gasping for Breath.

I know exactly what she means. It’s a breath-taking (sorry!) book.

Round 2 Match 2: Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts defeated Jaya Savidge’s Surface to air

This match was also judged by someone I don’t know. Clearly I’m not up on the Melbourne scene. Adolfo Aranjuez edited Award Winning Australian Writing, and is editor of Metro magazine, sub-editor of Screen Education, and deputy editor of Voiceworks. He found judging hard, particularly because he really was judging apples and oranges, that is, a collection of poems versus a novel. Moreover, he says that:

Thematically, Savige’s poems aren’t all about the ocean, either, handicapping it slightly. And then there was the pre-existing problem of bias: I’ve adored Lanagan for years, though I tried to summon as much impartiality as my Lanagan-fan heart could muster.

I haven’t read either of these books so can’t comment. Our judge discovered why Savidge is recognised as a great poet, but for him the selkie myth won out. His reasoning makes sense:

Lanagan’s nods to miscegenation and multiculturalism highlight the issues that I and those like me face as ‘mongrels’, unable to explain to largely-monocultural Australians where we ‘come from’. These intercultural themes raise questions that are increasingly relevant in our society, where arranged marriages aren’t uncommon, some are forced by circumstance to leave their homes, and the rhetoric of ‘assimilation’ continues to have currency.

I have been thinking for some time that I should read this book. Aranjuez’s adjudication has strengthened my resolve.

And so … we are left with a Final that will be between

  • Tim Winton‘s Breath; and
  • Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts

I’ll be very surprised if Tim Winton doesn’t win at this point, but I’ve been known to be wrong before. As they say, it isn’t over until … as usual, watch this space, soon!

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2013 12:06 am

    I’ve always thought this Meanjin tournament to be a remarkably silly and sometimes cruel gimmick, and your excellent report of this round only confirms my view. You have been generous and polite in your analysis of the limitations of judge no 1, while judge no 2 has quite rightly pointed out that it’s ridiculous to judge poems versus novels, but admitted bias.
    Gosh, isn’t hard enough to be an author in Australia without being trampled in the dust when one’s book loses in jousting so obviously unfair?!

    • December 27, 2013 8:05 am

      Thanks Lisa … I really don’t imagine anyone takes it too seriously … With Ben and Jess’s commentary, which I’ll refer to in the final post … It’s all a bit of a hoot. I haven’t mentioned them yet this time, partly because I’m not up to their humour! The way I see it, it is more for fun and promotion than anything, though I’m not sure how much promotion it gets.

  2. December 27, 2013 6:35 am

    I don’t know either of the poetry books but please, not silly old Breath over That Deadman Dance, which was one of the finest books I’ve read. I think Winton was at his best in The Riders, but apart from that. .. Well, here is a view from a migrant . Winton ‘a popularity rests on his giving Australians what they want to hear about ourselves but I’ve found a lot of his writing sloppy and mystifyingly overrated, unless you take account of the above . What has Meanjin become ?

    • December 27, 2013 8:15 am

      I think they’re having fun, Sara … But like all fun sometimes it can miss the point! I did like Breath. I found it an astonishing evocation of masculinity and the damage that can happen. I also haven’t forgotten what it taught me about surfing … Something I’ve never done or want to do. BUT, I do think Scott’s should have won. I hate using the word but I think it’s an “important” book as well as a great read.

      Re Meanjiin … I’d like to see more from them on the tournament. I haven’t searched much this year, but in past years I’ve found pretty much nil on it.

      BTW, your comment on a The Riders is interesting. Most people I think put it near the bottom of their favourites. I rather enjoyed it but it hasn’t “stuck” for me, says she in her best litcrit language (!), like some of his others.

  3. December 27, 2013 7:12 am

    Don’t knock your opinions, Gummie. You’re a reader and that’s enough for me. You know how I feel about prizes–a load of old bollocks.

    BTW I bought That Deadman dance but as usual haven’t got to it yet.

    • December 27, 2013 8:17 am

      Yes, Guy, I don’t take prizes very seriously … They are good for promotion for the authors and literature in general, and in some cases provide money as well. I like the fact that some are giving money to the shortlist.

  4. residentjudge permalink
    December 27, 2013 9:17 am

    “Breath” over “Deadman”? Oh tosh! I’m cheering for “Sea Hearts”. One cheers at a tournament, does one not?

    • December 27, 2013 10:20 am

      One does! You go for it RJ … I must read Sea hearts – if I had I might cheer for it too!

  5. December 27, 2013 9:37 am

    Actually, I don’t think this tournament is fun at all or anything like it. Writers are not jousters (at least most of us) and our work is just too hard to be the substance of a magazine’s promotion. Call me Killjoy if you will but I really do think Meanjin should be taken to task for this. I don’t get angry often, except at the many instances of injustices in our world, but this may well qualify. If you want fun watch a comedy, and admire the skill that goes into it. But marketing a litmag by turning writers into horses? Forget it. As for Breath and masculinity, the Riders did the same but in my opinion more poignantly. What ruined Breath for me was the pivot for the plot which seemed unnecessary, sensationalised and contrived.

    • December 27, 2013 10:28 am

      Thanks Sara, for explaining your view more. I am intrigued that Meanjin keeps doing it but with no discussion that I can see about what they are doing. I see it as a way to promote the works themselves (not market the magazine, if that’s what you think I meant) but they don’t seem to be doing much in the way of promotion so that has mystified me. I also think there’s a sense of mocking the whole competition thing but I’m not good at conveying that tongue in cheek aspect of it. I’d be very sorry if I thought it was distressing authors or working to their detriment.

      • December 27, 2013 11:34 am

        I think this has to do with Meanjin being taken over by MUP a couple or more years back. There was a lot of angst over it because it was seen as a move to boost circulation and make it profitable or at least commercially viable. Ian Britain, the editor at the time, resisted and was given the boot because of it. Subsequent editors have done a good job but the mag has lost some if its cachet. I can ‘t imagine Ian doing anything like a tournament!

        • December 27, 2013 11:41 am

          Ah, thanks for this background Sara. Literary magazines do struggle a bit don’t they … but I can’t see this tournament doing much in the way of promoting the magazine (at least not from what I’ve seen) though this may have been its goal. As a reader, I’ve seen the goal as being to bring works to the fore – some well-known, some not so. But I’m not sure they’re really achieving that either. I tend to only hear about it by accident or by actively searching, not be any promotion on their part.

  6. December 27, 2013 10:26 am

    Clarke’s review is such a poet’s review! I love it, although I worry about the subjectivity in play in dismissing That deadman dance because she herself found it inaccessible. I mean, I know she must have felt it would be that way for everyone, but surely it wouldn’t have got so far in the competition if it really were…

    • December 27, 2013 10:39 am

      Absolutely Hannah. It does take some concentration at the beginning to work out the speakers and the time frames – but that’s not unusual. I didn’t find it inaccessible. It could have been the mood she was in – perhaps reading it under pressure around Christmas is not the ideal time?

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