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Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Final, or the Winner is announced

December 29, 2013

One of the best things about blogging is the conversation it can engender. I was consequently pleased then when my last post on the Meanjin Tournament got some conversation going about the tournament itself – some thoughtful, respectful conversation. So, before I report on the final round, I thought I’d discuss this a little …

This year is the third time Meanjin has run the Tournament of Books. The first, in 2011, focussed on books by women writers, while last year’s focused on short stories. This year, they chose a, I guess you could call it, topic, the sea. The tournament was inspired by the American Morning News Tournament of Books, which is now 9 years old. Blogger Kerry of Hungry Like the Wolf has, for a few years, shadowed the tournament. That was my first introduction to the concept, so when Meanjin decided to emulate the idea – including the comic commentary – I decided to report on it.

However, some commenters – commenters I respect like blogger Lisa (ANZLItLovers) and novelist/artist Sara Dowse – are uncomfortable about the tournament. Similar concerns were expressed during my reporting on the first round. I wrote a post then on my understanding of the tournament, which is that I:

  • don’t take literary competition seriously. (Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas has said that “he envied the surety of the outcome in most sport – unlike with books, when prize judging is largely subjective”. Winning an award, or having great sales, does not necessarily reassure you as a definition of success, he has said. This, I think, says it all.)
  • think that literary competitions can promote literature, can get a conversation going.

The thing about the Tournament of Books is that it has a tongue-in-cheek aspect. It recognises, I believe, that literary competitions are fundamentally questionable as identifiers of “best”. But, humour is difficult to get right, and we don’t all see humour as appropriate in all situations. I’d be very sorry, as I responded to Sara on my last post, if this competition caused distress to the writers involved or worked in any way to undermine their achievements or sense of self.

In response to these concerns, I posted a question on one of the judge’s blogs – Belinda Rule’s barking dogmouth – regarding her understanding of the tournament. Here is part of her response:

it’s an organised series of comparative book reviews, with the intention of being light-hearted and entertaining (or so the judging brief tells us!), and starting a conversation about the books involved. I guess the high-level objective is to promote Australian fiction in an entertaining way.

I’d be interested to know what you think. I’d also love to know what Meanjin thinks it is doing and what if any evaluation it is doing of the “event”.

But now, the last round between Tim Winton’s Breath and Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts. As for last year, the final adjudications involved three judges:

Judge 1: David Mence, a Melbourne based writer and playwright, saw it as a battle between David (Margo Lanagan) and Goliath (Tim Winton). He opted for Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts because: Winton

is without a doubt the jaeger (or MechWarrior) of Australian literature, the champion defender of all that we stand for. But then again, I have always loved monsters from the deep—I would not want to live in a world without monsters—and it seems to me that Lanagan’s book is, among other things, a homage to that which is strange, difficult and monstrous in our world.

Judge 2: Bethanie Blanchard, a Melbourne based freelance writer and literary critic, who decided on the basis of which book was most about the sea. She gave it to Winton:

In Lanagan’s work the sea is an abiding presence in the background, but the tale is less about the ocean than the inhabitants who spring from and long to return to it. It is Breaththat is more truly steeped in the ocean, in its changeable hardness and lure. Winton writes powerfully of the beauty of the water when riding high upon it, ‘for a moment—just a brief second of enchantment—I felt weightless, a moth riding light,’ as well as the danger and impossibility of its conflict between the fear of not breathing and the desire to stay immersed.

And so it came down to the deciding vote of:

Judge 3: Belinda Rule, who describes herself on her blog as “a Melbourne writer of fiction and poetry”, says she loves and defends Tim Winton. However, like Sara Dowse who commented on my previous Meanjin post, she’s bothered by the “mean sexy lady” in Winton’s fiction. She gives her vote to Lanagan:

It’s Lanagan for me! I love Winton’s miscellany of things to do with breath, but I don’t want it nearly as badly as I want Lanagan to get me on the ground and kick me in the heart again.

There is, as yet, no commentary from Melbourne comedians Ben and Jess on this final round, but I believe it is coming …

However, just to confirm, the winner of the 2013 sea-themed Meanjin Tournament of Books is Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts. I wasn’t expecting that at the beginning, but there you go. Serious or not, this tournament can raise readers’ awareness of works they may or may not have heard of, or may have heard of but decided wasn’t for them.

You can read the full judgements for 2013 here.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2013 6:31 am

    Love the conversations, but am ambivalent to say the least about the tournament and prizes in general, which will come as no surprise to anyone. I accept that prizes are good for authors only insofar as they provide us with money, which for most of us is usually in short supply. But the oft-used argument that they promote book sales and awareness of new works is tired and spurious for me. Nothing compares with interesting, challenging, thoughtful reviews, which at their very best can be works of art themselves. Of course these too are subjective, but the good ones wear their subjectivity on their sleeves. The problem with prizes and tournaments like Meanjin’s (whatever their provenance) is that they are too like the sporting events that dominate our cultural landscape. Yes, the big ones, like the Man Booker or the MF, do foster interest, but in much the same way as the Archibald does for portrait painting. They reduce art to competition. Whereas engaged reviews, especially the long ones of the kind we get in ABR or the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books and we’re seeing sadly less and less of, are the source of great enlightenment. The blogs now too. Keep up the good work, Sue. We need you.

    • December 29, 2013 9:37 am

      Thanks Sara … The conversation has certainly been useful to me. It’s the best part of blogging to me … The hearing of other opinions conducted thoughtfully and respectfully.

      I understand your point about competition … And can appreciate that the promotion argument can be spurious, while hoping it is not totally so! I don’t focus a lot on competitions here … I pop in a few every now and then mainly because they are part of the scene, but am erratic, choosing ones that have some particular interest to me. What I’ve liked about this Meanjin one, for example, is the interesting quirky selection of works … But can see other points of view.

      Meanwhile, I’ll keep on blogging here doing my best to add to the wider conversation – I’ve loved your contributions to it this year.

  2. residentjudge permalink
    December 29, 2013 3:01 pm

    Goodoh! Lanagan wins! I must say that I agree with Belinda Rule’s sentiments- the crusty, windswept bitterness of Sea Hearts and the deja-vu sense I also had when reading Winton.

    • December 29, 2013 6:52 pm

      Glad you’re happy RJ! Of course, I could be too if I’d read Lanagan. It does sound wonderful. Must say though that I didn’t at all have a deja vu sense with Breath. But then, I’m not a surfer and am not an beach person either so I enjoyed experiencing that life vicariously and getting to understand an aspect of masculinity.

  3. December 30, 2013 2:17 am

    I’ve read and pondered the reports and the conversations here about the Tournament and they have been great food for thought. Of course any award has to be subjective, but the Meanjin Tournament seems to take that to an extreme by choosing books to ‘play off’ against one another. I suppose the judges’ comments can be enlightening, but they seemed to equally point up the difficulty of making such choices, especially when the choice is between forms, like poetry and fiction. Unless the criteria for choice are clear (and in this case they don’t seem to be — was it the ‘better book’ or the best evocation of the sea?) the choices become even more random. But I agree that it can help to send readers back to the books, and me to Margo Lanagan, as I’ve been planning to do for ages! The Australian Women Writers Challenge does that too, but without the competition.

    • December 30, 2013 8:23 am

      Thanks Robyn for joining in and adding to the commentary … It’s good to hear that at least it has sent someone to a book. I suspect they are making no claims for “better” books but are in spoofing the idea. It’s like a sporting event … Who wins on the day isn’t really the best or only good athlete or team. The fact that each judge in this event chooses his or own criteria which are usually highly subjective suggests this. I probably could have reported better but Christmas was rather distracting!

      • December 30, 2013 8:49 am

        Sue, my comment wasn’t on your reporting, which I enjoyed, but on the judging results on the Meanjin site itself. I take your point about spoof, and while I’m pondering that, I’m off to buy Sea hearts.

        • December 30, 2013 4:51 pm

          Thanks Robyn … No, I didn’t think you were but I still feel I could have done it better! I’d love to hear what you think of Sea hearts.

  4. December 30, 2013 2:24 pm

    I’m afraid I can’t contribute to the conversations… but curious just the same. Thanks for covering a lot of topics I’d never have known. Here’s to a wonderful 2014 to you and yours WG. Happy New Year!

  5. chillcat permalink
    December 31, 2013 7:44 am

    I’m also curious, and having not read Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts will definitely be ordered. I understand Sara’s preference for feisty reviews over sport-like competition, and have lately been wondering about the value of paying entry fees for short story competitions myself, especially when the judge’s literary identity seems so firmly stamped upon the outcome. And yet, taken lightly, surely the tournament is a form of information sharing, and the revival of some titles? I’d be curious to know what the authors involved had to say.. Happy New Year by the way and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year’s posts.

    • December 31, 2013 8:43 am

      Thanks Catherine I’ve loved having you commenting … Yes, I can see both sides too. I’d love to know what the authors thought, but for an activity which we understand is about encouraging conversation it is strangely quiet and hence under the radar.

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