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What does prestigious mean?

May 21, 2009

In the June issue of Limelight magazine is this news item:

Entries are now open for two of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Melbourne Prize for Literature, and Best Writing Award. The first is awarded to a Victorian author who has made an outstanding contribution to literature and is worth $60K, the latter is for writers under 40 and offers a prize of $30K.

Hmm…do prizes for which only Victorians are eligible qualify for being among Australia’s “most prestigious”? Methinks prestige is being equated here with monetary value. My definition is closer to the dictionary definition, that is, having high reputation or being in high esteem. Does having been chosen only from Victorians grant the winner of this award prestige across Australia?

Miles Franklin, 1902, by H.Y. Dorner

Miles Franklin, 1902, by H.Y. Dorner

A quick Google search comes up with an interesting array of statements about literary awards in Australia. An Australian government website describes the Miles Franklin Award as “one of the most illustrious events on the Australian literary calendar”. As one of Australia’s oldest continuous awards and as a national award, it perhaps better lives up to being described as “illustrious” (or “prestigious”). Of course, this award has its own qualification: the winner must be “of the highest literary merit and present Australian life in any of its phases“. This has got the award into trouble on more than one occasion.

Young novelist Nerida Newton is more objective in her description of the Miles Franklin Award as “At around AU$42,000 this award is Australia’s richest literary prize”. She’s clearly out of date, however, as it is no longer Australia’s richest prize. Not even the prestigious Melbourne Prize for Literature can claim to be this. As far as I can tell, that honour goes to the new Australia-Asia Literary Award. In 2008, its prize value was $110K.

Meanwhile, over at Allen & Unwin, they try to cover all bases. They describe The Australian/Vogel Literary Award as “one of Australia’s richest and the most prestigious award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five”. While the prize money is only $20K, it does also include publication of the manuscript. That IS worth a lot if you are a writer struggling to get published. 

The superlatives continue. The 2006 announcement of the Australia Council for the Arts Writers Emeritus Award describes itself as “one of the highest honours in Australian literature”. It too, though, is qualified as it “recognises the achievements of Australian writers over the age of 65 who have made an outstanding contribution to the field and created an acclaimed body of work”. That puts it out of reach of all but the grand dames and messieurs of the Australian literary firmament.

The thing is that when it comes to literary awards there are a lot of apples and oranges being compared. Is it an award for a piece of work or for a body of work? Is it an award for a published or an unpublished work? Is it limited by age or gender of writer, by region, genre or subject? 

I guess it all depends on your perspective. Monetary value is important – more for the winner, though, than the public looking for an indication of Australia’s leading literary lights. For me, it comes down to how widely the award net is cast (in relation to my literary interests) and who the judges are. And so, while some of my best friends are Victorian, the Melbourne Prize for Literature will not be in the top group of my literary  awards watchlist.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2009 7:56 am

    Oh you stirrer, Sue!

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      May 21, 2009 11:48 am

      Couldn’t resist that, now could I! We Territorians are so far out of it when it comes to critical mass in things like this, all we can do is be superior!

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