Monday musings on Australian literature: Meanjin’s Tournament of Books

Henry Handel Richardson in 1945, a year before...

Henry Handel Richardson, 1945 (Presumed Public Domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Many Monday musings ago I wrote about the reduced visibility of women writers in Australia. I wasn’t the only one concerned and things have been afoot to up the ante for women writers. For example, a new award targeting women writers, the Stella Prize, was announced earlier this year. And now Meanjin, a longstanding literary magazine, is emulating the Morning News’ Tournament of Books (to which a favourite blogger, Hungry like the Woolf, introduced me a couple of years ago) by conducting a tournament comprising books by Australian women writers.

Meanjin describes the tournament as follows:

The way it works is this: 16 books are chosen … and then divided into pairs. A judge is given a pair, reads them both, writes up their decision process and announces which of the pair they deem the better book. That book then progresses into the next match to go up against a winner from a previous round. It’s a sporting tournament for people who don’t like sport.

This year, in light of the discussion around women’s writing and literary prizes, we’ve selected a short list of novels exclusively by Australian women. The list has been chosen by us, and is incomplete, capricious and arbitrary. That’s ok. There’s no way you could do Australian women authors justice in 16 books…

Fair enough … and being this upfront about their selection makes it hard for us to complain, doesn’t it? And really, I wouldn’t want to, because I can’t imagine we’d ever get universal agreement on 16 books, anyhow.

The tournament schedule can be viewed at the Meanjin site so I won’t detail it here, but I will list* the 16 books, partly because it’s a useful list, despite its arbitrariness, for those interested in Aussie women’s lit:

Regular readers of my blog will recognise some of my favourite and oft-mentioned authors here. Interestingly, a couple of young adult/children’s novels (those by Carmody and Marchetta) have been included – one of their “capricious” decisions, perhaps! Not that I have anything against such novels – I thoroughly enjoyed Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi – but I wonder whether they have the weight to beat a Stead or an Astley, a Wright or a Jolley, for example. Well, keep reading …

Round 1 results

  • Match 1, Gilgamesh beat The lost dog. Both are interesting books but Gilgamesh is a beautiful one. I would have chosen it too.
  • Match 2, The children’s Bach beat Mr Scobie’s riddle. This is harder. I love The children’s Bach but have not read Mr Scobie’s riddle. I’m not sure it’s the Jolley I’d have chosen … but, oops, I said I wasn’t going to go there, so let me just say that this match is a tricky one – the judge thought so too – and I’m glad I wasn’t asked to call it!
  • Match 3, My brilliant career beat Tirra lirra by the river. Another hard one, but My brilliant career would have to be the sentimental favourite in this pairing. And, anyhow, how could I not agree with a book the judge called “chick-lit amongst the gums” and “Austen in an Akubra with a broad Australian twang and some permanent sun damage”?
  • Match 4, Looking for Alibrandi beat Harp in the south. Interesting decision. A main criterion for the judge seemed to be the ability to stand the test of time … but, but, I argue, Looking for Alibrandi is only 20 years old while Harp in the south has already stood the test of time. And, I’m not sure that Alibrandi reaches adult audiences in the same way that Harp does. Still, perhaps I should read Alibrandi again to be sure.
  • Match 5, The secret river beat A kindness cup. Both good books, and a very hard choice … one the judge clearly found hard too. It seems as though it was Astley’s more dystopian view that was the deciding factor. That seems a bit of a cop out to me!
  • Match 6, The man who loved children beat Obernewtyn. Now this must surely have been a no-brainer and the judge agrees, explaining why they were (mis)matched in the first place. I’ll say no more.
  • Match 7, The fortunes of Richard Mahony beat Of a boy. Another pretty obvious choice, really. While I do think a short novel or novella can beat a hefty tome, this is probably not the hefty tome to be up against!
  • Match 8, The world beneath beat Carpentaria. Now this does surprise me. The latter won the Miles Franklin award while The world beneath was not shortlisted. I don’t think we should give excessive credence to awards but it seems the judge gave the match to The world beneath because he found Carpentaria “difficult”. Is this fair or right, I cry into cyberspace? No, but at least the judge admits to being “covered in the stench of subjectivity”, so all one can do is vote Carpentaria back in the zombie round.

Plot, humour  and readability seemed high on the various judges’ agendas. They would not be my top criteria but, as this tournament is mainly about promotion of women writers and having some fun, I’ll say no more, except that I’ll report again on the tournament after the second round has been played …

* The two linked titles are to reviews on this blog. I’ve read many of the books listed, but mostly long before I started this blog.

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Meanjin’s Tournament of Books

    • Yes, ’tis a weird match – if you’re talking Harp. The judge seemed to imply they were both high school novels but I don’t see Harp as a YA novel so I think it’s a bit of fallacious reasoning really as surely most high school novels are not YA?

      Man and Obernewtyn is a very weird match though … Carmody must have given up when she saw that paired with her book!

      Carpentaria is a wild novel … You have to go with the flow. I loved it. I’m a bit of a tightly written novella fan but every now and then I read a fat baggy monster that I love, like this one.

  1. This is a great idea, and I have been following this on and off with interest. Sadly, I’ve only read one of the sixteen (‘The Children’s Bach’), so I’ll have to improve on that…

  2. Of the books I have read, I would day they definitely got match 1 right – The Lost Dog fell short for me.

    Good decision with My Brilliant Cqreer too – I found it a lot more engaging than Tirra Lirra.

    I am really surprised at Looking for Alibrandi winning over Harp in the South – I love Alibrandi but Harp in the South is the better book I am sure.

    The Secret River I have read and thought it was ok, but havent read its opponent.

    Ive not read either world beneath or carpentaria but from what ive heard of both that seems surprising to me too

  3. I think the idea of a book tournament is absolutely wonderful. It saves the judges having to read every book on the list and adds a lot of interest to each round. I’d love to participate in one of those and I wonder if a group of book bloggers would be interested? The organisation of it would be pretty difficult though! I’m going to think about it

    • Sounds like a great idea Tom. Keep thinking … And if you want to discuss more let me know. I’d be happy to help brainstorm. There are all sorts of “themes” one could explore.

    • Tom,

      Not to jump in unwelcome, but if you and Whispering come up with anything, I would be happy to participate, help, or publicize. I’ve been kicking around some ideas myself, but don’t want to step on any toes. The fact that TMN was consulted and agreed to this tournament makes me think another might work (especially if it did not compete head-to-head). The Morning News does a great job with the original, but I think more tournaments would be great, especially with themes like this one. There is not, after all, only one literary award or one basketball tournament or one of almost anything.


  4. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: October 28, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  5. I am so pleased to see this. I had been thinking a tournament for past books (classics) of some category would be awesome. Meanjin has conceptualized this perfectly. Also, knowledgeable commentators are almost always the best part of these Tournaments, so the more commentary from you on the results, the better. If I may be so bold as to make a veiled request…..

    The good, the bad, and the ugly is that this will bloat my TBR.

    But, I was planning on starting in on Patrick White soon and following that with more Aussies recommended by you, so the Tournament is well-timed to encourage me to get to my own Australian Lit project sooner rather than later. 2012 will be my Aussie-lit year.

    Thanks for the nod, too!

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