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Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2011, Round 2

November 4, 2011

For those interested in the continuing story of Meanjin‘s Tournament of Books, which I introduced in late October, Round 2 has now been played. Here are the results … with a little additional commentary by me.

Match 1, Joan London’s Gilgamesh defeated Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach

Oh, such a hard one. I feel for judge Michaela McGuire, a self-0uted Helen Garner fan who gave the match to Joan London. That takes bravery. I’m sure she had her heart in her mouth when she put those fingers to her keyboard. Anyhow, in the end, she gave it to London for the lovely single sentences (she’s right there) and, as I understand her, the expansiveness of the conception. She admires Garner’s “characteristic elegance and wryness” but “was left wanting”. She decides not to give it to Garner based on her love for the body of Garner’s work but to London based on this work. Fair enough. It would have been a hard call for me, too, and I would like to see London’s beautiful, mesmerising book receive wider exposure.

Match 2, Kate Grenville’s The secret river defeated Christina Stead’s The man who loved children

This may be the shock of the round, methinks. Admittedly the judge, Michael Williams, like McGuire above, bemoaned his lot. He calls them both masterpieces. He argues that both writers have a significant body of quality work. He says literary comparisons are b******t. And so, in a sense, he cops out. He tells us that in 1967 The man who lived childrenwas declared ineligible for the Britannica Australia Award because Stead had “ceased to be Australian”, though he also admits that it took only 70 years for it to assume a strong place in the Australian canon. But, he concludes, “Canonisation is for the dead. Tournaments are for the living. I’m giving this to Grenville“, and then declares his conflict of interest as having been involved in promoting The secret river at Text Publishing on its publication. Not having read Man yet and being a big defender of The secret river as excellent and valid historical fiction, I must, in fairness, stand on the sidelines, but I find this outcome an interesting one.

Match 3, Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career defeated Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi

Sorry, Melina, I did love your book but I feel this is the right and proper decision. Judge Sarah L’estrange discusses the similarities in subject matter between these two books – “strong willed and independent” teenage girls fighting to find their own life against a background of familial and societal expectations. However, she gives the match to Franklin because Looking for Alibrandi is “just too straight-forward in the telling, there isn’t the dazzling dance of words across the page that My Brilliant Career has in spades”. I think she’s right. Alibrandi is locked pretty firmly into the Young Adult genre while Career has a more universal appeal, largely because of its writing and conception.

Match 4, Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahoney defeated Cate Kennedy’s The world beneath

Another judge complaining about comparing literature! Makes me wonder why they signed up for the job! Anson Cameron makes me laugh though. Of Richardson‘s big book he says “Fat books, like fat people, die young unless they have huge hearts” and concludes that “only very good books age this well. Only very good books have the architecture to withstand great changes in the world. Of Kennedy‘s book he writes that it is “a Garnerish, (Garneresque? Garnery? Garnerly?) type novel in that it is imbued with a the kind of everyday insufferable domestic pressure Helen Garner excels in and it’s rendered in a spare, accurate prose reminiscent of her”. Not that he says it, but perhaps that’s a good enough reason for it to lose, perhaps it is too “Garner” rather than something original. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know as this one’s still in my TBR pile. Richardson would, I think, have the body of opinion behind her so Cameron has probably chosen well … and anyhow, if Garner was going to win, I’d rather it be Garner (if you know what I mean).

Now onto the Semi-finals …

In three of the four matches in this round, a classic was pitted against a contemporary, and the classic won two of them. I’m surprised the third one didn’t win too. Does this mean I’m a reactionary, old fuddy-duddy of a reader? Or does it simply mean that the classics have proven themselves as stayers over time? I prefer to think the latter … which suggests that if a contemporary novel wins the tournament, it will surely move one step higher on its climb to classic status.

I will be reporting again …

PS: I planned to list the semi-final matches here, but the numbering of the matches above does not accord with the numbering on the initial tournament plan, so I’m not sure which book will be pitted against which. Has some match-fixing been going on? Surely not!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2011 5:27 am

    Joan London has become a must read author for me not only from your blog but also a review at

    • November 5, 2011 8:15 am

      Oh thanks, Tony. I’ll go read that. In the meantime, I think you would enjoy London, particularly Gilgamesh. I did enjoy The good parents too but Gilgamesh resonates more long after reading it I think.

  2. November 5, 2011 9:49 am

    I think The Secret River will turn out to be of its time – extremely well-written, prividing new insights to current Australians on Australia’s colonial history, but somehow not engaging/enraging at the visceral level like the Man Who Loved Children. Mind you, I wished at times that a good editor had got her hands on Man, while Grenville doesn’t waste any words.

    • November 5, 2011 11:41 am

      That’s my gut feeling too, Judith. I like her writing a lot, but it didn’t engage me at that “wow” or “elemental” level that makes me want to read it again and again. It engaged me as a book that pretty fearlessly tackled some issues of our time and I’ve defended it as being a very valid work, on those grounds, against the naysayers …

  3. November 5, 2011 3:08 pm

    Oh, I do feel a bit sad about Looking for Alibrandi but how can I argue against “the dazzling dance of words across the page”?

  4. November 8, 2011 4:44 pm

    My knowledge of Australian fiction is not extensive, but it was fun to read your post because I have actually read and loved the winners of Matches 1, 2, and 3. Gilgamesh has that staying power you mentioned. Never have been to Australia, but I liked the Grenville book enough to read it again sometime. It felt like being right there on the ground, so immediate and true.

    • November 8, 2011 11:27 pm

      Ha, Fay (and welcome). Clearly then they’ve picked well if the books in the tournament have been read in the US. I’m so glad you like Gilgamesh too. As for Grenville, I suggest you try some of her others (though rereading this one would never go astray) like The idea of perfection (if you can get access to it).

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