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Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Pondering Meanjin’s Tournament

November 21, 2011

My recent post on the semifinals of Meanjin‘s Tournament of Books engendered some comments on the value or validity of the tournament itself – so I thought, having dedicated myself to reporting on the tournament, I should comment on what I think about it as an event.

I’ll start by saying that I don’t take literary competitions overly seriously. Literature (like any creative pursuit) just cannot be fit into a neat set of criteria against which to judge it. We could (should we so desire) judge the longest book, or the book with the most characters, or, well you get the drift, but judging the “best” book that, for example, depicts “Australian life in any of its phases” (the Miles Franklin) or that represents “literary excellence” (Prime Minister’s Literary Awards) is patently not a cut and dried thing. But, awards have value, the two main ones being that they:

  • raise awareness and bring not just the winners but also short and longlisted books to wider attention, and that is never a bad thing;
  • often involve MONEY for the winner, and that, too, is never a bad thing!

And so to Meanjin. Here is the Wheeler Centre’s announcement launching the tournament:

The inaugural Meanjin Tournament is a literary stoush like no other. The venerable literary journal pits classics against each other to determine one true candidate for the Great Australian Novel.

The Meanjin Tournament of Books is not your typical literary prize. It’s a sports tournament for people who don’t like sports, a literary smackdown that pits book against book in a bloody battle for ultimate victory. Join us as we launch the Tournament for 2011, announce the shortlisted 15 books, and ask you the audience to vote for a 16th contender. This year the shortlist is limited to novels by Australian women, of any era. The Meanjin Tournament of Books is certain to be the year’s bloodiest, most ruthless literary event.

“Literary smackdown”, “bloody battle”. That rather sets the tone, don’t you think?

Shared Reading Sign

Shared Reading (Courtesy: Amy via Clker.Com)

This is not to say that the tournament doesn’t have intellectual or cultural value – as well as a promotional one. Lisa Dempster, Emerging Writers’ Festival director, said in a guest post on Kill Your Darlings that she was going to readalong with the tournament, and wrote on the value of shared reading. This made me think of “water cooler” television programs. You know, those programs that people like to watch in real-time so they can talk about it at work the next day, something that media fragmentation is undermining big time. But, for Dempster, it’s a bit more than this. She says:

I don’t just enjoy talking about books I have read; I also love the idea of having a shared reading experience, discovering new books, and being one of a community of people reading the same books at the same time …

She’s keen on ideas like One city, One book which encourages everyone in a city to read and discuss one book. I like the idea too … as long as it’s a book I’d like to (or, should I saw, be happy to) read!

But, back to the Tournament itself. Here is what they at Meanjin say it is about:

The Tournament is a literary prize… kind of. Finding a winner is less important in the Meanjin Tournament of Books than the arguing and debating of the competition. It’s about reading books you’ve always meant to read but never quite got around to, and about re-reading dog-eared favourites…

And that, I think, encapsulates perfectly the way I see this and other literary competitions. What do you think?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 8:20 pm

    I agree with you. Sometimes people need to relax. This competition to me is just a bit of humourous fun. It’s not supposed to be the next Man Booker. Its just a fun thing to do to encourage people to read and to bring attention to Australian fiction. It’s easy sometimes to take reading and literature really serious (and appropriate as well in the right circumstances). But if we want to encourage normal every day people to read (people who aren’t in it because of some serious literary goal) then this is a great way to do it so long as word gets out.

    • November 21, 2011 9:25 pm

      And that’s a bit of the moot point I think, Becky … they are wanting exposure it seems, but I’m not sure they’ve harnessed the media/communications technology well enough, so perhaps their tone is mismatching with their current readership?

  2. November 21, 2011 9:04 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with all of this, especially the last quote. I have ordered several books after reading about the tournament, and searched my bookshelves for others. It is lovely to hear such great books (by women too!) spoken about and revived with fervour.

    • November 21, 2011 9:29 pm

      And that, Catherine, surely means they’ve achieved their goal. It’s certainly reminded me of a few that I really MUST read too.

  3. November 22, 2011 9:25 am

    I really like the part about reading what you’ve been intending to but haven’t made the time for. I’m so guilty of that!

    P.S. Don’t look at the time stamp of when I commented here. 😛

    • November 22, 2011 9:37 am

      Hannah, all readers are I think – guilty of that I mean – but we just keep plugging on!

  4. November 22, 2011 3:31 pm

    “The Meanjin Tournament of Books is certain to be the year’s bloodiest, most ruthless literary event.”

    Hilarious. Still, some of the book awards have been mired in acrimony and ill will this year. The National Book Awards ceremony in the US had just ended, and the sneering began online. I like having books vetted by other serious readers. It helps filter out some of the noise and directs me to some good reads. – Fay

    • November 22, 2011 5:57 pm

      I agree Fay … it’s not so much the winner, but having a bunch of sifted books to choose from isn’t it? It’s why I prefer not to get caught up with self-published books. Not because they may not be any good but because I don’t have enough reading time to sort them all out.

      Acrimony is not a good thing in these awards … what was the issue with the National Book Awards?

  5. November 26, 2011 11:17 am

    Issue with National Book Awards was pretty similar to the Booker controversy. Some outspoken people did not think the best novels made the final cut. Then when the winners were announced, a few people started complaining on Twitter about the decline of the award. It’s not what it used to be. Not about great literature anymore. And so on. I say, put a sock in it. (Do they say that out your way? Shut your mouth?) Honestly, why snipe? I pay attention to book awards but do not take them all that seriously.

    • November 26, 2011 2:26 pm

      Same old, same old, eh, Fay? Perhaps the best way to see it is that at least complaints mean that people are talking, you know as in, any publicity is good publicity!

      Yes, I think “put a sock in it” is used here. We are probably more likely to say “shut up” than “shut your mouth” but both are used here I think.

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