Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2011, Finale

… and now we have a winner! Those of you who have been following the tournament will know that the two books facing off in the Finale were Helen Garner‘s The children’s Bach and Joan London‘s Gilgamesh. I would not have guessed this at the beginning (and neither, they say, did the organisers). Not because these aren’t great books – I’ve read them both – but because they are not the ones on the top of people’s tongues (like, say, My brilliant career) or the ones with critical weight behind them (like, say, The man who loved children or The fortunes of Richard Mahony). That said, I’m surprised but not sorry, because it’s no bad thing to expose other works to wider attention. The question is, will they get it?

Anyhow, onto the finale. It was judged a little differently: there was a panel of 5, with each giving a brief reason for his/her vote. You can read their reasons on the Meanjin site, because here I’m simply going to announce that the winner.  And it is, drum roll please, with 3 votes to 2,  Zombie Round returnee, Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach.  I’m happy – after all it’s one of the few from the original list that I’ve reviewed on this this blog. It was a reread too, which tells you something: Garner is a great writer.

The real question, though, is what happens next? Has the Tournament achieved anything for Australian literature, and Australian women’s writing in particular? Is it worth doing again next year? Well, I’m not sure. Leaving off the question concerning the merits of judging books, and looking at it from a consciousness-raising point of view, which were, I believe, its main goals, did Meanjin‘s Tournament achieve what it set out to. I fear it didn’t … and that I suspect is due less to the tournament itself than to lack of promotion of it. I didn’t see or hear much buzz about it around the traps – in neither the formal print and electronic media nor in less formal places like blogs.

Appropriately, the following quote from The children’s Bach has some application here:

Like many women of her age whose opinions, when they were freshly thought and expressed, had never received the attention they deserved, Mrs Fox had slid away into a habit of monologue, a stream of mild words which concealed the bulk of thought and knowledge as babbling water hides submerged boulders.

I fear that, like Mrs Fox’s wisdom, the submerged boulders of good Australian literature have stayed submerged … what must (can) we do to expose them?

28 thoughts on “Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2011, Finale

  1. ‘What must we do?’ We read your blog for starters, Sue! I like to see the shining pebbles on the bottom of a river, so reading your posts on the tournament (as well as your Monday Musings) has inspired me to add a few of these classics to my TBR list. Thanks. John.

  2. Hi Sue, thanks for your blog.

    I’ve come in late to this discussion, but I’ll be interested to look back over the tournament and see what has been read and why these books have been voted best. I’m sure it has helped to generate awareness, and that awareness is growing, judging by the buzz surrounding the Australian Women Writers 2012 reading and reviewing challenge. I wonder, if the tournament is repeated, whether it could link up with the challenge in some way?

    One benefit of the AWW 2012 challenge is that it includes all genres, not just literary fiction, so there’s a wide pool of readers and bookbloggers taking an interest. It also encourages reading across different genres. There’s bound to be some crossover into literary fiction along the way.

    I hope you don’t mind me posting the link here, as I’d love for your readers to consider taking part.

    • Thanks Elizabeth … that’s fine re the link. Your challenge is another good initiative. As you know I tend to focus on the literary fiction side. I read the occasional genre book but usually those that crossover into the literary fiction field (though how one defines that is a moot point isn’t it? I’m thinking, for example, Kate Grenville’s historical fiction or, to use a male example, some of Peter Temple’s crime books). Too little time to expand further! Any initiative that promotes the breadth of writing (and reading) in Australia has to help.

      One day we should tease out the whole issue of genre versus literary … perhaps it should be genre versus general. This would “allow” any book to be literary, should it meet whatever criteria we use to define literary!?! Hmmm … needs more thought but there is something too artificial in this division methinks.

      • I should have hesitated to write “literary” and other genres! I know literary writers who would dispute the idea of “literary” as a genre, and it’s a false distinction in any case when you have very literary/craft-conscious writers drawing on the narrative devices typical of multiple genres. I’d *love* for this subject to be teased out more, and for the whole idea of what makes “quality writing”.

        Would you consider doing a guest post about this in relation to Australian (women) literary writers for the AWW blog? (For anyone who might read this, by the way, you don’t have to read genre – there’s an option for purists specialising in literary fiction, too.)

        I’ll be featuring guest authors and reviewers throughout the year – why not some discussion, too, if people have the time and interest?

        • Hi Elizabeth … I’d love to think about it a bit more so could perhaps do a guest post. Would you like to remind me next year OR suggest a time frame and I’ll put it in my planning (not at the beginning of the year though!)

  3. I guess Meanjin readers were the primary target and some of them who are involved in publishing, reviewing and judging awards might have gained a few insights. Then there are readers like me, torn between genre and literary fiction and not quite knowing what to read next. I was prompted through your blogging about the tournament to read these two books and they’ve now ‘gone viral’ in my tiny network.

    • Oh good! I think I said in my review (but maybe I didn’t) that the reason I wanted to reread it was because an Aussie critic (Don Anderson) said some years ago that it was one of the top 4 novellas in his mind. The others were Ford Maddox Ford’s The good soldier, Fitzgerald’s The great Gatsby, and Hemingway’s The sun also rises. Interesting company eh?

  4. For me it has been an eye-opener and ‘Carpentaria’ arrived yesterday although I’ve just started reading ‘The Slap’. Now I want to reread some Helen Garner and see how it feels to the older self.
    I love the discussion of genre versus literary and will be following that one up too! I also love writing literary, but for someone whose car is falling to bits I am hoping my commercial women’s novel coming out next year might help with that!

    • LOL Catherine. I can understand that. There’s nothing wrong with commercial fiction, as you call it. How many writers use pseudonyms for their “commercial” or “genre” writing and their own name for their other writing? I suspect there are more than we are aware of – or, at least, than I’m aware of! Let me know what you think of The slap.

  5. Re. I fear that, like Mrs Fox’s wisdom, the submerged boulders of good Australian literature have stayed submerged … what must (can) we do to expose them?

    “Write about them intelligently, thoroughly, and enthusiastically,” is the first answer that comes to mind. Take them seriously. I don’t mean solemnly, humourlessly, but passionately, which can incorporate humour. And by “enthusiastically” I don’t mean “uncritically.” Enthusiasm can be critical. You can enthusiastically dislike a book. You can enthusiastically consider a flaw. Write about the lesser novels too: generate an atmosphere of energy and love around Australian literature as a whole. Blogs like this are a help, I think. Essays that bring books into their arguments might be a good thing — I’m saying “might” because I don’t know — since they make it clear that books live in the mesh of life itself; they don’t exist apart. Don Watson, writing about teachers in The Monthly, discusses a novel set in Iceland and compares the isolation of the Icelandic sheep-farming family to the isolation of some schools in the Northern Territory. ( )

    Someone like Robert Hughes would be an asset — someone who reads well even when you don’t agree with him, someone who isn’t relying on easy shock jock tactics but who nonetheless makes parts of his audience want to throw a chair — they grope in their brains for a reply; they discover that their points matter; the book in question would flare brilliantly in their minds. You hope that they want to come up to the standards of their adversary. But a bubbling constant undercurrent is important. And the most vital thing: help people to be literate. A book is a partnership and half the partnership is the reader. We need good readers.

    • Great response DKS. What can I add to that? except I had to rush off to that article because I guessed it must have been Laxness’s Independent people Watson referred to, and it was. Great novel … Another I’d love to retread.

      I do agree with you re Robert Hughes and the like. Intelligent provocative commentary is to be treasured, not ridiculed? Even the comedian judges on the tournament, for all their jokiness, made some interesting points, digs even, about Australian literature.

      I also agree re humour – good humour with point. Hard to do, but achieves a lot. We need a Roy and HG on Aussie Lit perhaps.

      • A Roy and HG of Australian literature could be a winner — and now that I’m thinking about it, that’s probably what the comedian judges were trying to be, but that sports-commentator style works better in the mouth than on the page — it loves quickness, it loves spoken inflection, it loves mouth-pauses and spontaneity. Were their parts done live in front of an audience and somebody made a transcription? Ben sounds like speech, Jess not so much — she doesn’t have the same free-flowing directness. “[D]espite briefly contemplating a match fix worthy of a dodgy test cricketer, McGuire was forced to admit that Gilgamesh — yes, cursed by a cover lacking in stilettos but more than making up for it with a travel itinerary resembling a jam-packed Contiki tour — was indeed the better book” (J) looks more self-conscious and self-edited than “I guess the point is that The Children’s Bach is an admirable trier, but big matches are won by big books, and the flash and razzle-dazzle and sheer “oomph” of Gilgamesh simply overwhelmed Garner’s simple, plucky style.” (B) (If we’re looking for sports commentating turned into literary commentary then “Big matches are won by big books” is exactly it. Not hard to imagine a Rex Hunt or someone recapping a footy match with, “Big matches are won by big men, and no one was bigger on the day than Fred Nurke …” etc.)

        A line like Ben’s, “So, Harp in the South versus Looking for Alibrandi, two veterans of the high school circuit going up against each other, and the first thing I notice is Ruth Park’s unorthodox decision to not have a plot,” would be perfect if you said it out loud because you could hesitate before you reached the end — you could leave us wondering how you were going to conclude, how were you going to single one of them out now that you’d put them both into the same category with “veterans of the high school circuit”? — but when it’s in writing then the audience can wander forward comfortably to the end of the sentence at its own pace and the punch is soft. “[A]nd the first thing I notice” is working as a delaying tactic, taking the place of that spoken hesitation, but speech itself would have been stronger.

        An idea for a future Tournament of Books: if half the commentary is going to be performed in a spoken style then why not a podcast? Was there a podcast? I’m looking over the Meanjin website now and I can’t see one. Keep the two comedian-judges, make it a regular book show.

        • Oh glad you agree DKS. Some of their comments were both funny and perceptive I thought (too). A podcast is a great idea … your analysis of writing versus spoken has convinced me. I wonder if anyone at Meanjin is reading any of these comments/suggestions?

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head with the suggestion of greater publicity. I read all the time and would love to read more books by Australian women writers, but I still found it hard to remember to check in on the progress of the tournament. Most people out there don’t even know its on. The good thing about this comp too was that it was a bit of fun, not something serious like most of the awards. These sort of contests could be lots of fun for people who wouldn’t normally the types of books in the lists – but the only way that people are going to follow it is if people know about it.

  7. I think it was a good idea, and the people who are likely to be interested probably did know about it through one medium or another. I’d like to see an alternative Miles Franklin knockout competition each year – sixteen books enter, one book leaves 😉

    • I’m glad you agree, Tony, and hope they did … although there are readers here who felt that the level of awareness was on the low side. Love your comment about an alternative Miles Franklin.

  8. Re. I wonder if anyone at Meanjin …

    I hope so, because I want to hear that podcast. If they’re trying to treat books in a lighthearted way that also seems knowledgeable and exciting then a line like “big matches are won by big books” is ideal because it makes the books fun without belittling them. It turns them into mythological prizefighters. Sporting language doesn’t suffer from the queasiness that made some of the proper-judges go arch and shy over the idea of judging books in the first place. It knows that the result of the Grand Final isn’t going to make the sun rise or solve world hunger, but it takes that in its stride and shouts about it anyway. It’s silly but it’s also majestic.

  9. I’d do it. We’d have not only Tournaments but Team Picks, choosing representatives of different ideas and then weighing them against one another to see who makes the cut. Who is the most Gothic of the Australian Gothics? Then the big match: Australian Gothic against Southern Gothic. Head to head. The only way to do this at all is to take it seriously, as a music reviewer at the New York Times said recently as he was compiling a list of Top Ten composers, so we’d want a comedian in the mix somewhere.

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