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Monday musings on Australian literature: What value literary awards?

April 16, 2012

If you are an Australian reader, you have probably heard that the new Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, has abolished the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. This was a shock as it had not been flagged during the election. His reason? To save some $250,000, as part of the Liberal National Party’s promised cost-cutting drive!

It was a wry moment for me when I heard the news, because only a few days before the announcement, I had pondered in my post about Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature whether, with the Festival becoming an annual event, South Australia would finally have an annual literary award, like most other Australian states.

Queensland’s literary awards program has been running since 1999 and is (hmm, was) one of the most comprehensive literary awards programs in Australia. It offers (offered) prizes in fourteen or fifteen categories, which included unpublished manuscripts, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, unpublished indigenous writers and fiction. Many of our significant writers have benefited from these awards, including Helen Garner, Alexis Wright, Tim Winton, Thea Astley, Nam Le, David Malouf, Judith Beveridge, Peter Carey, and Les Murray.

Australians will know that many of these award winners are not Queenslanders and their winning books were not necessarily about Queensland. Does this matter? All (I think) of Australia’s state-based awards are not state-limited in their criteria. I think that’s a good thing, though I can see arguments for limiting them to their states just as we have awards for women, for young writers, for indigenous writers, for unpublished works. What I don’t think is a good thing is to do away with awards. Awards for creative endeavours are always fraught. There are no objective standards to judge artistic creations by. But, this doesn’t mean they don’t have value – for the winners, for the short- and longlisted authors, and for the industry as a whole.

There are supporters of the decision. One is blogger Mark Fletcher who argues that these awards are “vanity projects” for Premiers and that “there are more significant funding opportunities for the arts in Queensland than the award: the end of the award does not mean the end of arts funding in Queensland”. Opponents, on the other hand, fear that this is the thin end of the wedge and that more cuts to arts funding are coming. Time will tell …

The topic has already been discussed on Australian blogs. Here are just a very few:

  • Angela Meyer of LiteraryMinded talks of the value of the prize to writers, publishers and booksellers
  • calls it a sad announcement
  • Jeff Sparrow in Overland argues that this may be the harbinger of more cuts as more conservative governments gain power in Australia. He suggests that “There’s an urgent need for a new defence of literature, arguments that are neither philistine populism nor patronizing elitism but instead make the case why writing should matter to ordinary people. It’s something we’ve traditionally been very bad at. We need to get much better, very quickly.”
  • Lisa Hills of ANZLitLovers advises that the awards will be made with or without prize money and provides the link for submissions.
  • skepticlawyer describes plans by authors Matthew Condon and Krissy Kneen to continue the awards, probably using the law of trusts – and provides a link to their Facebook page for the awards.

I think that’s enough. You get the drift I’m sure. But, I wonder, what do you think about Literary Awards. Are they worth defending? What do awards mean to you, as a reader?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 21:17

    Well, I am most aggrieved about the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writers. I think it is vital that we provide all possible support and encouragement for our indigenous writers…I want to see more of their unique style of story-telling, as in Alexis Wright and Kim Scott’s novels. It seems like the biggest insult of all, to imply that this award doesn’t matter.

    • April 16, 2012 22:16

      Yes, you’re right, Lisa. Absolutely. I think Marie Munkara won the Unaipon … an unusual but another great addition to indigenous storytelling … and Tara June Winch if I remember correctly. Hope to see more of them.

      • April 16, 2012 22:34

        I’ve just read Tara June Winch and have Marie Munkara on the TBR, and I’m keen to find more. .

        • April 16, 2012 23:26

          Yes, I remember you listened to Tara June Winch’s audiobook? I’ve had the book in my TBR for a few years now. Oh, well …

        • April 16, 2012 23:32

          Yes, that’s the one she narrated herself. I also like Larissa Behrendt’s Legacy, and there’s another of hers I have to get hold of too.

        • April 16, 2012 23:33

          There’s quite a lot out there when you start looking isn’t there but still not enough in the mainstream, not enough readers knowing about them.

  2. April 16, 2012 21:26

    And your daughter retweeted the following on the 4th of April (I’m not sure who tweeted it in the first place, but I at least won’t take undue credit!):

    “Genius move by Newman to scrap the QLD Literary Awards. If people read books they’ll get smart, if people get smart he’ll lose votes.”

  3. April 17, 2012 00:03

    I’m not influenced by awards in my reading choices. The farthest I’ll go is to sniff over the Booker prize list and peck over those who didn’t win as I seem to have better luck with the losers.

    • April 17, 2012 22:16

      I’m possibly, maybe, perhaps a little more influenced than that though I don’t usually actively seek them out and tend not to feel driven to read long lists or short lists*. However, I do usually end up reading the Booker winner eventually it seems – usually because my reading group decides to. And I usually end up reading our Miles Franklin here. As for the others, it’s very hit and miss and a serendipitous thing rather than something I seek out.

      (*The Man Asian was an exception — I didn’t read them all but it was a good way of getting myself introduced to a variety of current Asian literature.)

  4. April 17, 2012 01:10

    We just had the Minnesota Book Awards last night 🙂 It’s too bad about the prize, as if $250,000 is going to make a difference in the whole scheme of government finances when in the long run it does quite a lot for jobs and culture. I don’t rush out to read books nominated for prizes, but I do appreciate the prizes nonetheless as they bring to my attention books and authors I might want to read sometime.

    • April 17, 2012 22:24

      I agree that that’s part of it Stephanie – the wider impact these awards have, tangibly in jobs etc and more intangibly in promotion and general awareness, in those things the bean-counters can’t or often won’t anyhow consider.

      Except for my little Man Asian project, I don’t rush to read nominated books either, not read all the winners, but like you I do value the way they bring more books to my attention and the way they generate talk around the traps. (Like say your Pulitzer!! That will generate talk!)

      • April 17, 2012 23:34

        As luck would have it, the Pulitzers were just announced yesterday! The award for poetry went to a book published by a small, independent MN Press, the poet is not from Minnesota but we are still pretty proud. No award for fiction was given though because the committee had it narrowed down to three books and not one of them could get a majority vote from the judges!

        • April 18, 2012 00:01

          LOL the non-awarding of the fiction prize was what I was intimating would create more talk. I didn’t know that the poetry winner was published by a small MN press though. Good for them. Ya gotta love the small presses.

  5. kimbofo permalink
    April 18, 2012 07:32

    A sad move. I thought author Susan Johnson’s open letter to Mr Newman summed it up perfectly:

    • April 18, 2012 09:18

      Thanks Kim … I was aware of it but hadn’t read it. There’s so much out there. But, you’re right, it’s a good’n.

  6. April 18, 2012 11:47

    As an outsider, I have an inkling that Newman is quite a high-handed kind of guy. I mean, even we living in a cultural hinterland don’t have such callous political action in the name of cost-cutting. Although I must say Toronto mayor’s plan to close down public libraries had a similar ring to it, but had to rescind after rampant protest. I agree with you, it’s the intangible gains that are often the real benefits… which of course, are hard to quantify for those in power. I read prize winners, because I feel they’ve been screened for me when I try to decide which is a worthy book to read. Not saying I agree with them always, but at least, a process of selection has been carried out by (hopefully) knowledgable jurors.

    • April 18, 2012 16:09

      Oh that’s a nice point Arti re closing down libraries …

      And those in power like to quantify don’t they. We’ve become a bit obsessed with measuring to justify and are uncomfortable with qualitative analysis/measurement.

      I take your point re reading prize-winners. They are usually worth reading even if one mightn’t always agree that they are the best of the bunch.

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