Last year I attended and reported on the post-announcement panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, held at the National Library of Australia. I attended again this year and, since it occurred today, Monday, I’ve decide to devote this week’s Monday musings to it.
First, the winners:
- Fiction: Gillian Mears‘ Foal’s bread (My review)
- Poetry: Luke Davies‘ Interferon psalms
- Young adult fiction: Robert Newton’s When we were two
- Children’s fiction: writer Frances Watts and illustrator Judy Watson’s (illus.) Goodnight, mice!
- Non-fiction: Mark McKenna’s An eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark
- History: Bill Gammage‘s The biggest estate on earth: How aborigines made Australia
Last year’s four awards were expanded to six this year by rolling the separate Prime Minister’s History Prize into them and, hallelujah, adding in a prize for Poetry. The awards are, I believe, the most generous of Australia’s publicly funded awards, providing $80,000 to each winner and $5,000 to each shortlisted author.
The panel members were Luke, Robert, Mark and Judy. Unfortunately, Bill Gammage is currently overseas, and Gillian Mears who suffers from multiple sclerosis had attended the announcement but needed to rest before her afternoon engagements. I was disappointed not to see her but of course can’t begrudge her putting her health first. The panel was chaired by local ABC radio announcer Louise Maher.
I won’t summarise the whole panel but just cherry pick a few interesting thoughts and ideas that came out of it. During a discussion about the writing process, in which Robert Newton said that he when he starts writing he rarely knows where his story is going to end, Mark McKenna offered a favourite quote from David Malouf:
I don’t write to record what I know. I write to find out what I know.
I like this. It makes me feel that we readers are on a journey with the author rather than being told what to think by the author.
There was, of course, the usual discussion about the impact of technology on books and reading and, while the responses weren’t quite as conservative as I felt they were last year, there still seems to be some resistance to thinking positively about change. I understand that. Livelihoods – of writers, publishers and booksellers – are at stake BUT, whether we like it or not, the change is coming (is here, in fact) and so our best chance is to embrace it.
Louise approached the question from a slightly different angle by asking how reading, which takes effort and time, fits into contemporary culture. Mark believes that the one-on-one aspect of reading is under threat, due I suppose to competition from other stimuli, and said that awards like these are important because they can bring more readers to books. (This point was, in fact, a bit of a mantra for him.) He suggested that the act of reading, the way we read, is changing and that the solitary experience is becoming rare. He noted that in just a few more decades the majority of people around will not have grown up with books the way we in the audience had. Their experience and expectations will be different, and books are likely to be produced in different formats with content and presentation varying between the formats. Mark also made the significant point that much of the change that is occurring is in the culture around the book rather than in reading itself, and I guess he’s right. The way books are sold – and published – is changing. Electronic books can’t be physically browsed in a bookshop. It’s not easy to lend an electronic book. You can’t get your electronic book signed. And so on …
Rob’s response that reading and technology will have to grow together was a pragmatic one. But he also commented, regarding the effort involved in reading, that he likes “the idea of books making kids work a bit”. Judy talked of inculcating a reading habit with children when they are young, and said she limits her (young) children’s time with technology. I liked Luke’s honesty when he said that attention span is the issue and that he can see it in himself, that he finds himself being drawn too often to “fiddly” little things on the Internet, like favourite blogs, and away from concentrated reading. But, he also said that he believes that our “emotional and spiritual” relationship with words will always be there. That makes sense. The forms and formats might change but our love affair with words and the ideas they express surely won’t! As one person said, we need to respect the new forms but recognise that the story, the empathy, will always be the thing.
There was a question from the floor late in the session regarding what difference the monetary prize would make to their lives. The answers weren’t really surprising but were interesting nonetheless:
- Luke, who admitted to being more broke now than he has been for many decades, said he will pay off his debts and that the remaining money will give him a buffer enabling him to say no to jobs that he “shouldn’t” be doing, that aren’t, he said a little self-consciously, in response to his muse.
- Rob said he’d buy a new surfboard and a laptop with working shift and caps lock keys, and that he’d consider taking some time off from his job as a firefighter to write full-time.
- Mark said it would buy a little financial independence and provide some seed money for his new book, which will tell the history of Australia through some selected places that he will need to visit.
- Judy also said it would take off some of the financial pressure and allow her to work on what she wants to rather than on jobs “for the money”.
A great session. I thank the National Library for again providing the opportunity for members of the public to “meet” the authors this way, and I thank the authors for giving up their precious writing time to talk with us!