Monday musings on Australian literature: Some thoughts on specialised literary awards

Did you hear last week that the Man Group is, after the current award, withdrawing its support for the Man Asian Literary Prize? I heard it via a tweet from a member of our prize team for the 2011 prize. This, in the same year that the Queensland premier cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. What is happening? Is there something in the international waters? Has climate change somehow blown the winds in the wrong direction?

And yet, fortunately, other awards keep appearing. Late last week I reported on the shortlist for a new award here, the Most Underrated Book Award (or MUBA). In the same week the people behind the new Stella Prize finally called for nominations for the inaugural award. Winners will be announced in April next year. This award, appropriately named for Miles Franklin – her full name was  Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin – is “for the best work of literature [fiction and non-fiction] published in 2012 by an Australian woman”. Fiction and non-fiction! This will be interesting.

All this ground-shifiting raises the question, yet again, regarding whether new (in fact any) prizes are warranted, particularly prizes targeted to special groups. Author Chris Flynn, writing on the Meanjin Blog regarding the Stella Prize, said, in support of a prize for women writers:

At this point in the process the argument over whether or not a dedicated prize for women is needed is moot. We can, after all, have as many prizes as we like in literature and even if the Barbara Jefferis Award already exists, so what? Men are eligible for that anyway, as the $35K goes to ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society.’ Frank Moorhouse was shortlisted this year, and Anna Funder won. If I came into some moolah and announced I was starting up The Flynn Prize for, say, the best first novel of the year, would anyone seriously be shouting me down and saying it was unnecessary, that there are already plenty of prizes out there and debut novelists should just suck it up and hope for the best? Yeah, I don’t think so, somehow.

I like his point that “We can, after all, have as many prizes as we like in literature”.

This brings me back to the Man Asian Literary Prize, which started in 2007. The executive director of the prize, David Parker, thanked the Man Group for its support and argued for the value of the prize:

We look forward to the future with a new partner, confident that Asian fiction is now beginning to secure the global readership and recognition it deserves. Our most recent winner, Please Look After Mom by South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin, has recently sold its two millionth copy worldwide – an amazing achievement. One third of the shortlisted writers for this year’s Man Booker Prize are from Asia, and international publishing houses such as Pan Macmillan and Hachette have recently opened offices here in Hong Kong. Clearly, Asian literature is on the march.

I don’t know what part the Man Asian Literary Prize played in these encouraging results, but have to assume that the increased international profile it provided for Asian writers played at least some part.

Not all awards, of course, can hope to bring about such high profile change. Some certainly carry more weight (read “status”) than others, but I’d liken it to the Olympics versus national and state championships. This network of championships all play a role in the development and recognition of athletes – and so surely do the international, national, state, local and specialised awards for writers.

For writers and publishers, then, I think awards – both general and specific – have value. What about for me as a reader? I’m not a close follower of literary awards. That is, I don’t aim to read all the long- and shortlists in specific awards, or even all the winners, but I do like to keep an eye on awards and they do help inform my reading choices. I find them particularly useful as a guide in specialised areas that are out of my comfort zone – and hence my involvement in this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize. I was introduced to the literature of countries I’ve never read before. I’m hoping MUBA and Stella will do the same for the writers (and readers) they are targeting.

10 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some thoughts on specialised literary awards

  1. I love literary awards. The Man Asia Awards were great and yes, I think the award did help Please Look After Mom. But the Man Asia books were so good maybe they don’t need the help of the Man group from Britain. It’s possible someone else could continue an Asian Book Award.

    Like you, I don’t slavishly read the books on the award lists but they add appreciably to my consideration when I buy a book. I have wish lists made up of the winners and short-listers. I like the 3% award (translated fiction into Englsih), the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Man Booker, the National Book Award, National Book Critics Award, Commonwealth award, others.

    • Thanks Bekah … I’ve never heard of the 3% award. Must check it out. There’s too little recognition of translated fiction over here I think. The Commonwealth Prize has an Asian section doesn’t it ..

  2. I heard about Man dropping its support of the Asia Awards. It really is a shame. I hope they get a new sponsor. I think literary awards are great, especially for new authors or authors who aren’t big names. I don’t read award lists but if I am trying to decide between buying a book by two authors I don’t know and one has won the Orange Prize, more often than not I’ll go with the prize-winning book.

    • Ah yes, that’s a bit how I often use awards Stefanie … In that final choice moment, particularly f I’m buying a gift for someone and I haven’t read the books I’m looking at.

  3. I hadn’t heard about Man withdrawing its support for the Man Asia Awards. I hope they find a new sponsor. I like your point about the different prizes being like national and state championships vs the Olympics. I got my first novel published by winning an award for unpublished writers, and although it’s an award with much less status than the Booker or the Nobel, it had a huge impact on my life. It’s interesting that it’s not just the winners who benefit – even being shortlisted is a major boost. Several people who were shortlisted for the prize I won have since got book contracts separately. It not only gives you attention and some credentials to use, but also encouragement, which can often be in pretty short supply for writers at any stage of their career but particularly early on.

    Switching to the point of view of a reader now, I do find the prizes useful. I don’t slavishly read the shortlists or even the winners of the major prizes, but they do give me good, independent pointers to books that I might like. As Stefanie says in the comment above, it’s one factor I take into account when choosing what to read, and although it doesn’t determine my reading, it does sway me when a book has won a prize.

    One other point that just occurred is that in an age when there are too many books and the idea of the canon of “great books” is discredited, the awards maybe fill a bit of that function of sorting things out for us and creating some common ground on what’s worth reading, hopefully on a more meritocratic basis than in the past.

  4. Oh thanks for giving the writer’s perspective Andrew. You’ve said just what I presumed but let a little presumptive to say … For example, that it helps the CV. And I think it’s great that you’ve noticed short listed writers benefit too. Judging the arts has a strong subjective element doesn’t it, so shortlisted books are likely to be good reads too.

    Nice point re helping with the ‘canon’.

  5. Well, that is disappointing about the Man group withdrawing its support, but I’m assuming it has more to do with the GFC than the prize itself.
    More importantly, I’d like to see some of the Asian companies that are making bucketloads of money support the prize. If they want to play in the same sandpit, then I think that they should contribute. Man Booker has got them started, now they can continue to the legacy, eh?

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