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Monday musings on Australian literature: Pascall Prize

March 24, 2014

The Pascall Prize is one of those under-the-radar sorts of awards, that is, one that tends not to get much general press. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not significant. In fact, I’ve had it in my list of topics for a couple of years but, having mentioned in my David Malouf birthday post last week that he was a recipient, I decided that now’s the time.

The Pascall Prize has another name which better explains what it is – “The Australian Critic of the Year”. Its aim, defined on its website, is:

to reward a critic or reviewer whose work changes the perceptions of Australians, opens their eyes to a different perspective of their culture, develops a new interest in the subject and is both imaginative and creative.

The Pascall Prize celebrates incisive and well-crafted critical writing in areas including literature, art, architecture, food and wine, music, theatre, film, television, and radio [and now the Internet].

It specifically excludes sport from its definition of culture. Fair enough. I suspect there are significantly more well-paying opportunities for sports writers/analysts than there are for those in the arts, though maybe I’m biassed. I have, for the record, read some excellent pieces of sports journalism. But, enough of that, back to Pascall. The website tells us that it was named after Geraldine Pascall, “a flamboyant journalist” who died suddenly of a stroke/brain haemorrhage in 1983, when she was just 38. (Scary!) She apparently didn’t have a will, so her Estate passed to her father, Fred Pascall. He wanted to establish a memorial to his daughter, and so the Pascall Prize was born. It’s awarded annually, usually I believe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and currently provides $15,000. David Malouf is listed as the first recipient, having received the award in 1988.

I could be clichéd and say that the recipients represent a veritable who’s who of Australian critics, but I won’t, although it does – at least as far as I can tell from my admittedly uneven knowledge of the field! Last year’s winner was Kerryn Goldsworthy. The announcement describes her as “a writer, critic, reviewer, essayist, columnist, fiction writer and blogger”. She has reviewed for many of Australia’s most significant publications, for over 30 years. I have quoted her here more than once, the first time being in 2009 in a post on Thea Astley when I quoted Goldsworthy’s reasons for loving Thea Astley. That they happen to accord with my reasons was the icing on the cake. I’ve mentioned her several times since, including recently in relation to her being the chair of the Stella Prize Judging Panel.

Andrew Ford and Jim Sharman

Andrew Ford interviewing Jim Sharman, Voss Journey, 2009

Of the other winners, the best known to me (which says more about me than anything else), include Andrew Ford (1998, music critic, composer and radio presenter), Marion Halligan (1990, critic and author), Andrew Riemer (1990, critic, academic and author), Peter Craven (2004, literary critic and editor), and Geordie Williamson (2011, literary critic). You can see a full list of the winners and the judging panels on the Prize’s Wikipedia page.

I’m not going to ramble on for long about this award, important as I think it is, but I would like to share a couple of comments made by Goldsworthy in her acceptance speech, one about the essence of being a good critic, and the other about the future. Here’s the first one:

in order to be an effective critic, you need a left brain that knows what your right brain is doing. My ideal as a critic is to come up with a rational intellectual response while at the same time continuing not just to acknowledge but to honour those mysterious places of the oceanic deep, the places where you connect most vitally and instinctively and electrically with whatever is going on in a work of art.

It’s a real juggle, and one that many of us bloggers (of whom Goldsworthy has also been one) try also to achieve. It’s what she calls “a critical brain finding ways to articulate the heart’s response”.

Regarding the future of criticism, she says:

There’s a lot of talk as we move into the digital age about what the fate of criticism will be, but I’m an optimist who thinks the that cultural conversation will continue no matter what medium it moves through, or what form it takes. What I worry about more is whether critics will go on being able to balance hearts and minds as the humanities continue to be devalued in the universities, the arts continue to be devalued in government, and fewer and fewer people are formally taught how to expand their knowledge and hone their critical skills as we navigate our way through cultural life.

Being an optimist too, I can’t believe that there won’t always be people ready, willing and able to engage with the arts in a critical way. Life sure would be poorer if there weren’t.

Do you have favourite critics you like to read? And what do you think about Goldsworthy’s left brain right brain approach to analysis?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2014 12:36 am

    Hi Wispering Gums,

    A first (and not last I hope) contribution here. Good critical writing – despite the name’s suggestion – for me should be about a writer exploring their response to a work; the key word being ‘explore’. It’s not about providing definitive answers; nor is it about exhausting a work.

    I tend to be a little chary of black/white, left/right-brain-type distinctions, although I guess we all understand what Goldsworthy is suggesting. Any writing is a combination of both inspiration and craft and should require its author to employ left and right sides – and probably a few forgotten recesses – of their brain, which is not a phenomenon particular to criticism I shouldn’t think. One of my own favourite (though non-Australian) critics is Zadie Smith; she reminds me a little of Virginia Woolf in the way she foregrounds her instinctual response to whatever she is critiquing before going on to explore the intellectual streamers which trail off from it; the result is always a surprising and authentic perspective.

    • March 25, 2014 10:35 am

      Welcome Mantalini. I hope it’s not your last either. Yes, “explore” is a great word to describe it. That’s certainly how I – an amateur reviewer – see it. One of the challenges, given you can’t or shouldn’t try to “exhaust” a work, is to work out what are the aspects that are important to you and to hope that, in this blogging environment, commenters will explore other aspects, if of course they’ve read/seen/heard the work.

      I suspect Goldsworthy sees it as more organic, but the left/right brain discussion can work as a shortcut to make the point she wanted to make?

      Thanks for suggesting your favourite. I’ve read Zadie Smith’s novels (well one or two) but not really her criticism that I recollect, though I have a feeling I may have read one or two articles by her in the past. I will suss her out.

  2. March 25, 2014 2:06 am

    I like the combination of “intellectual response” and “those mysterious places of the oceanic deep, the places where you connect most vitally and instinctively and electrically with whatever is going on in a work of art.” I think it sums up what I try to do when I write a review.

    • March 25, 2014 7:57 am

      Thanks Marilyn … It’s not always easy to do is it, finding the balance between being too dry and serious and too emotional.

  3. vyvienn permalink
    March 25, 2014 3:26 am

    Thank you for this lovely post on the background of the Pascall Prize! Any reviewer who adheres to that mission statement has a daunting task to perform. Of course, in my humble opinion, people who can help you think outside the box are a lot to be treasured, anyway.

  4. March 25, 2014 5:01 am

    I do. And even though my favourite critic does sometimes plumb depths that are entirely unknown to me (not frightfully difficult, alas !), I enjoy everything she writes. She reviews books in such as way as to tempt the review reader, or to make her understand clearly (with no such intent) that This Book Is Not For Her. 🙂
    Having ascertained that the Prize is now closed for 2014, I shall be ensuring that I nominate my favourite reviewer for it, come 2015.

  5. March 25, 2014 5:09 am

    Given my assigned reading book right now is about the critic from Johnson to James Wood, I think the prize a wonderful idea and find Goldsworthy’s statement to fit into the historical context quite neatly. It seems the ideal critic has been playing ping pong with the ideas of objectivity and subjectivity for a very long time. I think it was Matthew Arnold who advocated for a critic who used rational imagination to discuss literature. I must say I have to agree. I think there will always be people who read, but as time goes on and unless the humanities can recover, they might not read as well. In which case it will be up to the critics to show how it should be done.

    • March 25, 2014 8:05 am

      Oh good, Stefanie I look forward to hearing more about that book. (And I must read some Arnold again.)

  6. March 25, 2014 7:01 pm

    One controversial assertion I sort of agree with is that, in the area of literary criticism, a critic should (not must) have produced at least one significant work in the area he or she is covering. It was interesting that the first Geraldine Pascal Award was given to David Malouf for his writing, not criticism. I believe the change to the award came later, in 1990.

    • March 25, 2014 10:35 pm

      Thanks John … Interesting point. I can see why it would be controversial. I’m not sure I’d even say “should” but it certainly can’t hurt. They are different skills, though, aren’t they?

    • Funkylamb permalink
      April 9, 2014 11:39 am

      In 1990 “Following the Trustees’ decision that the award should more closely reflect Geraldine Pascall’s work and legacy, the Pascall Prize would now specifically award a critic or reviewer.”

  7. April 9, 2014 11:59 am

    Whispering Gums – nice to make your acquaintance – you should enter for the Pascall Prize yourself next year – and/or nominate colleagues. Bloggers are major contributors to our nomination lists each year

    Would be grateful for your email contacts and name, can’t fathom from your first post at all .. so I can place you on the Pascall Prize mailing list. is my email address and I’m a board member of the Pascall Foundation which administers the Pascall Prize

    • April 9, 2014 4:47 pm

      Thanks rea … I think I am on the mailing list but will be in touch. I do provide an email contact address on my Who Am I page, but I don’t publicise my full name on my blog.

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