Monday musings on Australian literature: Unpublished manuscript awards

I’ve recently reviewed a couple of books which have won unpublished manuscript awards: Hannah Kent won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 for Burial rites (my review), and Margaret Merrilees won the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Adelaide Writer’s Week in 2012 for The first week (my review).

Now, I’ve discussed awards a few times on this blog, and we’ve had some very interesting discussion in the comments about the value of awards. I’m not going to reiterate all that now because, being the original fence-sitter (!), I can see both sides of the argument. Awards in something so subjective as the arts are inherently problematic I think. I get that! However, I think a special argument can be made for unpublished manuscript awards. It’s hard, as we know, for writers to get published, particularly first-time writers. These awards – particularly those limited to (potential) debut authors – must make a big difference. In fact, in an interview last year, Hannah Kent said “these sorts of awards are so important. They help you get that foot in the door”.

Over the years, I’ve come across many of these awards – at least Australian ones – and they vary a great deal in terms of eligibility and what the award provides. I thought it would be interesting to list some of them here:

  • The Australian/Vogel Literary Award: Established in 1979 (first award 1980) in a collaboration between The Australian newspaper, the company which makes Vogel bread, and the publisher Allen & Unwin. Awarded to an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35. Offers $20,000 and publication by Allen & Unwin.
  • CAL Scribe Fiction Prize: Established in 2009 by small publisher Scribe with the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund. Awarded to an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer aged 35 and over, regardless of publication history. It’s a Late Bloomer award! Offers $15,000 and a book contract. (My Internet search hasn’t found a winner for this award in 2013, so it may not still exist.)
  • Finch Memoir Prize: Established by Finch publishers, and sponsored by Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund. Awarded to an unpublished life story or memoir and open to previously published and unpublished writers as well as to agented writers. Offers $10,000 and publication.
  • Queensland Literary Awards David Unaipon Award of Unpublished Indigenous Writer: Initially established in 1989, and then brought under the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 1999 and, since their cancellation, brought under the independently run Queensland Literary Awards. Open to all unpublished Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Island writers. Offers $5,000 and guaranteed publication by the University of Queensland Press. The three runners-up are offered mentorships.
  • Queensland Literary Awards Emerging Queensland Author-Manuscript Award: Initially established under the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 1999 and, since their cancellation, brought under the independently run Queensland Literary Awards. Open to all unpublished Queensland (resident at the time of the award for at least 3 years) authors. The prize is the same as that for the David Unaipon Award.
  • Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript: Established by the State Library of Victoria in 2003. Open to any author from the state of Victoria who has not had a work of fiction published.
  • Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award: Established in 2011. Award to adult fiction, and is not limited by genre, geographic location or age of author. Offers $10,000 cash and a mentorship worth $2,000 with a mentor of the winner’s choice. Kent chose novelist Geraldine Brooks, who, as I’m sure you know, has written several historical fiction novels.

Hannah Kent’s comment that these awards are important is borne out, rather, by the ongoing success of many winners. The Australian/Vogel Literary award claims, for example, to have launched the careers of Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Brian Castro, Mandy Sayer and Andrew McGahan. Recent awards have gone to books that quickly became high-profile, namely Hannah Kent’s Burial rites and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript) (my review). The inaugural winner of the Victorian award was Carrie Tiffany with her gorgeous book, Everyman’s rules for scientific living. (Coincidentally, she was the inaugural winner, last year, of the Stella Award, with her second novel, Mateship with birds.)

These sorts of awards vary, not only in terms of what they offer, but regarding who they aim to help. Many, though not all, are limited – to debut authors, indigenous authors, young authors, or authors from a particular state. Regardless of how they are framed though, I understand that, in many cases, they can and do result in publication not only for the winner but for some of the other well-judged entrants. And that, I think, is the best argument there is for the existence of these awards, don’t you?

As I expected – and hoped – commenters on the post have named other awards. They include:
  • T. A. G. Hungerford Award: Established in 1998 by Fremantle Press. Awarded biennially to previously unpublished writers from Western Australia. Offers $12,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.


25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Unpublished manuscript awards

  1. Interesting commentary/listing re the award prizes! One of my students (for a year – 1972 – at Hay War Memorial High School) the most creative and beautiful writer in my Year 10 (Form 4 in those days) class was Gayle KENNEDY. She’d come from the local Convent central school which had just closed. And the next year with a scholarship went on to do her HSC years at The Queenwood School for Girls in Sydney. She speaks most highly of both the Convent and Queenwood – and just two of her teachers at Hay WMHS – where the Principal – noting her Indigenous appearance had immediately pointed out to her that she would be placed at Modified level! Racist thinking (or early ‘Brandis bigotry’)! Anyway Gayle worked in a variety of Public Servant positions – was involved in film-making – and ultimately ended up in the Attorney-General’s Office – her brief – Disability/Indigenous issues. As a toddler Gayle had suffered polio. Spent some years at Sydney’s Children’s Hospital – far from her family. Featured in a Polio vaccination poster campaign – she, little girl with callipers – Rolf HARRIS alongside. In the early 2000s she visited my wife and I in Japan – her first visit abroad I think – (the start of trips to various corners of the world – including giving papers at conferences on the professional issues of her work) – with her wheel-chair – having suffered a few years earlier from what was then termed ‘post-polio syndrome’ – leaving her scarcely able to separate her legs. Huge learning curve for us – but we had a marvellous time – and Japan was by then – and suddenly/rapidly effected – totally “barrier free” – which hugely impressed Gayle – and she met all our friends and wowed them all. And then – the point of this post – in 2006 – (and following other poetry prizes – a beautifully written eulogy to Slim Dusty too – featured in the SMH and picked by The Readers Digest for republication) she was awarded the David UNAIPON Prize. The manuscript was then published in 2007 by UQP as Me, Antman & Fleabag. A book “deliciously funny” and rich with black humour!

  2. My publishers instructed me not to enter my book for any awards at all, as the knew the right ones to enter it into. I rather think they have not entered it for anything at all. Such is life. We only learn by experience.

    • Interesting MR. I don’t really know much about the practices and politics of entering books into these competitions. I gather that often it is the publisher who does it but I’d love to know in more detail exactly how it works. Have you asked whether they have?

  3. I recall a similar discussion taking place on that First Tuesday Books Club program (though it was in reference to the fairly recent emergence of women-only prizes). We can argue certain prizes’ inherent inclusiveness or seclusion of particular demographics, or the difficulties in quantifying ‘good art’, but at the end of the day I too enjoy a good fence because any construct (prize, fellowship, grant, whatever) that makes it easier to succeed in a very difficult profession is okay by me.

    • Yes, Tom, in the end, despite concerns about competition in the arts, issues about fairness etc, I agree that overall they must surely have more positives than negatives. Competition has its ugly side unfortunately, but the difference it makes to most winners is a compelling argument it seems to me.

  4. Great post, Sue. But let’s not forget the West! The biennial TAG Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript (cash prize plus publication by Fremantle Press) has launched the careers of Gail Jones, Brenda Walker, Simone Lazaroo, Alice Nelson and Natasha Lester, among others 🙂

    • Oh thanks Amanda. I certainly didn’t intend to forget the West! I did several Google searches to try to catch those that didn’t pop into my head but that didn’t pop up … But now you mention it, I have heard of it. I don’t plan to add all prizes I discover later to the list but I will add this one to the post as a postscript.

  5. Hello there, my name is Gayle Kennedy and I won the David Unaipon Award in 2006 for my unpublished manuscript Me, Antman and Fleabag. It was published in 2007 by UQP. It was, as mentioned earlier by Hannah Kent ‘a foot in the door.’ I’ve since gone on to publish 11 children’s books with OUP as well as numerous articles, several adapted small plays for school kids, poetry and had short stories published in the Edinburgh Review, Phoenix Review, Ora Nui Literary Review, The Red Room Company, The Southerly Review as well as local papers and the Sydney Morning Herald. I run writing workshops for kids and one with Westwords, resulted in an anthology of the kids stories, being published. None of this would have been possible without the award as it gave me a name. Interestingly, Me, Antman and Fleabag has been found in Libraries in some far flung places and I was recently sent a photo by a friend who found it in the local memorial library in a small town in Nebraska. I think there is still a purity about the awards for unpublished writers. They are not weighted down by the prejudices of awards judges. I’m certainly grateful for mine.

    • Oh how lovely Gayle to hear from you, a winner. And to hear about the impact of the prize for you. I like your comment about “purity” of unpublished ms awards … It would particularly apply to those for first time writers which most of them art.

      Nebraska eh? How wonderful!

        • I totally agree that it’s a more equal playing field. I’ve sometimes been gobsmacked at the winners of some awards at the expense of some truly original and beautiful work, but it is subjective and I guess we have to be aware of that when or if we choose to enter.

  6. There’s also the Varuna LitLink Byron Bay Writers Festival Unpublished Ms Award (the longest title of any of them, I think!). The prize is a VIP pass to BB Writers Festival and 2 weeks at Varuna, so it’s different from the others that offer publication and / or cash, but practical and valuable nonetheless. I won it in 2010 and I will be published next year, though I don’t know how other winners. have fared. I should add, though, that when I submitted my synopsis and first few chapters of my ms to 6 mainstream publishers who accepted unsolicited ms, there was only one bite, and then they seemed to lose the ms! I had hoped the prize might have helped at that point, though it’s hard to say why they weren’t interested (one of the 6, though, later made an offer for the book…). But still, the prize WAS valuable to me, for encouragement, being taken seriously, the time at BB and the opportunity to work at Varuna. I suppose value varies.

    • Thanks Robyn for mentioning that one. It sure is a mouthful! I remember your mentioning it. Mentorship style/writers resident prizes must also be wonderful, in a different way. I’ve written about Varuna before. I reckon Eleanor Dark would be pleased with what it’s achieving. Meanwhile I greatly look forward to seeing your book in pint.

  7. I read a recent comment by a British in an article lamenting the dire financial straits of mid list authors (let alone unknown ones!) who said that a prize was worth ten good reviews. This seems to make sense, doesn’t it? I hate trying desperately for prizes as they are so subjective and it can be so disappointing to to ‘just’ be shortlisted.. such a tough game!

    • I agree, it is a tough game, chillcat. But I think that short lists, and even long lists are never ‘just’. I think we have to think of them as prizes, too, or at least important recognition.

  8. Informative post, also thought provoking in terms of the idea on ‘arts awards’, the term almost sounds like an oxymoron. I’ve never given it much thoughts, and of course, I’ve been watching the Oscars for years. Come to think of it now, that’s why a few, a very few, involved in directing or starring in award winning movies don’t even attend the Awards Show. But I agree with you, there are two sides of the fence. And you’re right that awards to unpublished writers are very much justified.

    • Thanks Arti … I think they are problematic, but for most (the winners, anyhow!) they are worth it. It seems we are all way more comfortable with the “leg up” awards – at least for unpublished writers. We are probably comfortable with “leg up” awards for indigenous writers (published or unpublished), but then it gets murkier with “leg up” awards for, say, women writers.

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