Monday musings on Australian literature: Non-fiction literary awards

This will probably be my last post on specialised literary awards, but it is an important one to cover, not least because while I was away a non-fiction work, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, won the Stella Prize in its second year. This is notable because while most awards seem to be specially targeted to a particular form of literature – fiction, poetry, short stories – there are a small number of awards that do not specify form. The Stella Prize is one of these. I like Helen Garner’s way of putting it:

I hope that the Stella Prize, with its graceful flexibility about genre, will encourage women writers to work in the forms they feel truly at home in, instead of having to squeeze themselves into the old traditional corsets.

Similarly, the Nita B Kibble Literary Award and Dobbie Literary Award, which are both limited to women writers, do not specify form. They do, however, specify “subject matter”. Entrants must be recognisable as ‘life writing’, and can be novels, autobiographies, biographies, or other forms of literature that meet this definition.

The currently suspended The Age Book of the Year was somewhat similar: it was chosen from the winners of its sub-categories, which included non-fiction. The latest winner – in 2012 – was, in fact, a non-fiction work, James Boyce’s 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & The Conquest of Australia. 

However, there are several awards that are specifically for non-fiction, albeit some of them being subsets of larger awards. Here are a few:

  • Australian History Awards/Australian Historical Association Prizes. Awarded biennially. Comprises several awards, including the Allan Martin Award, the Jill Roe Prize, the Kay Daniels Award, and the WK Hancock Prize. Awarded to works by members of the Australian Historical Association, but each has its particular slant and eligibility conditions beyond that.
  • Calibre Prize. Established in 1997. Awarded to an “outstanding essay” in any non-fiction subject. Offers $5,000 to the winner.
  • Ernest Scott Prize. Established through a bequest to the University of Melbourne. Awarded for works by a resident of Australia or New Zealand about the history of Australia or New Zealand or on the history of colonisation. The work must be based on original research. Offers approximately $13,000 to the winner.
  • National Biography Award. Established in 1996. Awarded to “the best published work of biographical or autobiographical writing by an Australian”. Offers $25,000 to the winner.
  • New South Wales Premier’s History Awards. Established in 1997 to promoteexcellence in the interpretation of history, through both the written word and non-print media”. Comprises a suite of five or more awards, including the Australian History Prize, the General History Prize and the Young People’s History Prize. In 2014, a special Military History Prize is being offered in commemoration of World War 1. Offers $15,000 to the winner of each category.
  • Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Book Award. Established in 2004. Aims to encourage documentation of the history of the Northern Territory. Offers $1,000 to the winner.
  • Prime Minister’s Literary Awards*. Established in 2007. Comprises several awards, including one for Non-fiction. In 2012 the separately established Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History also established in 2007 was incorporated into this award. Awarded to works written by Australian citizens or permanent residents and published in the previous calendar year. Offers $80,000 for the winner (in each category) and $5,000 each for up to four short-listed works.
  • Queensland Literary Awards University of Queensland Non-fiction Book Award. One of the suite of awards established in 2012 to replace the cancelled Queensland Premiers Literary Awards.
  • Walkley Awards. Established in 1956. Awarded to works demonstrating excellence in journalism, with categories for books, articles, essays and other media. (See my previous Monday Musings on this)
  • Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. Established in 1982. Includes awards for Non-fiction and Western Australian History, with winners of these being eligible for the overall Premier’s Prize. Awarded to works by Australian citizens or permanent residents or, and this is interesting, with Australia as the primary focus. Offers $15,000 for Non-fiction winner, $10,000 for Western Australian History winner, and $25,000 for the overall winner.

This is, again, not a comprehensive list, and is rather “messy” because these awards come in a variety of guises and structures. What it shows, though, is that there seems to be significant support for non-fiction writing, particularly for history. They get little publicity but the winners lists show that many of our significant historians, biographers and journalists in particular are winning them.

* These awards ran late last year, and the same is happening this year. There are fears for their survival, which tomorrow night’s budget (Tuesday May 13) will hopefully answer.

4 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Non-fiction literary awards

  1. History and science writing seem to get lots of support which is good, don;t get me wrong, but I am glad to know there are prizes don’t limit the genre because I do so love books that can’t quite be placed in a particular category.

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