Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary awards back then

A comment by blog-reader Ian Darling on a recent Monday Musings post that he supposed literary prizes existed back in 1927, followed by the tardy announcement a couple of days ago of the shortlist for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (see Lisa ANZLitLovers’ post), got me thinking about the history of literary awards.

I’ve long been aware of The Bulletin’s prize for fiction which was inaugurated by its editor, SH Prior, in 1928. The inaugural prize was won jointly by M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo. The next year, it was won by Vance Palmer for The passage. I’m not sure what happened to the prize except that, according to the Oxford companion to Australian literature, The Bulletin’s next editor, John Webb, established the SH Prior Memorial Prize for Fiction, and it was awarded 1935 to 1946. But, were there other awards? Trove and the Oxford companion came to my rescue.

What I discovered was something that confirmed my understanding of the fundamental raison d’être for awards – to support writers and literature. I know some writers question the value of awards, and we’ve had some good discussions about the issue here, but putting aside some very valid concerns, it’s clear that the impetus is usually to support the writing endeavour. And so, the article on Literary Awards in the Oxford companion starts with this:

The rewarding of Australian writers began soon after the establishment of the first colony when in 1818 Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW, awarded Michael Massey Robinson two cows from the government herd for his services as an antipodean “poet laureate”. Macquarie’s decision inaugurated government patronage of Australian literature.

The article continues to tell us that the government at times found jobs for writers – such as a government inspector of forests job for poet Henry Kendall in 1881! This is supporting literature? (The article also says that the government gave his widow a job as superintendent of cleaners in a government office in 1884!) Interestingly, via Trove, I found a reference to this employment practice in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, in 1916The writer of the article, which was about government encouraging literature through a prize as it was already doing for music and painting, introduced his/her argument with the comment thatPositions in the Government service had in the past been found on two poets — Kendall and Daley — but the positions were unsuitable”.

The Oxford companion continues, saying that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Australian writers began to receive prizes and awards on a regular basis. It divides these awards into two categories, those that:

  • support creative activity by supporting a writer during the creation of a work (fellowships and writer-in residence programs, being examples); and
  • reward a finished, usually published work.

We all know of current examples of both these categories so, in the rest of this post, I’m going to share (in chronological order) a rather random grab-bag of awards from the first half of the twentieth century:

  • 1908-1972 Commonwealth Literary Fund. According to the Oxford companion, this fund, established by Alfred Deakin’s government was “the first systematic federal government initiative in support of the arts”. For the first 30 years it focused on providing pensions to sick authors and their families or families of authors who’d died poor or “literary men doing good work but ‘unable on account of poverty to persist in that work'”. However, from 1939, as the result of lobbying, the Fund was increased and started to offer annual fellowships and grants to writers, publishers, literary magazines. Through Trove I found articles identifying winners of fellowships in various years. In 1952, for example, fellowships were given to Judah Waten for “a novel dealing with a Jewish migrant family”, Kylie Tennant for “a novel about travelling beekeepers”, Victor Kennedy for “an interpretative biography of [poet] Bernard O’Dowd”, and Xavier Herbert for “the completion of a novel dealing with feminine behaviour in time of war”.
  • 1908 Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work Literary Prizes. Apparently, the First Exhibition of Women’s Work was held in Philadelphia in 1876, but the first Australian one was held in 1907. What intrigues me about these awards is the categories: Story of not less than 100,000 words (with the first prize being £50); Play of three acts, scene laid in Australia; Temperance novel; Esperanto essay; Best historical sketch of Exhibition (Illustrated). Temperance novel? Esperanto essay? Signs of their times, eh?
  • 1909 Tasmanian Literary Awards. I’m not sure exactly of the provenance of these awards as the article is very brief, but again, it’s the categories that intrigue: Essay, open to residents of Tasmania, any age, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, ”Modern Patriotism”; Original poem, not to exceed 100 lines, subject, lines written for “Foundation Day, 1910”; Original tale, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, any connected with some incident of Australian history.
  • 1943 United Nations Literary Competition. This prize is clearly not related to the United Nations, given that body didn’t exist in 1943, but was created by the English publisher, Hutchinson and Co. Presumably its title comes from the fact that entry was open to international writers. It sounds like several prizes were offered, with the overall purse being £10,000. The article gives a range of topics: “Fiction, detective stories and thrillers, autobiography, war experiences and travel, history and biography, essays and belles lettres, poetry, children’s literature, philosophy of religion and general philosophy, scientific and technical literature”. I’m presuming these are not specifically award categories but subjects the publisher knows will sell well and would like to receive?
  • 1946-1951 “Herald” Literary Competition. In 1946 (as far as I can ascertain), the Sydney Morning Herald instituted a literary competition for novels, short stories and poetry. In 1947, Jon Cleary won for his social realist novel You can’t see ’round corners, which spawned a popular television series in 1967 (albeit reset in the Vietnam era). In 1949, however, the judges did not feel any submissions met their expectations, so did not grant first prize in either the novel or short-story categories. They did award second prize to T. A. Hungerford for his novel Sowers of the wind, and third prize to D’Arcy Niland for his Gold in the streets. Niland also won second prize for his short story. The awards were discontinued in 1951 on the recommendation of judges, who felt that “the succession of competitions has been too rapid to allow competitors sufficient time for proper preparation and revision”.

Hmmm … we might continue this discussion another day.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary awards back then

  1. Interesting. The U.S government helped writers with work during the Depression but I don;t know if they’ve gotten jobs in other situations. I love that you go and dig up all this stuff!

    • That’s a good question Nyam. The Commonwealth Literary Fund became the Literature Board which has since I think been subsumed into the Australia Council which still provides grants and/or Fellowships. The Herald has done different things over the years – including naming best young writers. But, it does seem that others have gone and been replaced by the various prizes we have today, some of which have been established for a few decades now.

      • How interesting – the history of literary prizes is much more various than I had imagined. I suppose the profile of prizes (other than the Nobel and arguably the Booker award now gets greater media coverage) has been raised by the monster that is the Booker prize. That seems to have really exploded in the early 1980s with a series of mega succesful winners – Midnight’s Children, Schindler’s List, Oscar and Lucinda et al, with Richard Flanagan likely to achieve that sort of success with his winning novel.

        • Thanks Ian for inspiring this post! Yes, I think both awards and their profile have exploded over the last 2-3 decades. My first memory of the Booker was the controversy over Penelope Lively’s win with Moon Tiger. I think those controversies are good – they get people talking about literature and for a week or so everyone knows something about some books and their authors!

  2. I rather like that judges’ quote, Sue – there’s a lot of sense in it … especially back then when all those names were vying with each other.

  3. I love reading the things you unearth when I have my coffee and some uninterrupted time. You teach me so much. It is all so interesting and lovely to have the Australian slant on it all. I did laugh out loud at the novel about Temperance. Oh my, times have changed, thank goodness.

    • Thanks Pam … I love that you save these posts for a cup of coffee and some uninterrupted time. I was fascinated by the temperance novel, and also the ones that specify patriotic/history topics. Real insight into different times …

  4. what a thoroughly researched post, WG. Thanks for the info. I’m very curious about another aspect of these lit awards, and that’s the juries. How do they choose them, and secondly, how these jurors pick the winners. Would be greatly gratified if you could write a post on that. 😉 My curiosity sprouted from the Booker discourse a year or two ago about the tension between literary and ‘obscure works’ that could find few readers in contrast to the more ‘accessible’ ones with more popular readership. I was surprised that Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves being on the short list this year, I suppose due to its ‘accessibility’.

    • Thanks Arti… And a great, timely question because I am in fact expecting to post a gest post from a contemporary juror in the coming weeks.

      I will though do some research on the topic … My understanding is that there are different approaches. I haven’t read Fowler but I was a little surprised based on what I know of it.

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