Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Dorothy Johnston, writer and Barbara Jefferis Award judge

Literary awards, their role and import, have come under frequent discussion here at Whispering Gums. So, when writer Dorothy Johnston, whose The house at number 10 and Eight pieces on prostitution I’ve reviewed and, more relevantly, who was one of the judges for this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award, suggested a guest post on the Award, I was more than happy to take her up on it.

I have never met Dorothy but I have “known” her for a long time as she was one of Canberra’s famous Seven Writers who published the anthology Canberra Tales in 1988. I became “reacquainted” with her more recently via blogging and her appearance in The invisible thread anthology edited by Irma Gold for Canberra’s centenary last year. It’s been a lovely rediscovery. Dorothy has published nine novels – literary fiction, and crime-mystery novels, mainly. Two of her novels – One for the master and Ruth – have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Dorothy blogs at her website Dorothy Johnston.

For those who haven’t heard, this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award was shared by Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. Here is Dorothy’s story about her experience as a judge.


The idea of splitting the Barbara Jefferis Award between The Night Guest and Sea Hearts did not come up before the three judges (myself, Margaret Barbalet and Georgia Blain) met at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in Sydney, at the end of September.

LanaganSeaHeartsI enjoyed working through the 72 entries, making notes, keeping in mind the selection criteria, (a work of literary merit that showed women and girls in a positive light), starring the books I knew I would want to go back to. I had no idea whether my favourites would find favour with Margaret and Georgia.

After about 6 weeks, we exchanged our long lists. One novel was common to all three of us – Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a brilliant study of a woman who believes there is a tiger in her house. Others on my long list didn’t show up on those of the other two judges, but both had included Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I went back and re-read it more carefully, and was, as the saying goes, blown away.

These two entries stayed at the top from then on, while we emailed back and forth. Part of the reason for having 72 entries is that the award covered 2 years – 2013 and 2014 – and included self-published titles. By far the greatest number of entries came from the big publishers – Penguin, Allen & Unwin, Random House – though, as it turned out, 4 of the 7 shortlisted book were published by small, or small to medium presses.

We didn’t have to make a firm decision on our shortlist before the meeting; but once in Sydney we only had a morning to finalise it, then choose a winner, and then we had to spend the afternoon writing our report.

I’d had to give up some of the books on my long list because they didn’t find favour with Margaret or Georgia, and the same went for them. One I regretted letting go was Elemental by Amanda Curtin, a terrific story of a young girl growing up in a Scottish fishing village, and what happens to her subsequently. On the other hand, All The Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld, which the others both included, and which, as readers will know, won the Miles Franklin, I thought was over-rated.

McFarlaneNightGuestIf I had to make one general remark about the books that made it onto the shortlist, I would say that each one is utterly itself. What do I mean by this? I mean that, a few pages in, I recognised the voice as original, distinct, perfect for the narrative; they fitted hand and glove. So often I found that an author began promisingly, but then could not sustain the voice. Or, right from the beginning, the author pandered to one contemporary fashion or another. When you’re reading your way through 2 years of entries, you quickly learn that following the fashion is a bad idea.

There’s no whiff of conformity amongst the shortlist. Amy Espeseth’s Sufficient Grace focuses on two young women and their difficult lives in an isolated religious community. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, introduced me to an extraordinary musician and her instrument, the theremin.

Pilgrimage, by Jacinta Halloran, is about two sisters, one of them a doctor, and what happens when their mother is diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts takes ancient selkie legends as its starting point and moves in a wholly original direction. Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is another novel that borders the surreal in an original and quite wonderful way. The First Week, by Margaret Merrilees, is, by contrast, a realist tale that cuts to the bone.

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska, an ambitious and far-reaching story of Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.

We also highly commended Laura Buzo’s Holier Than Thou.

But back to that meeting at the ASA. We already knew each other’s preferences. We’d picked the same top two and could not choose between them. There didn’t seem a hair’s breadth, or knife point to tip the balance. We called in Lucy Stevens, who was overseeing the judging process. Lucy sat at one end of the table balancing the two books in her hands while we reached the decision to award the prize to both.

The presentation was held in the renovated foyer of St Barnabas Church, Broadway, a lovely light-filled space. It was a beautiful Sydney spring evening. There was music and champagne. I realized – not that I hadn’t known it before, but it came to me suddenly – that we were here to celebrate books and their authors. Angelo Loukakis, Executive Director of the ASA, welcomed us. David Day, who is Chair of ASA’s Board of Directors, spoke about Barbara Jefferis and the bequest. Tara Moss spoke about women and the arts. I looked around me. Everyone in the room cared about, and many worked hard to foster and promote, Australian literature. When I stepped up to the podium, to give my judges’ speech, I had a big smile on my face.


Thanks a bunch Dorothy for giving us your insider’s perspective on awards judging. I can see it wasn’t an easy job and love that you’ve shared your thoughts with us.

Dorothy (I’m sure) and I would love to hear your thoughts – on awards, on judging, on these particular books, or on anything else her post has inspired you to think about.

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Dorothy Johnston, writer and Barbara Jefferis Award judge

  1. I enjoyed reading these musings. I was surprised to read that Dorothy thought All the Birds Singing was overrated, but more disappointed that she wrote this comment. I have read Sea Hearts and Night Guest, and can understand how difficult it would have been to choose between the two. However, I probably would have voted for Pilgrimage by Jacinta Halloran. I read this a couple of weeks ago and it is till in the back of my mind.


  2. Great insiders’ view of the judging process – I was really impressed by Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain, too. (Trevor Shearston had informed much of my PNG literary perspective in the early-mid 1980s.) and Angelo Loukakis a writer and OZ LIT critic whom I have admired for over 30 years now.

  3. Hi Sue & Dorothy, I enjoyed this great insight into the process of judging. I’ve read both the winners and while I think Sea Hearts a touch more accomplished and ‘special’, I did like the McFarlane too, so was happy to see the joint prize awarded. A job well done by Dorothy and the other judges. John.

    • I think that judging a prize like this must be a nightmare! You might feel such a fool if the other judges didn’t like your choice and, worse, wonder how the heck could your fellow judges see anything in theirs! All of this in a fairly short space of time (72 books is easily a year’s reading). Anyway, it seems to have been a fairly happy process and I hope the winning books do well.

  4. Thanks, Whispering Gums, for inviting me to write this guest post, and thanks to those who’ve commented and shared their opinions of the winning entries. I actually enjoyed reading the books and thinking about them, though it’s quite a hefty responsibility picking out a shortlist and then a winner (or in our case two).

    • Thanks to you Dorothy — I’m impressed by anyone who will take on that responsibility! But I can also see the enjoyable side of it too – reading books and discussing them in depth with two other skilled readers would be good recompense.

  5. Totally agree that this insider’s view is invaluable. Thanks Dorothy, for sharing. My day job involves writing a lot of tender proposals. The organisations that advertised the tender almost always provide feedback to the unsuccessful applicants – sometimes helpful feedback, sometimes less so. Having entered a few writing competitions I do wish some similar form of feedback was on offer – even a sentence or two would be wonderfully useful. If not for all entrants, at least maybe for those whose work is long- or short-listed?

    • Thanks MST … The judges did do comments on the shortlist books but That’s it I think. I know it’s all subjective in the end but can understand that feedback from skilled readers would be Helpful. I’m assuming the judges aren’t paid? So I guess it’s a matter of how much you can expect. Dorothy?

  6. Sadly the only books on the shortlist that I have read are Amy Espereth’s Sufficient Grace, and Drusilla Modjeska’s both of which I thought very fine. What a lot of good books though to catch up with! I’ve read a book of Amanda Curtin’s stories which I thought so good it made it through the drastic downsizing when we moved into this flat. Nice that her novel got a mention. What all this says is that, even in these somewhat depressing times for literature, they can’t keep writers from writing, or good books from getting published.

    My experience as a judge parallels Dorothy’s. There’s not much mystery to it. People do their best but all art is so subjective that differing responses are only to be expected. Sometimes politics come into it, but not generally. Most judges are diligent and bend over backwards to be fair.

    • Thanks Sara for confirming Dorothy’s experience. Glad to hear that politics is not a big issue but as you say, it’s so subjective, that the discussions must surely be robust at times.

      They are a good bunch of books I think. Although I’ve only read Wyld and Merrilees, there are several I’m keen to read.

  7. Great insightful post by Dorothy. This sounds like the ideal group of judges, respecting each others; decisions. And Dorothy’s comment about fashions becoming so evident when you’re reading two years’ worth of books at one sitting was one of those things you never think about, but which makes so much sense when someone says it. I was delighted to see “The Night Guest” share the prize. Interestingly, I’ve just been talking to some people who read the Evie Wyld for their book group and 6 of the 8 disliked it quite intensely.

    • Thanks Gert. Good point re fashion. I think one of the things I liked about Wyld is that it doesn’t follow fashion – or, that it turns it on its head, particularly through her structure that alternately progresses forwards and backwards. Unlike Dorothy, I loved the voice and was drawn in immediately, but I know others haven’t been.

  8. The Barbara Jefferis judges are paid, as are the judges for the NSW Premier’s Award, (the only other award I’ve been involved in judging), and I guess most, if not all of Australia’s literary awards. It’s the volume, of course, that stops judges from offering feedback to the entrants – or those entrants who would like feedback. But this doesn’t really help you, does it, MST? Have you thought of writing to the judge, or judges personally and asking? If an individual entrant approached me, i’d do my best to respond.

    • Thanks Dorothy – I wondered if judges were paid. I’m really glad to hear they are, because they should be. And I’m glad you suggested contacting the judges. I didn’t think it was my place to do that, but I suspected that some/many judges would be happy to provide feedback if they were asked.

  9. Pingback: Barbara Jefferis Award 2014 | Gert Loveday

  10. What a fun look behind the curtain! I can’t even read 72 books in a year, how does one go about reading that many in 6 weeks? There must be skimming. Or maybe read the first chapter, a chapter from the middle and then the end? How does one make it through such a book binge without going a little crazy?

    • I have no idea Stefanie, but I was thinking the same. You must, just like we readers, be able to tell fairly early on with some whether they are going to be contenders. With those surely you’d skim or give up at 50 or so.

  11. I was quite strict with myself. I never read more than 50 pages of an entry the first time around, even if I was totally enthralled. I made notes and had my own star system. Funnily enough, some I’d rewarded with lots of stars did not hold my attention the second time around. I often sat by the Barwon river, or with a view of the sea, and I love reading anyway!
    But you’re both right, Stephanie and WG – with a shortlist of six to aim for – because we split the award, we extended it to 7 – it usually became clear, in those first 50 pages, which books were serious contenders.

    • Ah, that’s interesting Dorothy, 50 pages first time around regardless. I imagine you would have to have a star system. Multiple readings are very telling aren’t they.

      I always love the idea of reading by a river – and sometimes try on our annual summer trip to Thredbo – but either the march flies get me, or I start gazing off into reverie. or I can’t get quite the comfortable spot!

    • That makes sense. If I’m reading a book that I am not getting along with and I still don;t like it by page 50 I know I will probably not like it at page 100 or 200 either. Thanks for sharing what it’s like to be a judge!

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