Monday musings on Australian literature: The Voss Literary Prize

Did the title of this post grab your attention? It grabbed mine so dramatically when I came across it that I immediately abandoned my plans for today’s post – they can wait – to tell you about it.

The first thing to say about it is that it’s not what you think, if indeed like me you immediately thought of Patrick White’s Voss. I was impressed. We have prizes named for authors and sponsors but I hadn’t come across one named for a literary work. Have you? Well, as it turns out, I still haven’t because this award was named for its benefactor, Vivian Robert La Vaux Voss, who conceived it in 1955 – two years before Patrick White’s Voss was published. Hmmm … 1955 and I’ve only heard of it now? This is where the story becomes even more interesting.

I read about this award in one of my favourite on-line journals, The Conversation. The author, and one of the prize’s judges, Anthony Uhlmann, describes its genesis. Vivian Voss, according to Uhlmann, had a “an early career of brilliant promise”. He apparently won many prizes at the University of Sydney and the University of Rome but died in 1963, when he was just 33 years old. His grandfather, Frances Henry Vivian Voss, and mother, Harriette Martha Voss, were both medical practitioners and both appear in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) for their medical and community work. According to ADB, his grandfather “indulged his love of literature in his fine private library”. The family was wealthy, which must be why Vivian Voss was able to create the Voss Literary Prize in the will he wrote in 1955. In this will, he envisaged the prize being overseen “by five professors at his alma mater, the University of Sydney: the Professor of Latin, the Professor of English, the Professor of French, the Professor of Italian, the Professor of German”. They were to grant the prize to the best novel, “published or unpublished”, in the world! He clearly wasn’t thinking small!

Uhlmann says that the prize was offered to several major universities, all of whom turned it down. It was then offered to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL), but they already had a literary award*. So, it was offered to the “newly formed Australian University Heads of English” (AUHE) who “gratefully accepted it”.  Uhlmann doesn’t explain over which time period all this occurred, but it sounds like this last offer was made fairly recently. And, in fact, an AUHE press release seems to explain the timing, stating that “a life tenant in Vivian’s Estate received estate income until his death in 2012”. Ah, so the money, it seems, was tied up, which is why the first award is only now being made. The prize in 2014, this same press release says, will be $6,500.

There is now a website for the award, which describes it as:

a new award dedicated to the memory of Vivian Robert Le Vaux Voss (1930-1963), an historian and lover of literature from Emu Park in Central Queensland who studied History and Latin at the University of Sydney and modern languages at the University of Rome.

As far as I can tell, the award seems to be now limited to Australian publications.

Now to the first awarding of the prize. Uhlmann names his co-judges: Brenda Walker (novelist whose Poe’s cat languishes in my TBR, University of Western Australia), Philip Butterss (whose An unsentimental bloke I recently reviewed, University of Adelaide), Brigitta Olubas (University of New South Wales), and Amanda Nettlebeck (University of Western Sydney). They shortlisted the following novels:

  • Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (my review)
  • Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest (my review, added in 2015)
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review)
  • Tim Winton’s Eyrie
  • Alexis Wright’s The swan book

(You can see the longlist on their site).

McFarlaneNightGuestAnd the winner, announced on Wednesday November 19, 2014, at the annual meeting of the AUHE, is Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. I have had this novel on my radar since I saw the first reviews start to come through for it at the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. I now have it in my possession – and just need to find time to read it.

I have spent quite a bit of time, I know, on this award – but I thought it was an interesting story and hoped you would think so too. It will be an interesting one to follow – but, I know I will always do a double-take when I see its name!

* The ALS Gold Medal, which was awarded this year to Alexis Wright’s The swan book.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Voss Literary Prize

  1. Thanks for this story, Sue. I have ‘The Night Guest’ on my TBR pile and am hoping to get to it soon. I also have ‘Poe’s Cat’, loaned to me by a friend before I went to Varuna. Brenda Walker wrote most of the first draft at Varuna, so she thought it would inspire me. Of course, I’ve been and gone to Varuna, but I’m yet to read the novel (*winces …).

    • Great persistence was clearly needed to get this award going. The title certainly has to be one of the most arresting of all literary prizes! I wonder if the delay might have been because of the rise of other Australian prizes for fiction?

  2. It is a rather interesting story. When I saw the announcement come up on my Facebook feed today I thought that I’d misread Vogel and seen Voss somehow (I didn’t think of the book! Shhh). I wonder if they anticipated a 60 year delay when they wrote that will- I imagine not- but a new literary award is always good. I’ve been wanting to read this one too- it sounds intriguing.

  3. Interesting – and nice to see another award out there, especially one named Voss, accidental though that may be. Amazingly, I’ve read Burial Rites, have the Eyrie sample and The Night Guest is on my wish list.

  4. Not the Voss you thought it was named for but what an interesting story behind it! So nice the prize finally found a home and the first award made. I hope it has a long future ahead of it.

  5. I have read all the books from the list and I liked them all except for The Swan Book, but was very pleased to see that The Night Guest won. It is good to see another author being recognized in Australian Awards. My prediction for next year is To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson. Just read it and thought it was excellent.

  6. It’s a shame that they changed from the original scope, it would have been interesting to see how they met the requirements. We could for once have seen some non British, non USA authors get a look in.

  7. I saw this in The Conversation too, and was pleased to see another literary prize, but disappointed to see the shortlist contained no surprises. I’m not saying any of these books are bad, but the Voss does seem to be very much following in the footsteps of all the other prizes and mainstream media book pages. Good to see Luke Carman and Eleanor Limprecht getting a look-in on the long list though.
    The Swan Book does seem to be making a lot of long and shortlists and I guess has now entirely run out of chances to win a mainstream prize. Perhaps it’s way too innovative and challenging to meet the criteria of ‘good Australian literature’ (or maybe it’s just rubbish: I really liked it anyway).

    • Yes, I know what you say Jane … I did like the newer names in the long list. Interesting that Flanagan didn’t make the shortlist, indicating a wide variety of opinion on it.

      I’m very keen to read The swan book as I loved Carpentaria and would happily read it again – but no, must move on!

      Early in the PM’s Literary Prize they chose books that weren’t winning elsewhere e.g. Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (though it had made a few shortlists) and Stephen Daisley’s Traitor which I hadn’t even heard of. But lately its winners have been the same winners around the traps – good books but I was hoping they’d stay a little edgy (if what I’ve described is edgy!!)

  8. Interesting! I love the idea of setting up a prize.. Guess you must have the means though!

    I’d be keen to read The Night Guest as well. Luckily, we have Barracuda at home – must order the others.

    • Yes, I do too Catherine. Interesting that they had the prize but it took a while to find someone to run it!

      I’m thrilled because, as I hoped,y reading group has scheduled The night guest for next year, and I hope to schedule it in the first quarter.

    • Thanks Dorothy – I reckon we’ll remember that name! I’m pleased that my reading group has chosen The night guest for the first half of next year. Greatly looking forward to reading it so will schedule it as early as I can! (Consensus selection but I tend to do the scheduling).

  9. Pingback: Meet an Aussie Author: Eleanor Limprecht | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  10. Pingback: 2016 Voss Literary Prize shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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