Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

I’ve written about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards before – more than once in fact, as you will see if you click on my link. They were created in 2007 by our then new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. What heady days they were. These were, at the time, Australia’s most lucrative literary awards, and were among the first of the major awards, when they instigated this in 2011, to provide a cash prize for shortlisted books. Awards were initially made in two categories – fiction and non-fiction – but gradually other categories have been added for poetry, children’s fiction, young adult fiction, and Australian history.

I do wonder though about the ongoing support. In 2010 the winners were announced on 8 November, then in 2011, it was 8 July, and in 2012 it was 23 July. Last year the winners were announced on 15 August, and this year they were announced tonight, 8 December. Why such inconsistency? Most major literary awards keep pretty much to a schedule, but this one is all over the place. Does this suggest a lack of commitment? I had started to think this year that they weren’t going to happen – until the shortlist was suddenly announced on 19 October.

I enjoy following these awards – and I’m primarily talking fiction here – partly because there is often something left field about them. Three winners – The zookeeper’s war by Steven Conte (2008), Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (2010) (my review) and Stephen Daisley’s Traitor* (2011) – didn’t win any other major award (as far as I’m aware). And the shortlists have included books that scarcely, if at all, popped up elsewhere, such as Sophie Laguna’s One foot wrong (2009) and Alan Gould’s The lakewoman (2010) (my review). Given that the arts is a subjective business, I like seeing different works being recognised. I can’t believe that there are only 6 or 7 books worth highlighting each year – and yet that’s what often seems to be implied when you look at the shortlists in any one year. (I suppose, though, if you are one of those 6 or 7 you hope that multiple listing will result in your winning at least once?)

Anyhow, it’s now time to announce this year’s winner of the fiction award – and it’s a joint award: Steven Carroll’s A world of other people and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (my review).

And I can’t help giving a special mention to a couple of other winners:

  • Poetry award: Canberra’s gorgeous Melinda Smith with her collection Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (published by the lovely little poetry press, Pitt Street Poetry). I haven’t read this, but I have heard Smith speak and mentioned her in my post on Capital Women Poets.
  • Non-fiction award: another joint award – Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (on my TBR) and Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (my review).

The Australian history award was also made to two books. I have no idea what the authors think about all these joint awards, but as you can imagine, I like that the love was shared.

I do hope these awards continue, and hopefully on a more routine schedule.

Congratulations to all the authors, and their publishers, who won this year.

* I have been wondering about what has happened to Daisley, but I read just today in a catalogue from Text Publishing that he has a new book out in 2015, Coming rain, set in Western Australia in 1955, the year he was born! I’ll be looking out for it.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

    • Yes, fair enough Lisa … so, what do you think of the choices? The fiction and non-fiction choices seem reasonable to me. I haven’t read any of the fiction short list to have a considered opinion – but I think you have?

      • It’s the history prizes that show political interference. Two about Anzac *yawn* and Quadrant’s mates’ choice: Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II.
        I’ve read & reviewed three of the fiction, loved the Flanagan as you know, but not super keen on The Night Guest (too lightweight) and Belomor even less so. (He writes for the Murdoch Press). I expect to like Steven Carroll’s and Alex Millers, just haven’t got round to reading them yet. The only NF I’d read was Trinca’s, which was ok but not brilliant. My feeling is that both could have been more adventurous shortlists,
        And I would have given the children’s award to My Life as an Alphabet. Bob Graham’s book is sweet, but not in the same league as the Jonsberg.

        • Thanks Lisa … yes, it’s the history where the issue is most likely to be a problem, isn’t it. I suppose it’s not surprising that war books won this year. I hope that’s not going to be the case for the next 4 years.

          I feel I “should” read the Colebatch to see what tone he takes. How easy it is for us to distrust the choice and writing of those we don’t agree with! It makes one quite uneasy at times about reading history as a lay, albeit interested, person doesn’t it. Clare Wright was pushing a very particular barrow about the role of women in Eureka and, as you suggested I think in your review, you could end up with a slanted view if you thought this was THE only history rather than a part of the whole. I wonder how Colebatch approaches his take on his subject.

          I must say I’m keen to read The night guest. There’s been so much buzz about it, I’d like to see for myself.

  1. Not sure I understand why a PM, a political figure, should have literary awards. I felt that from the first days (Rudd, was it?). The awards could be supported by Govt, OK, but why the associated with a political actor? What PM has time to read, other than screeds from their advisors, anyway? I worry about the obvious danger of culture wars and the resultant demeaning of the awards and the works. Doesn’t seem a good idea to me. Decisions should be clearly arms-length and seem to be that way. Eric

    • Fair enough Eric … we do have some long standing Premier’s Literary Awards in some Australian states too, so the same argument should apply? I’m not sure how much of a role the premier or prime minister plays in the selection – it probably varies from regime to regime. There is always the risk of bias in awards being funded by a government or corporate sponsor, I’d say! Less so, hopefully, those managed by a trust?

      • Good comment about the Premiers. I think my argument still holds. It’s just strengthened by hearing Abbott today raise culture war issues (left/right matters) in his speech at the presentation (just part-broadcast on ABCRN).

        • Oh ideally I agree with you Eric. I suspect though that many writers would rather something than nothing. I haven’t heard his speech so will see if I can find it online (before Friday!). You’ve warned me, though, what to expect.

    • Thanks Debbie. How great that you are reading it over there! It also won the Queensland Literary Awards last night. Anyhow, I look forward to see your review (?) when you finish it.

  2. I watched the awards on SBS 1, and the prime Minister actually gave a great speech and also announced the creation of an Australian Book Council in support of Australian publishing. In his speech he also sounded honest when he talked about the importance of books and reading, so I think the awards will continue.

  3. I found your blog last night while I was looking for emerging writers opportunities, so thanks first of all for your list of unpublished writers prizes, it was most helpful.

    It was interesting to note that this year, the PM’s Literary Award Shortlist was announced only after several reviewers (i think one of them being Stephen Romei in the Australian) started getting quite vocal about their absence. To me, this smacked of appeasement.

    If we compare the two prize nights that happened last night, QLD Literary and the PMs, it’s interesting to note that the QLD awards had only one joint prize and awarded a number of fellowships etc for emerging writers. I think QLD is a state that’s getting a lot right with regards to literature, and considering that a few years ago their Premier’s Literary Awards were cancelled this is saying a lot. They have a great local writing centre, and a lot of excellent work is done to foster new voices in the literary community. Compare this to the PMs literary awards, and I think that it’s pretty obvious how low a priority the arts are to the current government. I want to see the PMs awards on a more regular schedule, and I want to see some national initiatives to recognise emerging writers.

    Just realised this is a bit of a rant, but great blog!

    • Thanks Emily — and you’re welcome to rant here any time you like. (I have seen your blog in my role as one of the AWW Challenge coordinators – it’s a lovely cheery blog). I must say I was a bit worried about the Queensland Literary Awards this year too, as they were later than they have been. I was concerned they weren’t going to be able to keep up the momentum (as it’s a big ask) but clearly they are, which is great. They do a wonderful swag of awards including as you clearly know manuscript and indigenous writer awards.

      What do you think though about the announcement of a Book Council? I’m looking forward to seeing the commentary on that. I certainly agree that the PM awards should run to a schedule otherwise they do feel a bit like an also ran that could disappear at the drop of a hat.

  4. It’s fascinating for me to read of the awards and all the strong opinions about them in the comments as I’m looking in from outside! I can imagine there would be similarly strong views if there were Govt book awards here in the UK – not to mention the fact that having David Cameron and his cronies influence our lives is bad enough but the thought of him also influencing our book choices is too awful to contemplate!!!

    • I agree with Col about government awards to literature/dangers of…the Cameron government would probably go for any literary equivalent of Downton Abbey all the time!

    • Thanks Col and Ian … we have had Premier’s book awards (i.e. state government sponsored) here for a long time and the issue of political bias has not really raised its head in a big or consistent way. In fact there was an outcry when the then new Premier of Queensland closed down the Premier’s book awards in that state (around 2011/2012) because it was seen as a withdrawal of government support for literature and the arts. It became an issue of concern for these particular awards because of a bias towards older, more conservative judges, particularly for the history and nonfiction awards. It will be interesting to see how the discussion goes … I’m guessing the preference here would be to retain the awards but with the government at arm’s length from the process, rather than ditch the awards.

  5. Interesting there were so many given to two books in a category. I wonder if the authors each get the full prize amount or if they have to split it in half? How odd that there doesn’t seem to be a regular prize date. It’d be interesting to know why. Maybe there is some juicy gossip behind it! 🙂

    • No, Stefanie, the prize money is split but at $40,000 each, it’s still pretty good. I think both fiction winners donated theirs. Flanagan said he’d done well this year so donated to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

      Yes, I’m sure politics has played a big role in the erratic scheduling of the awards over the last couple of years in particular – which suggests it’s not a well-ingrained activity in the PM’s dept. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

    • Thanks Belinda. Hmmm … I’m impressed that he wanted to read them, but not impressed that he intervened in the judge’s decision, and even less impressed that apparently they didn’t even know until the announcement of the awards. I wonder if this sort of overriding happens often in literary awards? Interesting too that there was such dissension in the history award. I wonder if Moyal was interested in Clare Wright’s book?

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