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Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White (Literary) Award

October 17, 2016

I was thrilled to hear on the radio this morning that Carmel Bird had won this year’s Patrick White (Literary) Award. Bird is such a worthy winner for this award, but more on that anon.

The Patrick White Award* is named, obviously, for one of Australia’s most significant writers and only, to date, Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, more than this, it was established by the man himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. White, for all his famed grumpiness, was a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award, established a few years later, continues this desire to support his fellow writers. David Carter, writing in the Australian Book Review, says this about it:

White was no friend to literary prizes and, in some ways, no friend to Australian literature, but he proved himself a friend to Australian writers. The ‘Patrick White’ is in many ways a writer’s award, created by a writer for other writers, and highly valued by them even if it hits the headlines less than the Miles Franklin.

The Canberra Times reported on the creation of this award in October 1973, stating:

Professor Geoffrey Blainey, of the University of Melbourne, said in a statement yesterday that the prize would be awarded annually to “a distinguished Australian writer — preferably an older writer whose life’s writings have not received adequate recognition or reward”.

David Foster, who won the award in 2010, said that White had intended it as ”as a kind of literary loser’s compo”! I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, of how you define “loser”, but it is good to have an award which goes to those writers who, though I wouldn’t call them losers, have fallen into the gaps. Carmel Bird is one of these.

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan at the NLA

Before I talk about Bird, though, I’d like to share a little anecdote from Patrick White’s memoir/autobiography, Flaws in the glass. It is about a dinner party he was giving for the second winner of his award, the poet David Campbell:

It was again the evening of a dinner party, this time in honour of David Campbell the poet, who had won the award I set up with the money from my Nobel Prize. I was drudging away in the kitchen about five o’clock when I switched on the radio hoping for distraction from the boredom brought on by chopping and stirring. Like a stream of lava, out poured the news of what was happening in Canberra: that the Governor-General [Sir John Kerr] has dismissed the Government elected by the Australian people …

White goes on to say that he then rejected the Order of Australia that Kerr had recently persuaded him to accept, despite his professed antipathy to such awards, by saying his refusing it “would ruin everything”. Awards, then, are tricky beasts, and I know there are readers of this blog who are not keen on them. I understand their reasons, but I also understand that for many writers the money, regardless of any kudos that may or may not accrue, is very important.

(BTW Note the timing. White wanted his annual Award announced in the week following the Melbourne Cup, which occurs on the first Tuesday in November, “to give literature a brief chance of ousting sport from the nation’s mind”. The dismissal occurred on 11 November, suggesting that in 1975 the David Campbell announcement had been made in White’s time-frame. However, given this year’s announcement date of mid-October, White’s wish seems to have fallen by the way-side.

POSTSCRIPT: This point re timing has caused some discussion in comments and behind the scenes. I have now received in writing from the Trustee’s PR that “Perpetual as Trustee of The Patrick White Literary Award confirms that there is no stipulation in the Trust Deed in regards to the timing of the announcement of the winner.” It seems like it may have been something White talked about but never actually enshrined, which is good really. I believe that the fewer restrictions the better. Times change and donors can never be sure that what they stipulate in their times will have the desired result in later times.)

So now, Carmel Bird. Her Wikipedia article provides an excellent list of her literary output – her novels, her short story collections, the anthologies she’s edited, her non-fiction, and so on. It’s an impressive output ranging across a wide variety of forms and styles, over a long period of time. And yet, under the list of awards and nominations, you’ll see that she’s been shortlisted several times but hasn’t won any of Australia’s major literary awards. Now, at last, she has!

I last saw Bird at the Canberra Writers Festival when Marion Halligan launched her latest novel Family skeleton. On the back of my copy is a quote from the Australian literary critic, Peter Craven:

Carmel Bird is a literary artist to her fingertips … She writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak.

I agree, but the thing that I really like about Bird is the way her mind works. At the risk of sounding cliched, which she never is, she is fresh, original, unafraid to follow the connections her mind makes and certainly unafraid to depart from the expected. You just have to attend a live event involving her to realise this. I mean, this is an author who creates characters who then take on lives of their own, like Virginia O’Day who writes letters of advice to authors in Dear writer. And this is the author who creates a writer, Carrillo Mean, whose work she then uses as epigraphs for her novels! Have you got all that? I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to read that another idiosyncratic writer on the recognition-fringe of Australia’s literary firmament, Gerald Murnane, has described one of her books, The woodpecker toy fact, as “my kind of book”.

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird’s Fair Game

I’ve reviewed here her cheeky fl small Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir, and I’ve read other work of hers before blogging. I also have the revised ebook edition of her book on writing, Dear writer revisited (featuring the aforesaid Virginia O’Day)I’m not a writer – that is, I have no ambitions to write fiction – but I often dip into this book because the advice is applicable to all writers.

For example, Letter Two discusses “the use of adverbs and adjectives”. Although she is referring to a piece of fiction, Bird’s advice works for any sort of writing. This, for example:

Perhaps you thought that you, as the writer, were the one who had to do all the imagining, and that the reader was to get every detail of the picture from your words. The reader of fiction takes pleasure in doing some of the work, and will more readily believe you and trust you if there is work to do. Strangely enough, the strength of fiction seems to lie as much in what is left out as in what is included, as much in the spaces between the words as in the words. This is one of strange powers at the heart of good writing. The writer’s skill likes perhaps as much in creating the spaces as in finding the words to put down.

Now, when I write my posts I regularly bother about adjectives. I seem to feel that I need them but I rarely like the ones I use. Perhaps I don’t need them at all! The other reason I like to check this book out is for the examples and advice she includes from other writers – from the likes of Helen Garner and Fay Weldon, David Foster Wallace and Frank Moorhouse, to name just a few.

She also quotes Ernest Hemingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Oh dear. This is from Letter Fifteen, “Writers are different”. I think they are – but too often we take them for granted and do not give them the recognition they deserve for the ways they enrich our lives. I’m so glad Bird has received this award and I sure hope she is too.

* I am not sure what this award is called. In some places, including Wikipedia, it is the Patrick White Award, while in others it is the Patrick White Literary Award. Take your pick it seems.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2016 1:01 am

    Carmel Bird is a worthy winner and I enjoyed your post about her and Patrick White. When one moves from one country to another it is enough to learn about that country’s culture, politics and where everything is much less history and literature. I am very thankful that you guide me through literature. Another example here.😀

    • October 18, 2016 7:38 am

      Thanks Pam. I love doing it because it fleshes out my own knowledge too, so I love hearing that other people also get something out of these posts.

  2. October 18, 2016 3:28 am

    A few years ago I knew nothing about Australia fiction/literature–not even names to look for, and I’ve started to make progress. Even so I’d not heard of Carmel Bird so thanks for that.

    • October 18, 2016 7:42 am

      You’ve made great progress Guy. And we Aussie bloggers love that you are so interested in our literature. Carmel Bird is worth your checking out.

  3. ablay1 permalink
    October 18, 2016 6:38 am

    So pleased she got the award. Thanks for your background notes.

    • October 18, 2016 7:44 am

      Thanks as always Anna. I think there are many who are pleased about this, which says something about her standing doesn’t it?

  4. October 18, 2016 9:40 am

    I’m so glad you did this… I was going to do it yesterday but I thought this news would be drowned out by the announcement of the PM’s award and I’d already posted something about Borges as well…
    The more I read of Carmel Bird, the more I like her stuff. I must get her new book, I saw it was out but forgot to order it…

  5. October 18, 2016 11:27 am

    Thanks for this post (especially the quotes from Carmel Bird’s Dear Writer). Re the award named in White’s honour, Perpetual (who now administer the award) give it the title Patrick White Literary Award. Their announcement of Bird’s win is here: https://www.perpetual.com.au/~/media/Perpetual/PDF/RESOURCES/2016-Patrick-White-Literary-Award-winner.ashx?la=en

    • October 18, 2016 12:34 pm

      Thanks Tessa. I was trying to find the official site. I have found it before. It really should be linked to on the Wikipedia page. Anyhow, I’ll check out the link. I’m wondering if it was first just called the Patrick White Award?

      • October 24, 2016 9:22 am

        From my (brief!) research, I think it has always been the Patrick White Literary Award. It was first offered in 1974; as early as 1975 it was described in newspaper reports as the Patrick White Literary Award. See, for example, this Trove search: http://ow.ly/lOo4305s7PN

        • October 24, 2016 11:12 am

          Thanks Tessa. Yes, I did a little Trove search too and found both, but Literary was more common, I must say! I’ve just checked the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature and it says Literary too. I think the Wikipedia article title needs to be changed!

    • October 18, 2016 4:29 pm

      That’s a great press re;ease, thanks Tessa. It said so much better some of the things I said and feel about her writing!

  6. October 18, 2016 2:30 pm

    Great post – always interested in anything about Patrick White and the Carmel Bird info was quite interesting. Thanks.

  7. October 18, 2016 2:44 pm

    I love Carmel Bird—Facebook keeps suggesting that I ask her to be my friend as we share quite a few already, but I don’t have the courage! ‘Dear Writer’ was one of the first books I read when I started writing—after Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’ and Mark Tredinnick’s ‘The Little Red Writing Book’. I loved it, and then I discovered she was Tasmanian! Of course! Thanks for this celebration of her win and it’s lovely she’s been honoured. 🙂

    • October 18, 2016 4:22 pm

      Oh you should dare Louise, given you share some and have that Tasmanian connection. Though I guess I understand your reticence! I’d be the same!

  8. October 19, 2016 4:58 am

    Congratulations to Bird! And how cool that White started the award himself from his Nobel winnings. Very generous of him!

    • October 21, 2016 12:01 am

      It was a great thing to do, Stefanie, I agree – it’s wonderful how many people have benefited from that gesture, and will keep on benefiting.

  9. carmelbird permalink
    October 20, 2016 7:45 am

    What a treat it always is to read the Monday Musings of Whispering Gums. And this week I have had the pleasure of reading a comprehensive view of the Patrick White Award, including the fact that my name has been added to the list of names of some of my most admired Australian writers. Thank you, Whispering Gums (a name I always find hilarious, and which causes me to wonder if I should have some characters from the Gums family in a story – teeth are one of my frequent motifs, and I have had a Tooth family, so maybe I could also search for the antics of some Gums.)

    • October 21, 2016 12:07 am

      I would love it if you did Carmel … it’s funny how at the time I chose my name I was so focused on its meaning to me, but I now sometimes find myself wondering what was I thinking!

      Anyhow, glad you liked the post and congratulations again. I think approval of your being chosen is unanimous as far as I have seen/read.

  10. October 21, 2016 6:18 pm

    It’s useful to have these awards and rankings to direct you to what you should use our limited time to read, but, for all his flaws, I still adhere to Mike Parker’s admonition to focus on the actual text and how it moves you.

    We visited him several times in South Carolina. He’s now living in a space adjoining his daughter’s house in Tallahassee.

    • October 21, 2016 10:39 pm

      Oh thanks Phil – and happy birthday by the way. (You share your birthday with my dear late-mother-in-law and the gorgeous daughter of one of my cousins.) I often think about Parker’s rules, I must say. They had truth to them, though I never like to be black-and-white about rules. So, I agree the text is the thing – but I’m not sure that it’s always the ONLY thing we should consider?

    • October 22, 2016 1:42 am

      Yes, thanks for the info about Mike – best wishes to him. And yes, the text is the thing but I recently read a novel (The Drivers Seat by Muriel Spark) which plays with that basic concept directly – does the text itself have any meaning without a reader? Still – what have we got without the text? 0h LOL! – Happy Reading –

      • October 22, 2016 8:40 am

        Haha, Bekah… That Spark book sound right up my alley. And well said, yes, all the best to Mike.

  11. Meg permalink
    October 22, 2016 2:10 pm

    I too was pleased that Carmel Bird won the award, but very impressed that she replied to your blog. Her wit continues which I always enjoy.

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