Horne Prize – the “political correctness” controversy

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Dare I step into the breach? I think I will. Let me start by saying I’m a strong supporter of political correctness, though I hate the term itself and the way it is bandied about with little thought or nuance. To me, political correctness fundamentally means respect for and sensitivity to the feelings and place or position of others – of others, that is, who are less powerful, have less agency and status than the prevailing majority. It means, essentially, in our culture, not privileging the western white straight abled male perspective in the way we speak and write, and in who gets to speak and write.

Having this fundamental view means that I (generally) support indigenous Australians’ call for non-indigenous writers not to write in the voice of indigenous characters. I say “generally” because I’m not a believer in black-and-white rules when it comes to art. I also say it because I think that non-indigenous writers should be able to include indigenous characters in their books where relevant. Otherwise, the risk is that oppression and invisibility is being perpetuated by their absence. There’s a fine line here between oppression-through-absence and oppression-through-appropriation. This line needs to be trodden carefully and must be in consultation with relevant indigenous people. Not all indigenous people agree with this approach, but some do I believe. This opinion of mine is set in jelly not concrete – as I have no wish to continue oppression – but it’s my intellectual position on the issue.

So, the Horne Prize. Named for the late public intellectual Donald Horne who wrote on Australian culture and identity, the Horne Prize was established in 2014 by Aesop and The Saturday Paper. It is “for an essay of up to 3000 words, addressing some part of the theme ‘Australian life’ – shining light on a particular aspect of who we are, from a contemporary perspective.” It’s probably not well known in general circles, but it came to the fore on the weekend when two judges – writer Anna Funder (whom I’ve reviewed here) and journalist/public intellectual David Marr – resigned from the panel when they discovered that some restrictions had been added to this year’s submission guidelines.

David Marr explains it in The Guardian:

But, without warning the judges, Jensen [The Saturday Paper editor] decided to radically narrow the rules and issued a list of what the Horne prize was “not seeking or accepting” this year: “Essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians. Essays about the LGBTQI community written by people without direct experience of this community. Any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of those in any minority community of which the writer is not a member*.”

Marr continues in this article that on seeing this, he immediately contacted Jensen expressing his disagreement with such restrictions and advising that he could not be on the panel as a result. To his credit, Jensen immediately emailed the other judges – Funder, indigenous Australian academic Marcia Langton, and a representative of Aesop – explaining his reasons:

The guidelines attempted to reduce the number of essays we received that offered chauvinistic or condescending accounts of particular groups of Australians, especially First Australians.

Funder withdrew because she felt that much of her own work would not be approved under the guidelines, while Marr reports this of Langton:

Langton told me: “I don’t think you should completely rubbish Erik’s attempt to get rid of the rubbish.” She views the new guidelines as: “Probably a mistake because it’s not the done thing. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for what he’s trying to achieve but it crosses the line on censorship and free speech.”

Another article in The Guardian by Calla Wahlquist quotes some who agree with Jensen’s new conditions: Kerryn Goldsworthy who thought they were “absolutely fair enough”, Anna Spargo-Ryan (whose The paper house I’ve reviewed here) who “wished guidelines restricting writers from venturing outside their own experience and authority weren’t necessary, but that the negative reaction to the entry criteria proved they still were”, and two indigenous Australian writers, Nayuka Gorrie and Jack Latimore. Wahlquist writes this of Latimore:

Latimore said it was part of a broader global push to ensure people from minority groups retained control over and any benefit that stemmed from the telling of their stories.

“If you want to get a deeper or richer Aboriginal story, an Aboriginal journalist is going to be the one who gets that more than anyone else,” he said.

Now, my opinion is – and I think it is similar to Marr’s – that no such “rule” should be needed because good, sensitive, intuitive judges should be capable of identifying essays which are chauvinistic, condescending or worse. Such works should not make the first cut. My belief is that the “best” works on marginalised or dispossessed peoples, on “other” – and of course not all essays will be on these subjects – will, almost by definition, be by people who have the appropriate lived experience. (But, perhaps, I am naive to believe all this?)

The critical thing, then, in regards to general awards like this (ie not those targeted to specific groups like The Stella Prize for women or the David Unaipon for indigenous Australians) may be less about who can write what, but who should judge (an issue I discussed recently in fact). This panel seems diverse: it includes a white woman (Funder), a gay white man (Marr), and an indigenous woman (Langton). Knowing these three, I’d (if anyone asked me) say that they are knowledgeable and skilled enough, are thoughtful and sensitive to prevailing community values and attitudes, to make a good decision. (Yen-Rong Wong, though, may disagree.)

And the end result? Jensen has withdrawn these additional conditions and the deadline for the prize has been extended by a month. Nice to see someone willing to change his mind publicly eh?

I feel a little nervous writing this – but I’d like to think we can discuss this issue from a fundamental basis of respect for all, with the understanding that there is in fact no right or wrong but a multiplicity of opinions which are best shared rather than buried under the carpet.

* None of the discussion here, or that I read, addresses the tricky issue of labelling and identification, of how you prove you are part of the valid community for your topic.

36 thoughts on “Horne Prize – the “political correctness” controversy

  1. Well said Sue. I read much of your source material and it never occurred to me to make it a post, so good on you for doing it. By and large I agree with Jensen, but as you say it would be better if these rules were ‘understood’ rather than set in concrete. And why be nervous? Debates are fun.

  2. WG: When I read All That I Am by Anna FUNDER I became aware that among the Nazis in London spying on the ex-pat German community (living there under a form of Protection Visa – unable to speak out about what was happening in Germany under threat of deportation/or doing worse – such as committing murders of some of those ex-pats – disguised as suicides) was a family connection. The chilling nature of that realisation I shouldn’t have to explain further.

    While I was engaged in a graduate school study of Aboriginal Education in the early/mid-1980s one of my lecturers for who I retain much respect was Dr Margaret SHARPE – a sociolinguist – engaged on one front in setting up/supporting the Bandjalang language studies on the far north coast of NSW. Some years later I was teaching at Nelson Bay High School. Margaret had written a novel in 1983 – suitable for upper Primary/junior secondary classes: The Traeger Kid was/is the title. My school at my recommendation purchased a class set – and my Year 8 students read the novel – they wrote letters to Dr Sharpe – and after having written beautiful responses to all their letters – she came to visit. The central character is a little girl of Indigenous background at Alice Springs Traeger Park Primary School. We follow her daily life over some period of time – absence from school for cultural observances – a visit which takes her to relatives in Brisbane – and down into Bandjalang territory in NSW. The feature which Margaret Sharpe followed – was not to put the writer into the head/mind of the central character. She made the point to my students that it would not really have been appropriate – instead we are – as readers – observers of that character. I remember thinking then – over 30 years ago – what a sensitive and honest kind of position to take on what was appropriate or note for the writer.

    I think the idea that Jensen was trying to implement has some merit – but was maybe somewhat clumsily put into place. Good judges (as the three named certainly are) as good readers are easily able to sift between what reads as truth or real – while imposed cultural or other perspectives do leap up to confront with unreality or unbelievability. I have read quite literally shelves of books written by Indigenous writers – including many which were memoirist in nature – autobiographical – which has laid down quite a solid “bullshit” detector filter within my reader’s preparedness to accept or not.

  3. Interesting post Sue. I confess that, when I read the guidelines I thought they sounded rather stern – sort of like a parental figure (the organisers) telling students (the writers) how to go about their work. I can understand now, after reading your post, where Jensen was coming from and I admire him for rethinking it publicly. I wonder – from a writer’s perspective – if the guidelines had just been worded a little differently, it might have worked better.

    • Interesting question Karenlee. Can you think of a way in which they may have been worded differently?

      Like you I admire Jensen – for the original heart, and for the immediate response. He clearly didn’t get defensive with Marr (or if he did it didn’t last) and got straight onto checking out his decision.

      • I like that phrase about your opinion being “set in jelly”! One of the biggest weapons of the haters of political correctness is this sense they have of being muzzled with the depressing result – the success of backlash politics. I certainly don’t see Funder and Marr in that way and their misgivings should be taken seriously….its a difficult one!

        • Thanks, Ian. I often describe myself as wishy-washy, but perhaps I should now say wibbly-wobbly!

          No, you’re right about Funder and Marr. This is probably why Jensen took Marr’s phone call seriously.

  4. This is a fascinating and timely subject. I had heard about what was going on with The Horne Awards as I kind of follow these controversies. This is obviously part of s larger debate that touches on a lot of issues. Even within the left there has been a big division here. I have been thinking of writing about it myself in terms of books but the blog that I started got s bit bogged down on research. With that, I need to finish it.

    I agree that civility is so important, there has been social media acrimony over this issue. Literal social media mobs have descended on people on Twitter over this. No matter where one stands on these issues, I think that every reasonable and ethical person can agree that the people can agree that the person uncivilty has to be dispensed with.

    • Thanks Brian. I’ll look out for your post. It’s a difficult area to write in, particularly if you come from a privileged group but, as you say, the bottom line is to be pcivil, which includes really listening to other points of view and responding with care and respect whether you agree with them or not.

        • Thanks for this, Bill, it is indeed a good article, and fills out the statement by Latimore in my post. It keeps my opinion in the jelly rather than the concrete because I understand everything he says.

          At the CWF the issue of white writers writing about indigenous people came up and on two occasions the white writer involved was immediately asked if they’d checked their representations with the relevant indigenous groups. There is a fine line here. Should I not review an indigenous writer because I don’t know of what I speak? I have heard this suggested. Should a white person not write of their experience with indigenous people, an experience which will necessarily have them describe at least something about the indigenous person?

          I do understand – as much as I can – the anger and frustration of marginalised people but I’d like to think we can resolve this in a sophisticated way rather than with a sledgehammer. I know however that in saying this I’m coming from a pretty privileged position (one hampered only by being a woman, but a fortunate one who has had a relatively easy path) hence my staying in jelly.

        • Sue, here is where we differ – over a small point but an important one. When you write about this issue, here and elsewhere, you query whether white writers may describe people who are not white, and specifically whether they may include Indigenous characters in their fiction. The answer is of course they may, and indeed quite often should. I am critical of Carey’s failure in Ned Kelly to acknowledge that there was a significant Indigenous presence in NE Vic, for instance. What the white writer must NOT do is presume to tell Indigenous stories.

        • I’m not quite sure what you are saying here Bill. I personally think white writers need to include indigenous characters in their books where it’s relevant to the story, otherwise they are continuing oppression by keeping indigenous people invisible. The problem is that as soon as you include an indigenous character you need to speak for them in SOME way, you need to characterise them in some way so you need to imagine what they might say, think or feel, and that is where the challenge lies. Indigenous people want white writers who do this to check their representation with the relevant indigenous people. Whenever I query this I’m referring to the fact that I have heard some indigenous writers expressing concern about white writers including indigenous characters at all.

          Here is an interesting critique of the play of The secret river. Indigenous dancer Stephen Page was involved in some of the decisionmaking, but indigenous director Rachel Maza criticises the play and how it presents the indigenous story. This is why I always mention this issue in a qualified way.

          I think most people agree that white writers should not write in the voice of indigenous people.

        • BTW Here is an article from The Conversation. It discusses this issue: “ongoing anxieties about how non-Indigenous storytellers represent Aboriginal experiences. Do writers like Grenville have the right to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples, or to tell their stories? If not, should the Aboriginal characters in their novels remain without a voice? Both approaches present ethical problems.” Grenville, in fact, decided not to “speak” for them … but Bovell who did the play script did something different.

          It is so fraught – hence my staying firmly, still, in jelly!!

        • I’m going to think for a while. Let us say we agree that a white writer today shouldn’t tell Black stories. But you say that a writer who depicts Black characters in the course of his/her story is also telling Black stories.

          My first thought is that I would write what I saw, Black or White.

          But I am going to consider a thought experiment: what if I was writing an account of Bourke & Wills, who died because they couldn’t bring themselves to take notice of the Indigenous people offering them food. If I was writing historical fiction I would be attempting to reproduce the (limited) way they saw, not what was actually taking place – which I would need Indigenous help to describe. Anyway, thanks for reading this far. No reply needed.

    • Thanks Cathy. It’s not foolproof of course but in the current climate I reckon sensitive judges will be on the lookout. They certainly will now. I do think judging panels have to be diverse/representative of our society. They can’t cover every background but they need not to be all one background. No matter how empathetic we are, we can’t deeply know the experience of oppression if we haven’t lived it.

  5. Hi Sue, I totally agree with you. I did not know of the Horne prize until I read about Anna Funder withdrawal. I think David Horne would appreciate Jensen’s change of mind.

    • Thanks Meg. I had heard of the prize but it, like another essay prize, the Calibre, is not front and centre in my awareness. It’s a decent prize too, given it’s for an essay not a book.

  6. Thank you, Sue, for giving your two cents’ worth on this! I’m a bit like you in that my opinions are set in jelly, too. I also realise that as an Australian of European descent, I’m privileged and am therefore unqualified to say too much.

    I recognise that indigenous people (and other minority groups) haven’t had a voice or had their stories heard or been understood. They were unjustly forced to give up their land and their culture and adopt that of a white person’s. For too long their stories weren’t told, or if they were, it was by a white person and from a white person’s perspective.

    My wobbly two cents’ worth is that I think guidelines like those set for the Horne Prize are necessary, at least until minority groups have equal voices. That’s not to say anything against the three judges of this award or their ability to judge fairly.

    I don’t see guidelines such as these as an infringement against free speech, but as a way of ensuring we’re respectful of others when telling our stories. The majority of people act justly, or try to act justly, but we don’t always succeed. As part of a privileged majority, we’re not always aware of our unconscious bias. This is evident in the way minority groups have been represented in the past, which was acceptable at the time but is now considered racist. It’s also evident in the current debate about the need for quotas for women in Parliament and the boardroom, because of the unconscious bias against women in these roles. We all know women are equally meritorious, but until there’s a change in the prevailing attitude, rules will need to be in place to ensure equal representation.

    The same could be said for the law. Most of us know right from wrong and don’t infringe others’ rights, and we wouldn’t do the wrong thing whether the law prohibited it or not. There are some who see our laws as restricting our personal freedoms, but I don’t think we can argue they’re not needed. I don’t see these guidelines as any different to any other guidelines, rules or laws.

    The thing is, we don’t like having to change our habits and a lot of the push against this is because we’re not used to thinking in this new way. Like the recent uproar over the banning of plastic bags, and I’m also old enough to remember the outcry when seatbelt laws were introduced—what an infringement against peoples’ rights that was! Now, of course, we all just accept it as part of driver safety.

    It will take us a while to get used to this new way of thinking, but in the longterm, it will lead to more egalitarian and diverse storytelling. At least we’re talking about it and it’s now in our consciousness. It will make us think before we speak for others, especially when they can so eloquently speak for themselves.

    • Thanks very much Louise for this response. I agree with and understand so much of what you say. Unconscious bias is an issue, and I agree that when there are power imbalances that we should give more leeway (like quota systems do) to help right the balance. Hence, I wouldn’t necessarily have criticised the guidelines had they stayed.

      However, I think the guidelines could be seen as pretty crude – where is line drawn? How does a person prove his or her credentials for writing about a topic? Which topics are to come under these guidelines and which not? What if a non-indigenous person wrote an analysis of how attitudes to climate change affect Australian identity and wanted to include an indigenous perspective? Would they be allowed to refer to that perspective in passing but not elaborate on it? Can a second generation member of an immigrant family write of the immigration experience but not a third generation, or a third generation but not a fourth? And so on. I see it as really fraught. This is why, when it comes to prizes, I’d prefer to see diverse judging panels rather than rules about who can write what. When it comes to publishing, I think that writers first and then their editors/publishers need to be aware of the environment and do their due diligence. Indigenous people want non-indigenous people to consult them when they include indigenous characters and stories in their writing. We should absolutely honour that.

      I’m still concerned about guidelines/laws/rules like this in the creative arts. I know and accept that freedom of speech has limits – and so am not seeing it completely through that prism, though I think it’s an issue to watch. It’s more that I fear it’s ultimately unworkable – or at least very difficult to monitor or enforce. But, I know as you do, that I’m speaking from a privileged position who hasn’t had to fight for every step. Oh dear.

  7. All very good points that deserve consideration.

    It *is* a fraught issue and I doubt it will be resolved quickly. At least it’s in our consciousness now, and we’re all thinking about it. Thank you for highlighting it here.

    • Thanks Louise – I think our hearts are in the same place and that’s a good place to start from. I’m so glad you contributed to the discussion. (I’ve deleted the other repeated comment)

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