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Monday musings on Australian literature: University of Canberra Book of the Year 2019

November 19, 2018

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyI have written about the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year initiative, twice – in 2012 when it was initiated, and again in 2014, when I checked to see whether the program was continuing. I am thrilled to say that earlier this month I heard the announcement of 2019’s book, so the program continues still. This book will be the 7th in the program.

Before I announce next year’s book, though, a quick refresher about the program. It involves the University providing a selected book, free, to all “commencing students” regardless of their subjects, as well as to all staff, academic and otherwise. The book is required reading, and teaching staff are expected to incorporate the book somewhere in their programs.

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverThe books are not always Australian, which is a shame given this is an excellent opportunity to introduce students to Australian literature. Also, and perhaps this sounds contradictory, while the genres and subject matter vary somewhat, there’s not a lot of diversity in terms of writers. No indigenous writer, no writer from a non-white/non-English language background, for example. Here is the list, to this year:

2013: Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey (my review)
2014: Room, by Emma Donoghue
2015: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (my review)
2016: The strays, by Emily Bitto (my review)
2017: The white earth, by Andrew McGahan
2018: Do Androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Professor Klomp describes the goals:

The UC Book Project is a fantastic initiative that introduces commencing students to intellectual life before their studies officially begin, encouraging early engagement with UC online resources, and informal learning and sharing among all new students.

It also promotes interaction and engagement among staff and students with a common topic to chat about around campus.

UC Book for 2019

In October, the University announced the shortlist, which are, this year, all recent Australian books. Good decision – and again some varied content, but, notwithstanding Bobis, not particularly diverse. It really is time, I think, to see some indigenous Australian writing chosen.

The announcement says that the judging panel, which comprises “Professor Klomp, the University Librarian, a Professor of Creative Writing, authors, media personalities and students”, is provided the shortlist from which to select “a book that is appealing to our wide range of students”. This year’s shortlist (including main “awards” credentials) was:

  • Merlinda Bobis’ Locust girlNew South Wales Premier’s Literary Award (Christina Stead Prize for Fiction); Juan C. Laya Philippine National Book Award (Best Novel in English)
  • Felicity Castagna’s No more boats: Miles Franklin Literary Award (Shortlist)
  • Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm: Barbara Jefferis Award (Winner); Miles Franklin Literary Award (Shortlist), Stella Prize (Shortlist)
  • Bram Presser’s The book of dirt: NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (Christina Stead Prize for Fiction); NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing); NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (The People’s Choice Award); Voss Literary Prize (Shortlist)
  • Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek: Dobbie Award for Best New Writer (Winner); Miles Franklin Literary Award (Shortlist); Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (Shortlist)
  • Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions: Miles Franklin Literary Award (Winner); Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Fiction (Shortlist)
  • Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review): Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction (Joint Winner); Stella Prize (Winner); Miles Franklin Literary Award (Shortlist); Barbara Jefferis Award (Shortlist); Voss Literary Prize (Shortlist); plus short listing for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Queensland Literary Awards and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of thingsAnd the winner is: Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things. A provocative and probably challenging choice for many – but one that should stimulate great discussions about all sorts of ideas, values and topics. UC’s Press Release announcing the selection says that Professor Klomp “hopes that the book with engage a wide audience with its universal themes of power, morality, judgement and friendship.” Remembering the strong and varied reactions in my reading group – about everything from style and characterisation to meaning and themes – I’d love to hear the students and staff discuss this one.

I’d love to hear you thoughts about the book choices, or the program itself?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2018 11:17 pm

    I said when I reviewed The Natural Way of Things that I hoped boys could be persuaded to read it. This is certainly one way, make it compulsory. It’s a very long time since I read Do Androids Dream but I’m glad it was chosen, Dick doesn’t deserve to be left to fade into obscurity. I’ve read some of the other years’. I’m not sure I’d have read The White Earth and attacked it furiously – I heard it read on the ABC and hated it – or refused to read it and failed (as I did in my matric year).

    • November 20, 2018 8:10 am

      Thanks Bill. It’s certainly a way getting males to read it. I’d love to know how many do, and how many lecturers do incorporate it somehow into a class. This is quite a different choice to The Rosie Project!

      Why did you hate The white earth? The indigenous aspect? I remembering liking it – it was my third McGahan – but I don’t remember details regarding what I thought.

      • November 20, 2018 8:23 am

        I loved McGahan’s first two ‘grunge’ novels but then he started experimenting with genres, which was a bit offputing and this one … all White man making up Black stories. Not for me.

        • November 20, 2018 5:32 pm

          Yes, the grunge novels were good. I particularly liked Praise because the main female character, as I recollect, suffered from eczema! Fellow feeling.

  2. November 19, 2018 11:33 pm

    Yet another Australian literary prize I’ve never heard of.
    I will have to investigate all of these books.
    The only one I have read is Extinctions and I enjoyed it very much.
    This post will be handy when I research my #AWW 2019 reading list, thanks for sharing these wonderful books!

    • November 20, 2018 8:14 am

      Thanks N@ncy. I think that’s the value of sharing these lists isn’t it – that it provides reading guides for us.

      I suppose this is a literary prize of sorts – it would certainly be a great boon to most authors to be chosen – but because it’s confined to one university I don’t think it gets a lot of media attention. I’m so glad that it’s still going.

  3. November 20, 2018 2:28 am

    the 2018 stuck out for me. Love Phi;ip Dick but the choice stuck out from the rest

    • November 20, 2018 8:18 am

      It does a bit, doesn’t it Guy. And that’s interesting because I think a couple of the judges have been there for most… Professor Klomp and the university librarian, though the librarian may have changed in that time. It suggests they come to it each year with an open mind… But I wonder what evidence they have about the “success” of previous selections.

  4. November 20, 2018 7:28 am

    I like this concept of reading a book that gets all the students talking. I agree that books chosen should be Australian and have diversity. The Trauma Cleaner would be my pick for students but probably wouldn’t happen. Indigenous Lit is so important. Thanks for sharing.

    • November 20, 2018 8:21 am

      I agree Pam. It’s quite visionary really, and I hope that the academics do help students engage. I don’t think The trauma cleaner would be selected because I think this is about fiction/novels.

  5. November 20, 2018 12:37 pm

    I think that this is a great idea. I think that more universities should do this. The 2018 book, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is one of my all time favorite books. With that, I can see why you would want an Australian University to include Australian and Indigenous choices.

    • November 20, 2018 5:36 pm

      Thanks Brian … yes, I think they should too.

      You know, I have no problem with Dick’s novel being taught as a text in literary courses, it’s just that I think this Book of the Year project should (yes, I’m saying “should”) take the opportunity to encourage an interest in Australian literature (among Australian and international students who, after all, are studying here and would be helped by any introduction to our culture.)

  6. November 20, 2018 5:18 pm

    Anita Heiss said at the NF festival on the weekend that the University of Melbourne had given Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia to 600 staff. I think that’s likely to have a huge impact, at the interpersonal level and beyond.

    • November 20, 2018 5:36 pm

      Yes, it is, I agree with Lisa – it’s a great initiative of theirs isn’t it.

  7. November 21, 2018 9:25 am

    What an innovative idea! Not only does it get students who may not have read a certain book (or, indeed, any book outside class) reading, it demonstrates how an idea can affect and interact in all areas of life. Brilliant!

    • November 21, 2018 2:04 pm

      Yes, that’s what I like about it too Debbie… Showing how relevant fiction is to life.

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