For those of us who follow the major Australian literary awards, The Australian/Vogel is one we like to keep an eye out for, because it has launched a number of significant careers during its nearly 40-year history. For those who don’t know it, the award is for an unpublished manuscript, which can be “a work of fiction, Australian history or biography”, by a writer under 35 years old.
It currently offers a $20,000 cash prize and, most importantly, publication by Allen & Unwin. It is usually announced early-ish in the year, with the book’s publication occurring at the time. (The entries for the 2020 award closed on 31 May, which gives time for the judge’s decision and for the publication process to be set in train.)
Authors who have won and gone on to publish more books – and whom I’ve posted on here – include:
- 1981: Tim Winton: Breath
- 1984: Kate Grenville: The lieutenant; One life: My mother’s story
- 1990: Gillian Mears: Foal’s bread
- 1991: Andrew McGahan: a Vale post
- 1997: Eva Sallis (now Hornung): Dog boy
- 2002: Danielle Wood: Mothers Grimm
- 2008: Andrew Croome: Document Z and Midnight empire
(Of the above, only Document Z is the actual Vogel winner.
Others who have established ongoing careers, and whom I’m still to review, include Brian Castro (1982), Mandy Sayer (1989), and Rohan Wilson (2011). Last year’s (2018) winner was Emily O’Grady, with The yellow house (my review). Some of the prize’s past winners have gone on to win, or be shortlisted for, the Miles Franklin and other major Australian awards.
However, Ben Walter, discussing the Vogel (and to some degree literary prizes in general), on the Overland website, argues that while the money is nice, these awards are not, as the Vogel itself shows, a guaranteed path – or necessary even – to establishing a literary career. He has a point, I’m sure. (He also refers to an article on the writing life, including a survey of Vogel winners in Meanjin by Frank Moorhouse, in 2017. This is well-worth reading, and possibly worthy of a separate post!)
Anyhow, back to 2019 … Books + Publishing, which reported the news in May, quoted Allen & Unwin’s publisher, Annette Barlow, as saying:
This is an award that has literally launched the careers of over 100 authors. But this year, in 2019, there is no winner and—although we’re disappointed, of course—I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.
They also quote Stephen Romei, literary editor of the Australian and one of the Vogel judges. He said:
I will be on the judging panel again this year, for the 2020 Vogel, and am optimistic we will find manuscripts that stand up and be counted.
It’s always disappointing when an award is not granted. This is the third time that this prize has not been awarded, the others being 1985 and 2013. Were there really no good manuscripts out there?
Author of the innovative A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson, wrote a post, “Just award the Vogel’s already”, on the Overland website, teasing out some of the pros and cons of this sort of award and of awards in general, not to mention the challenge of carving out a writer’s life. She says:
Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius? The people who’ve submitted manuscripts have found a way to carve out time and space to write. They’ve dedicated themselves to a craft that has almost no financial or social reward. They’ve put their hopes on the line. Choose the best of the bunch and shortlist them: give one of them a prize. Maybe it will be the only money and recognition that writer ever gets, or maybe it will be the encouragement they need to go on to write better books. Either way, who cares: anything is better than the big plate of nothing most writers are served.
Her comments are both informative and provocative, but of course they are just another person’s opinion. If you are interested in the issue, do read her article and the comments on it. One interesting response came from someone called Adam Ford:
My first thought was that it wasn’t the prize committee, but the publishers themselves (more specifically the publishers’ marketing department) who decided they didn’t want to publish any of the manuscripts bc none of them fit with existing publishing success trends. Just another encroachment of commerce onto publishing. No idea if that’s true, of course. You’ve got to wonder what the conversation was like when they decided that THIS was the way to go.
I can see both sides of the argument but, in the end given the challenges of the writing life, I’m with Rawson. Why not reward the best of the bunch – and, if necessary, help that author create a “worthy” book? Then again, should we worry, or just accept Ben Walter’s argument (see above) that these awards are not the be-all and end-all – and get over it?