Monday musings on Australian literature: No Vogel prize in 2019

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 For those who don’t know it, the award is for an unpublished manuscript, which can be “a work of fiction, Australian history or biography”, by a writer under 35 years old.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:

Emily O'Grady, The yellow house(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?

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade listsAuthor 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?

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: No Vogel prize in 2019

  1. What! No winner? Imagine the outcry if after a Wimbledon final the umpire announced that the tennis wasn’t of a high enough standard, so the trophy wasn’t going to be awarded. Or an election where the Electoral Commission announced that the campaign had been sub standard, so the seat wasn’t going to be declared won. Sorry, but I don’t think that’s on. One of the submissions is the best and that wins the prize. And if the winner is not as good as last year, well, tough. That’s what happens. (Sometimes after my wife has been to the quilt show, she comes home saying that she could have won a prize of she’d put in an entry. But she didn’t.) Actually, the judges are playing a dangerous game, because writers might start saying to each other “Don’t enter that competition, because they can’t be bothered picking a winner!”

    • Love your analogies Neil! Though I’m thinking perhaps the judges are right and we should apply the same idea to elections. We may not have ended up with.. Well there are too many to name.

  2. Much as I hesitate to disagree with Jane, the prize is an award for quality not for effort. And what about that hair-raising comment from a creative writing lecturer – first year students don’t read books and CAN’T BE FAILED!

    • As I said I can see both sides Bill. Was there really not one ms that had promise? Hmm, I wonder if some did and they are being worked with? That’s possible I suppose.

  3. I can see both sides of the argument as well, Sue, but I think I come on the side of Award it already. I know from reading winners of any prize that they are not completely consistent in meeting whatever standards the committee issued, but they are the best of that year’s publishing, according to that year’s judges.

    • Thanks Debbie, lovely to hear from you again. I take your point about being the best of the year’s publishing, though it’s perhaps a little different for an unpublished ms award?

      I guess I should be happy… One less for the TBR!

  4. I’m with Adam Ford, but I will admit that I’m biased. I find publishers to be, by and large, very strange people: they spend money on publishing something and then just walk away, washing their hands of it.
    Of course, it’s remotely possible that my attitude is based on personal experience …
    They’re still weird, so Adam’s opinion holds water.

  5. Hi Sue, an interesting dilemma. Do you award a prize just because there is one, and therefore someone has to win it. But if the standard is not up to what the judges expect, I think they have right to deny the prize.

  6. I’m going to be entirely predictable and say that I’m with the judges (and Bill).
    The award is not an entitlement, and I’ll go further than that and say that just because an author has put heart and soul and maybe years of effort into writing something, doesn’t mean it’s any good and should be published. Athletes often put years of effort into training for their sport and they don’t get selected because those who have expertise in that sport know that they’re not potential winners. The athlete either needs to improve to meet the standard, or to give up and do something else. They’re not going to get a place in the team if they’re not good enough, no matter how hard they try because it’s not about trying, it’s about succeeding. Sad, tough, yes, but that’s how it is in sport and in lots of other areas as well, and speaking as a reader, I don’t want mediocre stuff passed off as prize-worthy.
    I read Vogel winners because ‘gatekeepers’ have endorsed the book as worthwhile reading. Of course opinions vary, and of course it’s a subjective opinion, but in all manner of endeavours we learn whose opinions we can trust, and (so far) I have trusted Vogel judges to deliver. I was pleased to hear that they have a standard that they expect to be reached, and I support them 100%.

    • This is fair enough Lisa, and is, as you say, a reader’s response versus Jane Rawson’s author’s one. I am interested though in Adam Ford’s comment about the possibility of spending time with an author who has potential to develop a work. Did not one ms have any potential?

      I take your point about “mediocre” stuff, but I’m also aware that having everyone agree that a prize-winner is worthy is by no means guaranteed? One person’s mediocrity can be another’s masterpiece!

  7. Interesting situation. One would think that a worthy recipient could be found. On the other hand I guess that the integrity of the award was considered. I suppose that I see both sides too.

  8. I disagree, if none of the manuscripts are worthy of the award, then nobody should win. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘the best in the pile’ wins the award. Each submission should only be in the running to win the award if it’s of the appropriate calibre.
    Also, why would Allen & Unwin agree to publish a sub-standard manuscript, given the cost involved and the risk of poor sales. I’m happy there’s no winner this year, and hopefully it’ll inspire writers to try harder to produce better quality work in the future. Awarding the best of the bunch for the sake of it will dilute the value of the award and the quality it represents.

    • Good argument, Tracey, which I can’t really fault. My main concern is whether there really was nothing that could be developed. Of course, it’s possible that there were some that were felt to have merit and people are working with the authors on them.

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