Monday musings on Australian literature: Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

Hands up if you are familiar with the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and know who won its major categories this year? I may be out of touch, but it seems to me that these awards (about which I’ve written a couple of times before) are less well-known than some of their other state-based counterparts like the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Why is this?

Part of the reason may be that these awards – like the now downgraded (and, you have to think, struggling) Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards – are biennial. Another reason may be that they are announced during the wider-based Adelaide Festival. This Festival was established in 1960 and has to be one of Australia’s best-known arts festivals. Apparently inspired by the Edinburgh Festival for the Arts, it includes various, what I would call sub-festivals, including the Adelaide Writer’s Week, WOMADelaide and the Adelaide Fringe. Interestingly, Adelaide Writer’s Week, during which the biennial literary awards are announced, is held annually. There is an historical explanation for this. The overall Festival and the Writer’s Week were themselves biennial until 2012. Will the Awards catch up one day?

One more thing, before I get onto the literary awards specifically, Wikipedia provides a link to a June 2019 newspaper report announcing that Adelaide Festival, which had that year “eclipsed its previous 2018 box office record by over $1 million [would] receive a further $1.25 million in annual funding over the next three years to help the Festival ‘continue to attract major performances and events'”. In these days of ongoing  funding cuts to the arts, this surely says something about the value of this festival to South Australia – economically and, presumably, culturally.

Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

So, the Awards – almost. First a bit more about the Adelaide Writers Week which was part of the original 1960 Adelaide Festival. According to the History of the Adelaide Festival of Arts (2010) (downloadable here) this week “became the model for subsequent literary festivals around the world, and its prestige and popularity among writers, readers and publishers has never been surpassed”. Certainly, I know people who have gone – and who love it. Particularly impressive is that many of its events are free. How special is that? However, it is also a largely outdoors event which can be a challenge in Adelaide’s summer.

Helen Garner, The children BachSo yes, now really, the Awards! They were established by the South Australian government in 1986, and, like some other state literary awards, include both national and state-based prizes, as well as some fellowships for South Australian writers.  Over the years, categories have come and gone. The original four categories were Fiction, Children’s Literature, Poetry and Non-fiction, with the original 1986 winners of these being, respectively, Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review), Ivan Southall’s The long night watch, Robert Gray’s Selected poems: 1963-1983, and RM Gibbs A history of Prince Alfred College.

As of 2020, the Awards are being managed by the State Library of South Australia, and currently have a prize pool $167,500 across the eleven categories, including the Premier’s Award of $25,000.

Significant fiction winners over the years have included two-time winners Peter Carey, Frank Moorhouse, David Malouf and Roger McDonald. A few women have won too, but not many. Besides inaugural winner Garner, the other women winners to date have been Kate Jennings, Gail Jones (twice) and Eva Hornung.

Book cover2020 Winners (National)

  • Premier’s Award (est. 1996, chosen from the category winners): Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor: The trials of Morrigan Crow.
  • Fiction Award: Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass.
  • Children’s Literature Award: Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor: The trials of Morrigan Crow.
  • Young Adult Fiction Award (est. 2012): Sarah Epstein’s Small spaces.
  • John Bray Poetry Award: Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics.
  • Non-fiction Award: Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia.

2020 Winners (South Australian)

  • Jill Blewitt Playwrights Award (est. 1992): Piri Eddy’s Forgiveness.
  • Arts SA/Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award (est. 1998): Jelena Dinic In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic. Previous winners have included Margaret Merrilees’ The first week (my review) and Cassie Flanagan-Willanski’s Here where we live (my review).
  • Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship (est. 1994): Aiden Coleman.
  • Max Fatchen Fellowship (est. as Carclew Fellowship in 1988): Sally Heinrich.
  • Tangkanungku Pintyanthi Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellowship (est. 2014): No applicants for 2020, but Ali Cobby Eckermann (my posts) won this fellowship in 2014 and 2016. I wonder why there were no applicants this round? Are the requirements too difficult? Is it not being advertised well enough? If you are interested, check page 5 of the 2020 Guidelines.

Any comments?

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

  1. I thought Small Spaces was a great read, I’m glad to see it recognised. The same with Morrigan Crow, mind you I preferred book 1, though I’m looking forward to book 3 which has sadly been pushed back to later in the year.

    • Thanks for this Claire and I haven’t read either of them. It’s good to hear that you think they are worthy. I guess I was surprised to see a children’s series win the overall prize, but I know I shouldn’t be because great children’s literature is great literature, after all.

      • I read small spaces back in 2018, so it says something about how good it was that I still recall it. I’m not a big reader of psychological thrillers, but this one definitely had me hooked.

  2. I longed to go to Writers Week when I was younger, and never could because of work. Now that I can go anywhere any time I like, I can’t face Adelaide’s summer weather. It’s in the 30s all this week, which might not sound so terrible and wouldn’t have bothered me when I was younger, but these days I couldn’t put up with being outside in that heat for any length of time.
    So, the awards. I think the biennial bit works against them. Noah Glass was published back in 2018, it’s kind-of old news…

    • Thanks Lisa, I understand. As you know, I like the heat – but sitting outside in the sun even at 25°C for an hour listening to someone would not be my preference, and I’ve heard from people who have gone that there’s not always shade for everyone. I love the idea of sitting outside under trees talking about literature, but I think in reality I probably prefer a comfortable seat!!

      I agree with you about biennial awards. Also, it makes the choice harder I would have thought as you have two years of (hopefully) good writing to choose from!

  3. My first thought was how can you write about Adelaide, the Athens of the south, without mentioning Don Dunstan. But he wasn’t Premier till 1967, hard to believe the festival began under Playford. The best part of the Perth Festival which may be underway as I write – I don’t read the paper or watch TV – is the Fringe, just past,which I try to get to every year. Womad seems to be the most unique part of Adelaide, but I’m sure the upper classes get to see lots of opera which us mugs pay for.

    • Haha Bill. I must say I always think Dunstan too when I think of Adelaide and the arts. I’ve always wanted to go to WOMAD. Several of my friends have, but it’s not really a time of year I travel. I’m not a big opera fan but I am off to the Ballet on Saturday – combined birthday-Xmas gifts from our kids. Are “us mugs” paying for that too?! I do love the ballet – but then I love all dance – Adelaide Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company and of course Bangarra.

    • Ouch! I’m not upper class Bill, and I love opera. I was introduced to it by a friend who would be grossly offended if you labelled her as UC. (Her parents were card-carrying communists). At the time she nagged me into seeing La Traviata I had a big mortgage, and no money for anything much in the way of entertainment. I would never have been able to see any opera if it didn’t get some subsidy, and neither would anyone else who can’t afford to travel to hear it in Europe or the US.
      (And don’t get me started on mugs who have to pay for sport and fireworks and a Grand Prix that they’re not interested in!)

      • My preference is for ballet. But the point is that rich people on opera and ballet boards make sure that these forms are way over subsidized compared with popular (and not dead) art forms.

        • Oh good Bill, at least we agree on Ballet. I’m really not across who gets what subsidy or what’s fair so will keep out of this argument. Too many variables to consider. Yet, I will just say that the so-called “high” arts – the less popular ones – do need support, just like the ABC does?

  4. Only that your introduction makes my head spin, a bit – meaning that (a) the origins of which you write are somewhat confusing, and (b) it’s 5.30 in the morning (oh for the end of daylight saving !).

  5. I always meant to go to Womadelaide but never quite managed to do it when I lived there. Goodness knows if I will ever actually get around to it.

  6. I’m surprised to see a children’s book won the Premier’s Award, and then read your reply to Lisa’s comment that ‘great children’s literature is great literature,’ That’s so true. I’m thinking of films now, so many children’s lit. adapted into great movies… The Wizard of Oz to begin with, and then there are other ones which Disney knew how to make money from, and then some deserving titles in recent years like Hugo and A Wrinkle In Time… albeit not all great movies, but movies that appeal to adults and children alike.

    Another point I want to make is… you all discussing the weather 25 – 30’s C. Well what we’re getting now even today is some snow and hovering around OMG, I can’t believe it. Just checked the weather, this Sat.’s lowest will get to -28C! You and me, we’re 60 degrees apart!

    Thirdly, breaking news from Down Under: Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson just been tested positive for the Coronavirus. They’re in Australia now planning for the production of an Elvis Presley movie there.

  7. North America is next I’m afraid. Anyway, one more reason to stay home to read and watch movies. BTW, would love to see what you think of my long list of 65 films by women directors. 🙂

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