National Biography Award Winners, 2020

I’ve not posted on many awards this year, but have decided to post on the 2020 National Biography Award, partly because I attended events last year involving each of the winners.

This Award was endowed in 1996 by Geoffrey Cains, and supported for many years by Michael Crouch, who died in 2018. It is now being supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation whose key objective is “to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with the diversity, complexity and richness of our cultural sector”. They increased the prize money for the shortlisted authors, and created a new prize to commemorate Michael Crouch, all of which started last year. The current prizes are:

  • $25,000 for the winner
  • $2,000 for each of six shortlisted authors
  • $5,000 Michael Crouch Award for a first published biography by an Australian writer

The shortlist for 2020 was announced on 9 July and comprised:

  • Chloe Higgins’ The girls: A memoir of family, grief and sexuality
  • Jacqueline Kent’s Beyond words: A year with Kenneth Cook (Lisa’s review)
  • Russell McGregor’s Idling in green places: A life of Alec Chisholm
  • Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon
  • Amra Pajalić’s Things nobody knows but me
  • Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review)

These were chosen from 89 entries, which, explained judge Margy Burn, ranged across classic biography, autobiography, intimate life writing and affectionate memoir. The subjects she said were equally diverse. The shortlist contains two biographies (those by McGregor and Mullins) and four works that are more autobiographical/personal life-writing in nature. This was similar to last year’s shortlist, and suggests a change – a loosening up – in our expectation and appreciation of biography and autobiography. Jessica White’s engaging Hearing Maud, for example, is what I’d call a hybrid biography-memoir.

This year’s judges were:

  • Margy Burn: librarian who has been responsible for Australian special collections at the National Library of Australia, and other state and university libraries; served on working parties for the Australian Dictionary of Biography; a foundation judge for the Kibble and Dobbie awards for life writing by a woman author and a National Biography Award judge in 2019.
  • MarkMcKenna: one of Australia’s leading historians, who has written several award-winning books, including From the edge: Australia’s Lost HistoriesAn eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark, and Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian history of place.
  • Richard White: retired Associate Professor in Australian history from the University of Sydney in 2013, who has written or edited many books including Inventing AustraliaThe Oxford book of Australian travel writingOn holidays: A history of getting away in Australia, Symbols of Australia; has judged the Premier’s Literary Awards and other history prizes, and been involved in Australian history associations and journals.

2020 Winners

Book coverThe overall winner, announced last night, 28 August, is Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon. I attended and posted on a panel at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival which included Patrick Mullins. He explained that he’d done his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon, he said, “was there for the taking” (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) In his acceptance speech for the Award, Mullins quoted historian Tom Griffiths who says that the great virtue of history is its willingness to acknowledge complexity – and McMahon, and his legacy, surely make for one complex history! The judges wrote:

Mullins’ biography demonstrates a command and surety of voice which sustains the reader’s interest. Political biography can be tedious reading. The author’s study of the genre, impressive research and masterful use of McMahon’s unpublished autobiography does much to recover McMahon’s achievements, despite his manifest flaws. This outstanding book shows there is still a place for classic biography.

Book coverThe winner of the Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work was Jessica White’s Hearing Maud, which I have reviewed here (see link above). In her acceptance speech, White talked about how no-one listened to Maud (daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed) while she was alive, and that in paralleling Maud’s experience of profound deafness with her own, a century later, she wanted to show that little had changed in terms of discrimination and “the expectations that we hide our deafness.” I attended and posted on a conversation with Jessica White on this book last year. The judges wrote:

The writing, unsentimental and unobtrusive, beautifully evokes White’s life: a sunny Australian farm childhood, miserable London winters, the challenges of her journey to understand Maud. There are shrewd insights into the history of deafness and its treatments, the ideological battles between signing and oralism and sign language’s relationship to the emergence of the telegraph and the fad of automatic writing. But we are also left with a sense of exhaustion: how gruellingly hard it is to be deaf, an often invisible disability in a hearing world. This is simultaneously a contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s lives, a revelatory study of deafness, and a fine work of Australian life writing.

You can listen to the awards announcement, with comments from judge Margy Burn and the two winners, on YouTube:

Congratulations to the winners and, of course, the shortlisted authors. A great achievement.

16 thoughts on “National Biography Award Winners, 2020

  1. These biographies sound interesting. I have not heard of a lot of awards dedicated to biographies but of course they are out there. I read a fair amount of biography, in fact I sm reading one now. I am glad to see that there are indeed awards out there.

    • Thanks Brian. I don’t know much about the variety of awards in the USA, but we have a few awards here for biographies and/or life writing. It’s good seeing this style of writing recognised.

    • Well, I should say yes as I’d like to support a local author, but political biographies are not my high priority! I’m glad though that someone as done him and, perhaps, put the whole man on record …

      • Each to their own M-R.This is probably one for the political junkies…. And, you know that saying about knowing your enemies! Still, given my reading interests, it’s low priority. Great title and cover though. A change from the FIRST NAME LAST NAME: A LIFE. and a head and shoulders portrait, all in muted or neutral colours.

  2. Cannot imagine being drawn to writing about Billy McMahon ! – so kudos to Mullins (even if the size of the tome makes my eyes roll),
    “classic biography, autobiography, intimate life writing and affectionate memoir”, eh ..? Hmmm .. Another opportunity gone. Sighh .. [wink]

    • Yes, good point M-R. I guess if you think here is someone who had a presence but hasn’t been written about you feel you have an opportunity, but he’s certainly an interesting choice.

      As for missed opportunities… Ah well, such is life eh!

  3. I can’t put any more on my “to read” list! I’ll never cope!

    I do remember we used to visit Kenneths Cook’s butterfly farm which from memory was in Dural in Sydney – apparently it was a financial failure. Did you ever go there Sue? The biography of Kenneth Cook is the only one of these I’ve read. Of course back then I didn’t know who he was or who owned it – we just enjoyed the butterflies. Wake in Fright is such a marvellous movie – I’ve stayed in the hotel with the murals on the wall where they filmed some of it – Broken Hill is a fascinating town.

    • Understand completely Sue. Too many books.

      No, we did go to Dural a few times, but I don’t recollect visiting the farm, though it rings a vague bell.

      Broken Hill is still on my to-visit list. Having lived in the mini town of Mt Isa for three years I have always wanted to visit the town that we saw as our main “rival”!

      PS I’ve fixed the apostrophe and deleted your other comment! You can therefore relax your red face!

      • Thank you Sue, I’m not sure how that apostrophe got away from me!

        You lived in Mt Isa for 3 years how fascinating what was it like do tell!

        I remember the butterfly farm surprisingly vividly, so it must have made an impact on me. I’m sure it was out at Dural when it was still country out that way.

        Broken Hill is actually lovely – great cafes, friendly people, beautiful scenery around there, artists to visit- and a hotel that boasts being in Wake in Fright – under normal circumstances, not covid – it’s quite a happening town. I suspect if I lived there I would dream of the sea and green grass though. The locals will tell you it’s no accident the first painting purchased for the art gallery there was a seascape!

        I admit the biography of Billy McMahon is probably something I should read but.. so many books so little time…

        • Things like apostrophes getting away from you happen to all of us. I really wish we could edit our own comments on someone else’s blog.

          I lived in Mt Isa in my pre-teen/early teen years, leaving there early in my second year of high school. I really loved living there. It’s probably largely why I left Sydney as soon as I finished my studies. I like a lot about urban living but I don’t like BIG cities. We were in Mt Isa during the big strike. They were interesting times.

    • Haha, Bill … fair enough on giving up commenting on them. They can become overwhelming can’t they. I wanted to write this one because I’d read (and heard) one winner and had heard the other.

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