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 Histories, An 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 Australia, The Oxford book of Australian travel writing, On 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.
The 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.
The 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.