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Monday musings on Australian literature: Return of The Age Book of the Year

June 14, 2021

Early in my retirement, I spent quite a bit of time creating and editing articles on Australian literature in Wikipedia. I focused on a couple of subject areas in particular, Australian women writers and Australian literary awards. One of the awards I worked on was the well-regarded The Age Book of the Year Awards.

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

They were established by Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, and were first awarded in 1974. For 15 years – between 1998 and 2012 – they were presented during the Melbourne Writers Festival (like the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards are during the Sydney Writers Festival.) They started with two awards – fiction and nonfiction – but in 1993, a third was added for poetry. One of the winning books from these categories was chosen as The Age Book of the Year. Sadly – at least, sadly for those who think literary awards have value – this award was cancelled in 2013. However, I have just read – in The Age of course – that it has been revived, and the winner will be announced, once again, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

The revival was written up by The Age’s literary editor, Jason Steger:

In a double boost for writers, readers and the book industry The Age is sponsoring the Melbourne Writers Festival and reviving the Age Book of the Year award…

Apparently, The Age’s current editor, Gay Alcorn was “dismayed” when she joined the paper in 2020 and found that it no longer supported the Festival. Steger quotes her as saying, “I am thrilled that it has been rectified. The festival is about books and writing, ideas and debate in this city – exactly what The Age champions.” Even if you don’t like Awards, you will hopefully like this editor’s belief that a newspaper should champion “books and writing, ideas and debate”.

This year there will only be a fiction award, but there are plans to revive the other two categories and the overall “book of the year” in the future. With just three months to go, they’d better get their skates on to even do just one award this year! My web search has not found any further information about how the prize is going to be managed, how (or whether) books are submitted, and/or who will be judging. Neither is there any information about what the actual prize is. We will just have to wait.

We’ll also have to wait to see whether long and shortlists will be announced. For me, as a reader, these lists are as important as the award itself, as they provide good guides to what is going around.

Recap of Past Fiction Awards

You won’t be surprised that past winners of the fiction category include writers who are some of our biggest literary names, but before I share some of them, I should explain that the award was described as “Imaginative writing”. The result is that an early winner was a poetry collection – AD Hope’s A late picking – awarded before poetry was given its own prize. It also includes short stories, but as these are fiction, that shouldn’t be a surprise!

So, let’s look at some of the winners. Over the Award’s 38 years, there were 39 winners, as one year the award was shared. Of these, 16 were by women. The first award was made in 1974 to David Foster’s The pure land, and the last, in 2012, to Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review).

Book cover

The writer who won the most awards is Peter Carey, with four, for True history of the Kelly Gang (2001), Jack Maggs (1997), The unusual life of Tristan Smith (1994), and Illywhacker (1985). One writer received three awards, Elizabeth Jolley, for The Georges’ wife (1993) (Bill’s review), My father’s moon (1989) (my review), and Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983).

Three writers won twice – David Malouf, Joan London and Thea Astley.

If you compare this award with other major fiction awards over the same period – such as the Christina Stead Award (NSW Premier’s Literary Award) and the Miles Franklin – you will see a large overlap in authors, but not so much in actual titles. In other words, Carey, Jolley, Astley, and so on, have won awards on each list, but for different books. Carey, for example, won the Miles Franklin in 1989 for Oscar and Lucinda, and the Christina Stead in 1982 for Bliss. Jolley won the Miles Franklin in 1986 for The well, and the Christina Stead in 1985 for Milk and honey, while Thea Astley won four Miles Franklins, but all for different books than her two The Age winners.

Of course, there are also authors who only appear on one list. Nicholas Hasluck, for example, won The Age’s award but neither of the other two.

None of this is particularly surprising. Occasionally, we see a book sweeping the awards, but mostly – and this is a healthy thing, I’d argue – the accolades and largesse are spread around.

What is worth noting but not surprising about The Age’s award and the other two I’ve mentioned here is that before 2012, very few authors from diverse backgrounds won. Since then, authors like Kim Scott, Michelle de Kretser, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and Melinda Bobis have won literary fiction awards, and it has happened often enough for it to be no longer particularly commented on, which is as it should be. Presumably, The Age’s award will continue this trend.

We await the next move …

17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2021 08:26

    I’m surprised to see the resurgence of this award. Newspapers are in dire financial straits and I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be enough money to sponsor anything much.
    Unless…
    The Australian, as we all know, is a problematic rag, but it makes its way into our household at the weekend when the Spouse reads it, and I peruse the book reviews, though I rarely read them because I’m not interested in the books they choose. (But it is useful in the way that newspaper has always been useful for wrapping things, plus they sponsor the Vogel which is A Good Thing.)
    Perhaps The Age strategy is to beef up its bookish credentials to rival The Australian in the hope that people will buy the paper for their book reviews? Though I occasionally read SMH/Age reviews online I haven’t set eyes on a paper edition for so long that I have no idea what their book review section is like. I shall try to remember to have a look next time I’m at the library. But it will have to be really good to make me subscribe, since I’m already a subscriber at The Guardian, The Conversation and Inside Story. Guardian fiction book reviews are particularly good, Inside Story reviews interesting NF, but I never find anything much at The Conversation, alas.
    Not that I really need more sources of enticing book reviews…

    • June 15, 2021 08:58

      Haha, thanks Lisa, you made me laugh re more sources of enticing book reviews. I rarely read book reviews in the papers because I don’t want to know what others are thinking before I read books. I seem to hear enough about books serendipitously to sense what’s going on, but of course I miss stuff too. I do read some later, after writing or drafting my posts, and also for reading group, and you’re right, The Guardian’s reviews are usually good.

      My Mum loved The Sydney Morning Herald weekend reviews.

      I subscribe to those three online sources you do, plus the digital edition of The Canberra Times and The Saturday Paper, but I read none of them religiously. Just pick and choose depending on my time. The conversation can have some interesting articles on literature but I don’t think they see themselves as a traditional paper offering traditional paper sections. I think they aim more to offer reasoned commentary on current issues?

      • June 15, 2021 21:49

        Yes, I think that’s the value of The Conversation… I read them when I want an expert opinion about something.

        • June 15, 2021 23:03

          Exactly – you can get a good overview or analysis of issues can’t you.

  2. June 15, 2021 12:19

    Talk about grist to your mill, ST ! 😀
    Not only talking about awards, but also needing to draw down some statistics !!!
    Surely a reviewer’s/archivist’s heaven ?!

  3. Meg permalink
    June 15, 2021 19:11

    Hi Sue, I read both The Age and The Australian, in the weekend. Sometimes during the week I buy The Australian. I do read most of their book reviews. The Australian seem to have a book review every day. Both papers seem to write about the same books quite often. Book reviews do influence me, especially non fiction ones. But, at the same time I will choose a book independently of any review. (Maybe I am influenced by the cover!). There seems to be many awards for writers and it is good that The Age are back supporting The Melbourne Writers Festival. It will be interesting to see who does win The Age Book of the Year.

    • June 17, 2021 17:35

      Thanks for sharing your practice and experience Meg. I’m impressed by how much you keep up with the reviews!

      It will certainly be very interesting to see how the revived The Age award goes this year.

  4. June 15, 2021 20:50

    I know I’m alone in this but I would like to see state awards go to writers of that state. That said I do like an award for innovation, and I might even concede that Carey is worthy on that count, much as I dislike his later writing. And thank you for linking to my review, Eliz Jolley deserved every award she got.

    • June 15, 2021 23:00

      You’re not totally alone Bill. I have some sympathy with your point of view. Queensland I think does a good job of having state and national awards. ACT’s awards are “territory” only. I think NT’s might be too, but I’m too lazy to check.

      Re Carey, one of the things I really liked about him – and Atwood was similar – was that he tried new things, new genres, new ways of writing.

      I agree with your re Jolley. She was impressive.

    • June 17, 2021 01:31

      Bill, I know that in the U.S. some states have special book awards. For instance, I just created a digital poster for the library for the Indiana Book Awards. They have several categories: fiction, plays, poetry, non-fiction, etc. and also have debut author categories.

      Sue, I’m also with you in thinking that it is a good idea if awards are spread around. During awards season here, suddenly the same author, heck, even the same book, will be everywhere. I’m not sure if The Age includes a money prize, but many big awards in the U.S. do, typically for Margaret Atwood to seize upon.

      • June 17, 2021 17:38

        Thanks Melanie for sharing some practices from your neck of the woods.

        Haha, re Margaret Atwood. Most of the big awards hear include money, some quite significant money. The PM’s Literary Award is $100,000, and the Miles Franklin is $60,000. There are others in this vicinity, and others that are smaller. I’m interested to see what The Age does.

  5. June 15, 2021 20:54

    On your related topic – Mum buys and I read the Age but not their book reviews. Now I’ve given up the ABR (for its complete lack of relevance) I am perfectly happy to get all the reviews I want, and then some, from the blogosphere. And unlike you I am perfectly happy to read reviews of books I might soon read (goldfish brain etc.).

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