This Thursday will see the announcement of the winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. It’s one of the more important days on the Australian literary calendar, but it has inspired another of those articles about the value of literary awards.
Now, we have discussed awards here before. Back in 2012, I wrote about them when the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were abolished by a new premier. In 2014 I wrote on Unpublished Manuscript Awards. And more recently, I wrote about the return of The Age Book of the Year Award. These posts, and others, have generated discussion about the value of awards, with both readers and writers commenting on whether they like them and why, so I won’t go there again.
Instead, I’ll share a couple of interesting ideas from the article I mentioned above. First, though, having planned this post a couple of days ago, I was surprised to find Stan Grant referring to awards in his book, On Thomas Keneally (my review). In 2016, he says, he was on a judging panel – with Thomas Keneally, in fact – for the NSW Premier’s Literary awards. They were judging the Indigenous writer category:
Keneally and a fellow judge strongly supported Pascoe, but I resisted, arguing instead for the merits of Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and light, a dazzling work of fiction I considered of greater depth and literary worth than Dark emu. In the end we agreed that Pascoe and Van Neerven should share the prize.
I have reviewed both of these books (links on the titles), and for what it’s worth, I agree with Grant (despite the fact that, as he admits himself, “Dark emu has certainly had the greater cultural impact”).
Regardless, I’m sharing this because it beautifully introduces David Free’s article in last Friday’s The Sydney Morning Herald. Free is an Australian journalist and novelist who is not, I admit, well-known to me, but his provocatively titled article, “Judge a literary prize? No thanks, they’re all a giant waste of time”, makes some points worth sharing.
He starts anecdotally by sharing his experience of being asked to “serve on the judging panel of one of Australia’s most coveted literary prizes”, which he chooses not to identify. This doesn’t really matter in terms of what I want to share. He decides not to accept the invitation, largely because “the prospect of sitting down with a couple of strangers [the other judges] to haggle about our respective tastes in literature struck me as radically unappealing”. You can see why I started with Grant’s experience. Anyhow, he says
My literary taste is unorthodox, by current standards. I happen to think it’s sound and I do my darnedest to defend it in my criticism. But I’ve never been bold enough to imagine that my literary judgements amount to objective, provable truths.
Of course, this idea of suggesting that something is “best” dogs prizes in the arts, whether they be for books, paintings, films, whatever. We all know it, but prizes do have their benefits. Arguably, they can enhance sales, and the big money prizes do give their winners breathing space, an opportunity to devote some more time to their art.
If, however, we put these pros aside, and focus on the idea of prizes identifying works that we might like to check out, then I think Free has a couple of interesting ideas to consider.
The first one is to abolish judging panels and have “one judge only – a different person each year, chosen strictly on the strength of his or her literary expertise.” He knows the idea sounds “farcical”, that “people would denounce such awards as arbitrary”, as just an “expression of some random person’s taste”. He counter-argues, however, that the idea that panels make better decisions is a “furphy”:
It doesn’t matter how discerning each individual judge is. When human beings get together in groups, weird things happen. We feel pressured to conform – to say what we think we’re expected to say rather than what we believe. That’s why the verdicts of literary juries tend to be predictable, wholesome, obedient to the winds of trend.
I think he has a point. Do you?
It’s his other idea, though, that appeals more, because it aligns with my own use of awards. He suggests that we scrap the concept of the lone winner:
Let’s have a prize where there isn’t even a shortlist – a prize where the judges just announce their longlist of the year’s 15 best books, then split the winnings 15 ways.
This is more like it. He continues:
Admittedly this wouldn’t turbo-charge book sales the way our existing awards do, but in the long run it might promote a healthier relationship between fiction and the reading public. If diversity and inclusion are what we want, why not showcase these qualities on a longlist, instead of pretending they can somehow be embodied by a single writer? On longlists there’s room for different writers with different talents, doing all sorts of different things. There’s room for the quirky, the experimental – maybe even the humorous, once a decade or so. Sniff around a longlist for a while and you’re likely to find at least one book that floats your boat.
Isn’t this what all of us who look at longlists (and to some degree shortlists) like? It avoids the whittling down, he says, and all those arguments about which writer’s “turn” it might be, or which identity group has or hasn’t had a “fair shake already”.
Ultimately, he says, the best verdict is posterity. “Either a work lasts or it doesn’t … Crowd wisdom of that sort is very hard to argue with”. Actually, I think you can, because the “crowd” itself is often skewed, but I take his point, theoretically speaking.
Meanwhile, I will continue, as I have said elsewhere, to enjoy long- and shortlists, because that’s where many of the gems truly are.
What do you think?