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Monday musings on Australian literature: Talking literary awards

July 12, 2021

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 In 2014 I wrote on Unpublished Manuscript Awards.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:

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book cover

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?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2021 02:24

    I have to agree with Stan Grant. On the other hand to leave the Booker or Noble prize into the hands of one sole critic? And them you have people who don’t hand out prizes, but when THEY add your book to their TBR list, it’s much like winning a prize. I think of Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, etc..

    • July 13, 2021 08:07

      Thanks Shaharee for your insight.

      As Free said, one judge will not appeal to many … and, you know, possibly not to judges either. It’s probably comforting to say it was a group decision when there’s criticism!

      Love your point about Oprah et al. Being chosen by them is clearly worth a huge amount.

  2. July 13, 2021 07:02

    I’m with him ! – GREAT idea !!

  3. piningforthewest permalink
    July 13, 2021 08:08

    I must admit that I’ve often been baffled by books that have won prizes as they just haven’t done anything for me. Splitting the money seems a good idea although with a long list they wouldn’t be getting much each!

    • July 13, 2021 08:12

      Thanks Katrina. No, that’s the problem, I agree, as a hefty amount of money can make a significant difference to writers. That just means funding of writers (artists) needs to be reconsidered!

  4. July 13, 2021 09:27

    WG – I think I’ll go with you and David Free. I really like that idea of a long-list of best whatever kind of writing for the year. I usually get to a number of the best of short or long lists in any event – including that one getting the top gong but the idea of the panel hammering out between them one on which they can all – sort of – agree as “best” – he’s right. But of hundreds of works published each year – I think we can agree that a list of 10 or 15 or a dozen (baker’s even) will likely capture some of the best writing in that year – thinking short fiction or best critical reviews or other kinds of writing we used to have edited and published each year – any one of Ivor Indyk’s Heat was of such moment, too. I really liked this essay from you WG. (I think it goes to the kind of teacher I was… who is best/which is best – no – rather – which group – was my option.)

    • July 13, 2021 15:55

      Thanks Jim, I’m so glad you liked this … I often think of putting together all the longlists from the year and come up with a super-longlist, but when the end of the year comes I somehow don’t get around to doing it.

  5. July 13, 2021 09:48

    I don’t agree with him at all, except for this:
    “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.”
    Our awards ATM are bedevilled by the culture wars, and some are more captive than others, ignoring wonderful books because they don’t tick the box for the unspoken agendas. (Most often, I’m in tune with the agenda, but I think that literary merit should be the criterion. It’s not that hard to define.)

    • July 13, 2021 16:00

      Thanks Lisa, if you like that, then you are sort of agreeing that panels aren’t great??

      I agree that literary merit should be the criterion, but as you say that’s subjective too. Works that break the mould are often so unfamiliar that their merit is not immediately appreciated or recognised (as has always been the case in all arts, eh?) However, such works often make it to long lists because the judges recognise something about them? You see this often in the Stella, in particular, but in other lists too.

      • July 14, 2021 10:15

        What I don’t agree with specifically is firstly that literary benefactors like MF ought not to have the terms of their bequests altered. It’s morally wrong and legally dubious and it would discourage future benefactors from setting prizes if others who think they know better can play around with them.
        But secondly, we already have long and shortlists so the point of his suggestion is to share the money, the bigger the longlist the less the author gets. (Plus no one would take the prize seriously any more). But the worst result would be that the author doesn’t get the precious reward of time to write.

        • July 14, 2021 11:17

          Oh, I would never think of changing requested awards, Lisa. I agree. This is mainly fresh air thinking, really.

          And yes, I think the biggest negative is someone losing the reward of time. That does seem to be a biggie for the prizes that entail decent amounts of money, doesn’t it.

  6. Meg permalink
    July 13, 2021 13:43

    Hi Sue, I read the David Free article and thought it had some merit. And, I do think people are influenced to follow the “in trend”. Especially when not required to read the whole book – and rushed at the same time. And, I agree with you the long and short of it (the lists), I do find the best reads.

    • July 13, 2021 16:01

      Thanks Meg. My guess is that most of us keen readers pay serious attention to the short and long lists, don’t we?

  7. George permalink
    July 13, 2021 20:31

    The list of literature Nobelists is enough to raise doubts, and I suppose that same is true for the Pulitzers and National Book Awards in the United Sates. Having said that, it must give, or must once have given, a nice boost to the authors’ sales. In a country as large and distractable as the US, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Asking for something nearer perfect justice, or the verdict of posterity is unrealistic.

    The critic A.R. Orage wrote of the voting for the 1913 Prix Goncourt, which ran to eleven rounds, and ended with the prize going to an author who received no votes on the first ballot. The French author he quoted thought this a bad thing, and so did Orage. On the other hand, the one National Book Award winner I ever me seems to have been a compromise candidate in a year when the southerners backed Eudora Welty and the northerners backed I know not who; and he wrote a pretty good novel.

    • July 13, 2021 21:51

      Thanks George … you are right of course about perfect justice. It’s not possible. But it’s fun thinking about ways of getting closer.

      I love your anecdote about the 1913 Prix Goncourt. I’d love to hear more judging stories, but I suppose they are best kept quiet!

  8. July 13, 2021 21:11

    I’m a literary merit purist. As a sole judge I would probably become the marker of what not to buy. The MF in particular seems to be an award for General Fiction story telling, usually with no feeling for what is unique about Australia, and with literary merit a very distant third.
    Now that there is such a proliferation of awards all you can say is that (some) money is being directed to writers. Money which when you think about it would be better directed as grants for the development of manuscripts.

    • July 13, 2021 22:35

      Why am I not surprised! I must admit Bill that I thought of you when Free described himself. I love your confidence in your opinion.

      It’s hard to know how best to fund literature and where best to direct the funds. Some awards, like the MF, they are bequests so are the decision of individuals like the Franklin, Dobbie and Jefferis, awards, but the government funded ones are worth discussing in terms of how the money is best spent?

    • July 14, 2021 10:20

      As someone who helped an author apply for a grant I must disillusion you. Govt grants are always tick-the-box; there are agendas all over them.
      As a matter of curiosity Bill, what was the last MF winner you read? (I go through phases of not reading them myself so it’s not a loaded question.)

      • July 14, 2021 10:36

        I’ve read five of the last seven. The Yield I own and will read soon. Too Much Lip was an ordinary family drama, but Indigenous. I’ve not read de Krester – my bad. Extinctions was boring, depicted age badly and spoke gratuitously for Indigenous people. Black Rock White City was brilliant. The Eye of the Sheep was a DNF, I hated the child’s voice. All the Birds Singing is an exemplar of all that is wrong with the MF – it was written by an English woman, who has only the faintest connection with eastern Australia and none at all with the west.

        • July 14, 2021 11:21

          I’m behind you Bill. I’ve read four of those 7 you list, and got something out of them all. I have The eye of the sheep on my TBR.

          Of course the MF does not define the nationality of the author, just of the subject matter! Hence Aravind Adiga being shortlisted this year.

      • July 14, 2021 11:19

        Haha, not a loaded question. Love that Lisa.

        And yes, you have a point re the practicalities of grants. There are grants and grants. Some identify their agenda – they are for emerging writers, or Indigenous writers, and so on, and that’s ok I think, but the hidden politics are a different thing.

  9. July 14, 2021 10:00

    I think Free’s idea has some merit, as I tend to prefer the books hiding on the short or long list to their actual winners. But not always. And I guess that’s the rub. Sometimes you agree with and are delighted that a certain book wins an award; other times you are appalled. Swings and roundabouts 🙂

    • July 14, 2021 11:14

      Swings and roundabout, but I guess Brona, that the fact that so many of us do find treasures in the lists means that Free’s idea does have some merit. Once upon a time I think these lists were not revealed. What a shame that would have been.

  10. buriedinprint permalink
    July 17, 2021 07:39

    I think the fact that the knee-jerk reaction is to resist the idea of a single judge reveals a more problematic under-the-covers truth, that we want to pretend a panel works whereas, I agree with the critic here, that panels are just as subjective a process. All the negotiations and machinations that transpire behind the scenes! The panel lends the shine of a democratic process, but I’d rather have it on display that it’s not about fairness, or who’s deserving, just a random selection. And then I’ll continue to read the longlists and the overlooked “misfits” too. 🙂

    • July 18, 2021 09:30

      Love what you say here Buried, because I’m inclined to agree with you. If a panel is really sympatico then there is a chance they’ll all overlook certain types of contenders, and if they’re not there’s the whole compromise issue Free raises. I’m sure some panels work “better” than others but I think his point is well made and I like his provocative suggestion.

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