Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

  1. I read Love & Virtue and found it relatable without being especially groundbreaking. I recently read Bunny by Mona Awad, another book set at a university but with a horror overlay in a slightly off-kilter version of reality and it was so original and so much more fun while still examining issues like sex and class

    • Thanks a lot Angharad for this. Yes, I haven’t heard that Love and virtue is groundbreaking – in style anyhow, though perhaps a little in recognising nuances? Anyhow, I like the sound of original, but I just can’t do horror. Is Awad also an Aussie writer?

  2. I haven’t read these three, but as an elder Millennial, the dead people book speaks to me. The most recent Australia YA I’ve read is Future Girl by Asphyxia and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. A few years ago I read Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell. A woman who no longer blogs told me that Australian YA is much darker and more realistic than YA from the US. I tend to agree with her.

    • It does to me too Melanie, despite my being a mid-Baby Boomer! I’m not an expert on YA, but certainly the little Aussie YA I’ve read has surprised – and, I admit, impressed me – with its darkness. Marsden is one of those writers, and not so much with his Tomorrow book, either.

      • I should have given the name of the former blogger I’m describing because she’s Australian and had her own YA book published! It’s Margot McGovern, and she wrote Neverland from Penguin Books Australia.

        • U.S. young adult fiction feels too “woke” to me, and while I hate using “woke” in a negative way, I can’t think of another way to explain it. Basically, these teen characters talk like they have a Master’s degree in women and gender studies.

        • Perhaps what I really mean is the social maturity of the teens is too advanced. But, on the other hand, I could be just talking because with how easily teens access the internet and social media, they may be incredibly aware of social concerns, justice, politics, etc.

  3. Thanks for the mention! I really really did like Where the Line Breaks, my kind of book for sure.
    One of the reasons I do what I do is because I don’t want books to “disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple’. Even if it’s only a splash in a very small pond, a review on my blog and yours is archived through Pandora, so it cannot disappear!

  4. Thank you for the shout out Sue.

    Another interesting note about L&V is that I gave a copy to B21’s GF at Christmas. She left it lying around and B21 picked it up. He hasn’t read a book since the Wimpy Kid series (sigh) & he devoured L&V in one day and said if more books were like this, he’d read more!

  5. Bron, I never give anything but books and the kids and grandkids just have to grin an bear it, which they do with remarkable good grace. (Ok, if someone really needs something I’ll pitch in with Milly to give it). I’ve run into ‘consent’ two or three times recently. Younger writers seem to be taking it very seriously. It sounds odd sometimes but that is just a measure of how old I am.

  6. I do like a footnote in a novel, I have to say! On the woke thing, all the teens and early 20s I know are incredibly knowldegeable and fluent in gender / orientation / race / everything so although the YA books can seem stuffed full of it all, I think it may be realistic. I speak as a Gen X person who just did not have all those words when I was a late teen!

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