Monday musings on Australian literature: the ACT Book of the Year Award

I think it’s time I dedicated a post to the Book of the Year Award made in my own jurisdiction. I briefly introduced it back in 2018, and then wrote recently about its 2022 shortlist. But today, I want to document it a bit more thoroughly. (For the record, the 2022 winner has now been announced, Lucy Neave’s second novel, Believe in me.)

The ACT Book of the Year Award is presented by the ACT Government for contemporary literary works, and is currently worth $10,000. Unlike most of the state government awards (but like the Northern Territory Literary Awards), it is limited to local writers. Only one award is made, and like the Stella Prize, the winner can be fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The award was first made in 1993 – and was shared by poet AD Hope and novelist Marion Halligan – so the 2022 Award is its 30th.

Winners to 2022

  • 1993: Marion HalliganLovers’ Knot (novel, read before blogging); A.D. Hope, Chance encounters (poetry)
  • 1994: John Foulcher, New and selected poems (poetry)
  • 1995: Sara Dowse, Sapphires (novel)
  • 1996: Paul Hetherington, Shadow swimmer (poetry)
  • 1997: Francesca Rendle-ShortImago (novel, Lisa’s review)
  • 1998: Lee Chittick, Travelling with Percy : A South Coast journey (biography)
  • 1999: Craig Cormick, Unwritten histories (non-fiction/satire)
  • 2000: Adrian Caesar, The white: Last days in the Antarctic journeys of Scott and Mawson 1911-1913 (non-fiction)
  • 2001: Alan GouldThe Schoonermaster’s Dance (novel, Lisa’s review); Dorothy Johnston, The Trojan dog (novel)
  • 2002: Jackie French, In the blood (YA novel)
  • 2003: John Clanchy, The hard word (novel)
  • 2004: Marion Halligan, The Point (novel, read before blogging)
  • 2005: Tony Kevin, A certain maritime incident: the sinking of SIEV X (non-fiction)
  • 2006: John Clanchy, Vincenzo’s garden (short stories)
  • 2007: Quynh Du Thon That, Sunday menu : selected short stories of Pham Thi Hoai (short stories)
  • 2008: Tony Kevin, Walking the Camino: A modern pilgrimage to Santiago (memoir/travel, Lisa’s review)
  • 2009: Nicholas Drayson, A guide to the birds of East Africa: A novel (novel)
  • 2010: Marion Halligan, Valley of Grace (novel, my review, and additional post)
  • 2011: Chris Hammer, The river: A journey through the Murray-Darling Basin (non-fiction)
  • 2012: Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on earth: How Aborigines made Australia (non-fiction, on my TBR)
  • 2013: Frank Bongiorno, The sex lives of Australians: A history (history)
  • 2014: Gordon Peake, Beloved land: Stories, struggles and secrets from Timor-Leste (non-fiction)
  • 2015: Mark HenshawThe snow kimono (novel, my review)
  • 2016: Frank Bongiorno, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (history)
  • 2017: Tom Griffiths, The art of time travel: Historians and their craft (history, on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • 2018: Paul Collis, Dancing home (novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • 2019: Robyn CadwalladerBook of colours (novel, my review)
  • 2020: Lisa Fuller, Ghost bird (YA novel)
  • 2021: Subhash Jaireth, Spinoza’s overcoat: Travels with writers and poets (essays, Lisa’s review)
  • 2022: Lucy Neave, Believe in me (novel, my review)

(Links on author’s names take you to my posts on that author, which may not necessarily include the work listed.)

The winners tell you something about Canberra. For example, you might have gleaned from the early winners that Canberra has been particularly strong in poetry, and you’d be right. Well-regarded twentieth century poets like A.D. Hope (1907-2000), David Campbell (1915-1979), and Rosemary Dobson (1920-2012) made this region home for significant stretches of their lives. Canberra’s strength in this form is reflected in poetry winning three of the first four awards. Poetry continues to be strong here, though has featured less in the awards as they’ve progressed through the years.

THEY used to say in my neck of the North Carolina woods that if you shook a tree a banjo player would fall out. I’m beginning to think that if you shake a tree in Canberra, you’re more likely to dislodge a poet. (Bob Hefner, Canberra Times, 25 July 1993)

Couldn’t resist sharing that … but now, moving along … Canberra is also the national capital of Australia, so is the home of our national parliament. History and politics are, consequently, a significant interest of its residents, and this too is reflected in the sort of non-fiction that has won the award – the controversial sinking of SIEV X, the fraught Murray-Darling basin, and revisiting the role of First Nations Australians in our history, to name a few.

In terms of fiction, Canberra’s successful Seven Writers group is well represented here with Marion Halligan, Sara Dowse and Dorothy Johnston all being winners. The year Sara Dowse won she made history, apparently, by also winning the ACT Book Reviewer of the Year award. What, a reviewer award?

Yes! It seems that the ACT Book Review of the Year (as it was initially called) was instigated in 1993, alongside the Book of the Year. It was won by Amirah Inglis for her review of two books – As good as a yarn with you, edited by Caroline Ferrier, and A fence around the cuckoo by Ruth Park – in the November 1992 issue of Monash University’s Editions. In 1994, there were joint winners, Robert Boden’s review of Stanley Breeden’s Visions of a rainforest in The Canberra Times, and Amirah Inglis’ review of Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: A biography in the National Library’s Voices. Then in 1995 came Sara Dowse, named as ACT Book Reviewer of the Year. After that a review award seems to disappear from view. What a shame.

Have you heard of professional review or reviewer awards? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Meanwhile, I hope you have found this little history of my local award interesting!

11 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: the ACT Book of the Year Award

  1. This has always been a good award, due no doubt to the quality of the writers in ACT!
    I see you’ve visited my post about the 2022 award (thank you!) so you know how many of the winners I’ve read. And what I found interesting when I compiled that list, was how well those books have stood the test of time. *That* is the measure of a good award.
    There is a reviewers award, through the ABR, I think. My guess is that the entry pool is small because there are so few professional reviewers these days.

    • Yes you are right, Lisa, it is … and you are right, I did as it was an easy way to find the ones you’d read and I hadn’t!

      Ah ABR. That didn’t come up in my brief search. The closest I could think of was the Calibre Essay Prize which is very different.

  2. I not only have not read these winning books, I don’t remember having heard of them (except Gammage). I was going to mention the wadholloway award but it’s for blogging rather than reviewing. I enjoy reviews, that have a bit of meat to them, but who would have time to judge an award. And how would you distinguish between a Lit.Theory paper and a review, and would it have to be for a new release?

    • Bill, Bill, Bill, where have you been? There are several independent women writers here for a start, like the three from Canberra’s Seven.

      Seriously, though, good questions, but like all awards they can be addressed. l would say though that when the review was published would be the issue not the date of the subject of the review.

  3. I have never heard of a reviewer award, nor any form of critics award for any medium. I will say I am very curious about the history of the sex lives of Australians and what’s so juicy in there as to deserve a whole book on the subject. What are you all doing that I am not?!

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