Monday musings on Australian literature: Melbourne Prize for Literature

Having posted on a literary prize last week – the ACT Book of the Year Award – I decided that I may as well do another one, and give us a break from my recent run of historically-focused Monday Musings posts. This week’s award is another geographically limited one, the Melbourne Prize for Literature.

This award is comparatively new, having been first offered in 2006, and it is, unusually, a triennial award. This is because it is one part of the Melbourne Prize which is awarded, as Wikipedia puts it, “on a rolling three-year basis for Urban Sculpture, Literature and Music, in that order”. It is managed by the Melbourne Prize Trust, which was founded by someone called Simon Warrender in 2005. I did not know who Simon Warrender was, and Wikipedia did not provide a link on his name. However, he is, in fact, in Wikipedia (so there is now a link to him on the Prize’s page!) The English-born Simon Warrender was “a Royal Navy officer and businessman” who migrated to Australia after the war and married into the well-to-do and philanthropic Myer Family.

The Prizes are funded by a range of donors from government, cultural and philanthropic organisations – like the City of Melbourne, The Robert Salzer Foundation, Hardie Grant Books and Readings Bookshop – to the general public.

As Wikipedia’s description of the prize’s order implies, the first prize was for Urban Sculpture. That was in 2005, so the first Melbourne Prize for Literature was awarded in 2006. The Literature Prize is made to “a Victorian published author whose body of published work has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life”. In other words, it is one of those “body of work”/contribution to literature types of award. It can, says the Prize website, “include all genres, for example, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays, screenplays and poetry”, and they take this seriously as you will see from the winners below. It is a valuable prize, currently netting the winner AUD60,000.

Gerald Murnane, The Plains, bookcover

The winners to date are:

  • 2006 Helen Garner: novelist, short-story writer, screen-writer, non-fiction writer, essayist
  • 2009 Gerald Murnane: novelist, memoirist, short story writer, poet
  • 2012 Alex Miller: novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright
  • 2015 Chris Wallace-Crabbe: poet
  • 2018 Alison Lester: author and illustrator of, mostly, children’s book
  • 2021 Christos Tsiolkas: novelist, playwright, screenwriter

Links are to my posts on the writer. As you can see I have written about all of them, at least once, except for the poet (though he has had several mentions in passing! I guess that’s better than nothing.)

But wait, there’s more, because other awards are made alongside the main Prize for Literature. One is the Best Writing Award which is for (or was initially) “a piece of published or produced work in any genre by a Victorian writer 40 years and under, which is an outstanding example of clarity, originality and creativity”. By 2018, they seem to have dropped the age criterion. The winners to date are:

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

In 2021, this prize was not offered, but they presented The Writers Prize. It went to Eloise Victoria Grills. According to the website the prize was for “an essay (10,000 words maximum) of outstanding originality, literary merit and creative freshness”. (I should add that this Prize had also been presented in 2015, in addition to The Best Writing Award, and was won by Kate Ryan.) What will happen in 2024?

The other main prize in the suite is the Civic Choice Award. It is voted for by the public from the finalists for the main award/s. Most recently this has been done via an online form available on the Prize website. The winners to date are:

  • 2006 Henry von Doussa for The park bench
  • 2009 Amra Pajalic for The good daughter
  • 2012 Tony Birch for Blood (Lisa’s review)
  • 2015 Robyn Annear for her essay “Places without mercy”
  • 2018 Louise Milligan for Cardinal
  • 2021 Maxine Beneba Clarke

Over the years there have been other awards, or combinations, or slight changes, like a Residency Award. But, you can see it all at the Prize website which I linked to above.

The Melbourne Prize for Literature – indeed the Melbourne Prize as a whole – is an impressive suite of awards that supports the arts by offering decent prize money and recognises the state’s serious practitioners of their art.

42 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Melbourne Prize for Literature

  1. I’ve met Simon Warrender. He got in touch with me when he was setting up the prize and looking for publicity for it, and we had coffee at the Arts Centre.
    I’d like to see Sophie Cunningham win the prize, she’s not just a fine writer, she’s been a tireless advocate for writing through the ASA and other things.
    PS I’ve reviewed The Amateur Science of Love, the first of many fine books by Sherborne that I’ve loved though I still haven’t read everything. (See anzlitlovers.com/2011/08/19/the-amateur-science-of-love-2011-by-craig-sherborne/)

    • Oh nice Lisa … I do remember your writing a few times about this award. The book prize started before you started blogging so was that because of your internet reading group activity?

      I take your point re Sophie Cunningham. And thanks re Sherborne.

        • I’ve never been able to find out what exactly the criteria are. It has to be for a body of work, but how much is enough? And it has to be a Victorian writer: But how is that defined? born here? educated here? working here?

        • I’d guess at someone who calls herself a Victorian. Take me, f’rinstance – born in Perth, lived in Melbourne for 10 years then Sydney for 41, and now back in my spiritual home again (i.e., Melbourne). I DO NOT MEAN THAT I AM TO BE CONSIDERED, I do assure you, Lisa: just giving an example of a wandering Aussie ..

        • So you find my suggestion not quite the thing ? I can’t think of any other way of categorising, for the rest are simply too limiting ..

        • Oh my, I’ve been incommunicado all day and there’s been this big discussion going on … I agree with your M-R that the criteria can’t be too tight because that would be limiting. Here in the ACT there’s been discussion about what “the region” means, and it includes people who live outside the ACT but who have significant connection with the ACT in terms of their arts practice. Nigel Featherstone and Robyn Cadwallader, for example, both live outside the ACT but we include them as “ours”.

        • Yes, agree, but “scrupulously fair” can’t, in the world of the arts I think, be black-and-white. It just has to make sense and be defensible, I think?

        • Love it M-R – I didn’t really realise you saw Melbourne as your spiritual home. I sort of felt you’d ended up back there because of family and friends, but clearly there’s more to it than that.

        • Crumbs no: I’m alone here. But it’s in my heart, and I’m finally happy to know that Melbourne is ‘home’.

        • Thanks Lisa … perhaps they are trying to keep it a bit loose to give themselves flexibility? Carmel for example was not born in Victoria, but much of her literary career was established and maintained there. I think that should be good enough.

          I think it’s hard to define “body of work”. I’d hate it to be quantified because that’s too simplistic, isn’t it. Most of us I think can identify what a “good” body of work is I think?

        • I can only add that if Lisa Hill don’t know it, we’re all DOOOOOMED ! – with apologies to, I think, Dad’s Army ..

  2. Hi Sue, I think Toni Jordan should be considered. Some of her novels are set in Melbourne, and her novel Nine Days, was a VCE read. She was born in Sydney, but now lives in Melbourne.

  3. I’m going to propose a short list of Alan Wearne and PiO. You don’t get more Melbourne than that.
    Though it it were to go to a born in Perth/lives in Melbourne author there’s always Claire G Coleman.

  4. I’m interested in the criteria for one of the prizes: “an outstanding example of clarity, originality and creativity.” I’ve read many, MANY descriptions of prizes or entries to magazines because I completed a few creative writing degrees. Anyways, I cannot recall ever seeing the word “clarity” in the description. It got my brain going. Do they mean no experimental stuff? Or written accessibly for the reader? Perhaps they just mean solid prose?

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