Early in my retirement, I spent quite a bit of time creating and editing articles on Australian literature in Wikipedia. I focused on a couple of subject areas in particular, Australian women writers and Australian literary awards. One of the awards I worked on was the well-regarded The Age Book of the Year Awards.
They were established by Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, and were first awarded in 1974. For 15 years – between 1998 and 2012 – they were presented during the Melbourne Writers Festival (like the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards are during the Sydney Writers Festival.) They started with two awards – fiction and nonfiction – but in 1993, a third was added for poetry. One of the winning books from these categories was chosen as The Age Book of the Year. Sadly – at least, sadly for those who think literary awards have value – this award was cancelled in 2013. However, I have just read – in The Age of course – that it has been revived, and the winner will be announced, once again, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
The revival was written up by The Age’s literary editor, Jason Steger:
In a double boost for writers, readers and the book industry The Age is sponsoring the Melbourne Writers Festival and reviving the Age Book of the Year award…
Apparently, The Age’s current editor, Gay Alcorn was “dismayed” when she joined the paper in 2020 and found that it no longer supported the Festival. Steger quotes her as saying, “I am thrilled that it has been rectified. The festival is about books and writing, ideas and debate in this city – exactly what The Age champions.” Even if you don’t like Awards, you will hopefully like this editor’s belief that a newspaper should champion “books and writing, ideas and debate”.
This year there will only be a fiction award, but there are plans to revive the other two categories and the overall “book of the year” in the future. With just three months to go, they’d better get their skates on to even do just one award this year! My web search has not found any further information about how the prize is going to be managed, how (or whether) books are submitted, and/or who will be judging. Neither is there any information about what the actual prize is. We will just have to wait.
We’ll also have to wait to see whether long and shortlists will be announced. For me, as a reader, these lists are as important as the award itself, as they provide good guides to what is going around.
Recap of Past Fiction Awards
You won’t be surprised that past winners of the fiction category include writers who are some of our biggest literary names, but before I share some of them, I should explain that the award was described as “Imaginative writing”. The result is that an early winner was a poetry collection – AD Hope’s A late picking – awarded before poetry was given its own prize. It also includes short stories, but as these are fiction, that shouldn’t be a surprise!
So, let’s look at some of the winners. Over the Award’s 38 years, there were 39 winners, as one year the award was shared. Of these, 16 were by women. The first award was made in 1974 to David Foster’s The pure land, and the last, in 2012, to Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review).
The writer who won the most awards is Peter Carey, with four, for True history of the Kelly Gang (2001), Jack Maggs (1997), The unusual life of Tristan Smith (1994), and Illywhacker (1985). One writer received three awards, Elizabeth Jolley, for The Georges’ wife (1993) (Bill’s review), My father’s moon (1989) (my review), and Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983).
Three writers won twice – David Malouf, Joan London and Thea Astley.
If you compare this award with other major fiction awards over the same period – such as the Christina Stead Award (NSW Premier’s Literary Award) and the Miles Franklin – you will see a large overlap in authors, but not so much in actual titles. In other words, Carey, Jolley, Astley, and so on, have won awards on each list, but for different books. Carey, for example, won the Miles Franklin in 1989 for Oscar and Lucinda, and the Christina Stead in 1982 for Bliss. Jolley won the Miles Franklin in 1986 for The well, and the Christina Stead in 1985 for Milk and honey, while Thea Astley won four Miles Franklins, but all for different books than her two The Age winners.
Of course, there are also authors who only appear on one list. Nicholas Hasluck, for example, won The Age’s award but neither of the other two.
None of this is particularly surprising. Occasionally, we see a book sweeping the awards, but mostly – and this is a healthy thing, I’d argue – the accolades and largesse are spread around.
What is worth noting but not surprising about The Age’s award and the other two I’ve mentioned here is that before 2012, very few authors from diverse backgrounds won. Since then, authors like Kim Scott, Michelle de Kretser, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and Melinda Bobis have won literary fiction awards, and it has happened often enough for it to be no longer particularly commented on, which is as it should be. Presumably, The Age’s award will continue this trend.
We await the next move …