Monday musings on Australian literature: Return of The Age Book of the Year

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.

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

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).

Book cover

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 …

Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon

‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

Moon, by atomicshark @ flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0

Moon, by atomicshark @ flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.