Monday musings on Australian literature: 2016 awards season dragging to a close

As the year draws to a close, our final major literary awards are being announced. We’ve seen this month the winners of the Queensland Literary Awards and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. The Barbara Jefferis Award has announced its shortlist, but we are still waiting for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist.

All but one of these awards have had somewhat problematic trajectories in recent years. The Queensland Literary Awards were established in 2012 when the then Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, abolished the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. The awards were managed for two years by a volunteer committee, before negotiation with the State Library of Queensland saw the Library take over management in 2014. In 2015, new Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk announced that the government would again support the awards. However, they are now a more collaborative venture than they’d been under the abolished regime, which should ensure a more secure future for them. The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, on the other hand, which had been awarded annually from 1996 to 2014, were downgraded to a biennial timetable starting in 2016. Disappointing, really.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PMLA)? Established in 2008 after Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, they expanded quickly from comprising just two prizes (fiction and non-fiction) to several, so that by 2102 there were six prizes with young adult fiction, children’s fiction, poetry and Australian history being added to the mix. However, there seems to be no established timetable. In 2008, the winners were announced in September, while in 2009 and 2010, we had to wait until early November. Then, in 2011 and 2012, they were announced in July, and in 2013 it was August. The last two years, 2014 and 2015, the winners were announced in December, with their shortlists announced in October and November, respectively. Given there’s been a call for entries this year, they must be happening, so presumably we’ll see this year’s shortlist soon! The PMLA people play it very close to their chest, despite having a Facebook page on which they share all sorts of literary news, because this year, as in recent ones, I’ve not been able to find a timetable. I guess we just have to have faith.

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards have other issues, though, besides erratic timetabling, including a lack of transparency regarding the process, poor marketing and promotion, and, most serious of all, political interference in the judges’ decisions. The best known example of this occurred in 2014 when the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott over-ruled the fiction judges’ choice of Stephen Carroll’s A world of other people to award the fiction prize to Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. But, according to Patrick Allington in The Conversation and past non-fiction judge Colin Steele, such interference has occurred a few times in the Awards’ short history. This is not good enough. As Allington writes, the stipulation that a Prime Minister has the final say about winners “compromises the Awards’ credibility, purpose and depth.”

The fun stuff … some winners

But enough of that. Let’s talk about some of the winners. I’m not going to list them all because the Queensland Literary Awards offers prizes in twelve categories and you can see them all at the site. Similarly, the WA Premier’s Book Awards has about eleven categories, and you can see those winners too at their site. I’m just going to share the few winners I’ve read and reviewed!

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the country and other stories

First up, the Queensland Literary Awards. The award which pleased me most is Elizabeth Harrower’s A few days in the country and other stories (my review) sharing the Steele Rudd Award for Australian short story collections sponsored by the University of Southern Queensland. This is a wonderful collection of short stories, which has been shortlisted for a couple of awards, so I’m thrilled to see Harrower receive the recognition she deserves. (And I’m pleased for Text Publishing too given the work they’ve done to bring Harrower to our attention through their Text Classics).

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearanceAnother a winner at these awards was Fiona Wright’s honest, insightful collection of essays, Small acts of disappearance (my review), about her experience of an eating disorder. Wright was the Non-fiction Book Award, also sponsored by the University of Southern Queensland.

Meanwhile, over in the west, at the newly biennial Western Australian Literary Awards, it all felt a little old because many of the winners have been around for a couple of years now and most of them featured in the 2015 shortlists and awards. This is not their fault of course, but it certainly brought home the impact of the awards only being two-yearly. The fiction award, for example, was won by Joan London’s The golden age, which was shortlisted and/or won several awards in 2015.

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

The big news at these awards, from my point of view, is that Helen Garner’s non-fiction work This house of grief (my review) won not only the Non-fiction prize, but also the overall Premier’s Prize. A fascinating choice, because mostly, though not exclusively I know, these overall awards tend to go to works of fiction.

Western Australia, like Queensland, quarantines an award or two to writers from their states. Queensland has awards for “a work of state significance” and “emerging Queensland writer”, while Western Australia offers awards for “Western Australian history” and “Western Australian emerging writer”. The winner of this last award is a book I’ve reviewed here, Lost and found by Brooke Davis.

And so, by my reckoning, we have three more literary awards to go – the Prime Minister’s (on a yet-to-be announced date), the biennial Barbara Jefferis Award (on 25 October), and the always interesting MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award (on 11 November). Good luck everyone.