Monday musings on Australian literature: on 20/40, a new publishing prize

We all like to see a new literary or publishing prize. That is, most of us do, because I do appreciate that prizes in the arts are problematic, and that some do not, for perfectly valid reasons, like them. However, for most, the positives outweigh the negatives. These positives include – in different combinations – kudos, money, time, publication.

Carmel Bird, Fair game

Last week, I received a press release about a new prize being offered by one of our wonderful local-ish, independent, and non-profit, publishers, Finlay Lloyd. I have reviewed many Finlay Lloyd publications over the years, and I also reported on their 10-year anniversary back in 2016. Their output is small in quantity but the quality, both in content and in the physical product itself, is high. Their design aesthetic is carefully considered and I love handling, as well as reading, the results. Like many small publishers, they are not afraid to publish the books and forms others eschew. Take their FL Smalls, for example. These are tiny books – smaller than a traditional novella, even – written by emerging and established (like Carmel Bird) writers. Finlay Lloyd also publishes short story collections, illustrated novels, and nonfiction on difficult subjects, like their Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).

Given this background, it’s to be expected that if they came up with a prize it would be a bit left-field, and it is. Called the 20/40 Publishing Prize, it aims to “encourage and support writing of the highest quality”, but writing that meets certain criteria. Here is how they describe it:

In an environment where writers find it increasingly difficult to find an audience, Finlay Lloyd is branching out to offer a publishing opportunity for fiction and non-fiction prose works between 20,000 and 40,000 words through the 20/40 Publishing Prize.

Finlay Lloyd’s publisher and commissioning editor, Julian Davies, is quoted in the Press Release as saying:

‘We’re incredibly excited to be able to encourage writers to submit pieces of this length, a scope which has proven itself through time to be particularly engaging and rewarding for writers and their readers.

‘It’s long enough to allow the rich development of a concept but tight enough to encourage focus and succinctness.

‘Each year we plan to select two winning authors, closely supporting them through the editorial process with care and enthusiasm, and publishing their entries in line with Finlay Lloyd’s innovative design standards.’

This length is, of course, novella length – but Finlay Lloyd has not used the term “novella” because this term refers to short prose fiction, while the prize encompasses fiction and nonfiction. They say on their website that “all genres of prose writing are welcome, including hybrid forms”. 20/40 is, I should clarify, an unpublished manuscript competition with publication being the prize.

The press release goes on to explain that Finlay Lloyd is “dedicated to identifying and encouraging good writing free from external pressures such as reputation and the undue influence of market forces”. Consequently, the judging panel will read the submissions “blind”, and will focus on “creative inventiveness and quality”.

Their hope is that 20/40 will “offer an incentive for writers to get down to work and hone their expressive skills”. They believe that readers are “hungry for writing of quality that is published with care and flare as well-designed and engaging paper artefacts”. See what I mean? The content AND the object are both important to them. I know many readers, myself included, who are so hungry.

Anyhow, submissions can be made between 1 January and 10 February, 2023. They will announce the shortlist in October and publish the winning books – one fiction, one nonfiction, I think – in November. The prize is being overseen by their “expert advisory board”:

Book cover
  • Dr Christine Balint, whose novella, Water music, I’ve reviewed
  • John Clanchy, novelist and short story writer whom I’ve reviewed a few times here
  • Donna Ward, writer, publisher, and editor
  • Dr Meredith McKinney, academic, translator – including of Mori Ôgai’s The Wild Goose on my TBR – and daughter of Judith Wright
  • Emeritus Professor Kevin Brophy, whose recent short story collection is on my TBR

I must say that I’m tickled about the timing of this announcement, given its relevance to Novellas in November.

Finlay Lloyd: Celebrating 10 Years of Publishing

This weekend I attended a delightful event run by the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. It was an afternoon of author readings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independent small publisher Finlay Lloyd, which is based in Braidwood, about an hour’s drive from here. It is run by two men, author Julian Davies and artist Phil Day.

Julian Davies em-ceed the event. He described Finlay Lloyd as a non-profit publisher, and said he is often told by other small publishers that they can be that without trying! Ouch! The press is, he said, a quixotic venture, established because many writers were finding it hard to be published by increasingly bottom-line focused publishers. Once, he said, publishers took risks but they now tend to be overly market driven. The press was also established in response to threats about the death of the printed book. For Finlay Lloyd, the book as an artefact is important as well as the content. I can attest to that. Their books have a lovely edge, even the little flsmalls.

Then the main part of the afternoon started, with the format being Davies introducing the writer, asking one question, followed by the writer reading an excerpt. It went for about an hour and a half. My post is rather long – despite my only quoting from one writer – but my headings will enable you to skim and skip if you desire.

Alan Gould and The seaglass spiral (bought at the event)

Davies’ question for Gould was about what he expected of the publisher-author relationship. Gould, whose The Lakewoman I’ve reviewed here, was the perfect choice to be first because he epitomises the reasons behind Finlay Lloyd’s establishment. He had expected it to be hard, he said, to find a publisher for his first couple of books but he then thought an author-publisher relationship would develop. That didn’t happen, so almost every novel of his has had a different publisher.

He introduced his novel, The seaglass spiral, by describing himself as a character novelist. He read from the beginning and a small except from Chapter 10. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a fellow called Ralf Sebright. He was decent enough, glad for the most part to be alive, and despite being able to swim, he had just sunk beneath the Pacific Ocean for the second time. Odd to think this about this plight really, that a lineage going back to the first caves of kinship might imminently be pinched off. For Ralf had arrived at a moment when he realised his existence might be in trouble.

In short, he was drowning.

And here are the last few sentences of his first excerpt:

Ralf observed the dominant emotion of drowning was not fear. It was guilt. He also noted that, even when a person says impossible he does not stop imagining deliverance.

Gould told us to remember that word “impossible”. It’s important in the book he said. I’m intrigued. Since I had frequently fondled this gorgeous-looking book when it first came out but had resisted the temptation given my bulging TBR pile, this time I gave in to temptation. See what an author reading can do!

Phillip Stamatellis and Growing up cafe (my review)

To first-time author Stamatellis, Davies posed a question about what the editing process had meant to him. Stamatellis responded that, given the book grew out of scattered pieces of writing he’d been doing, structure was the important thing he’d learnt. Haha, I thought! Here is a sentence from my review: “Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly”! Structure is indeed important to this book.

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydHe also commented on Davies’ obsession with commas, to which Davies interjected with the fact that John Clanchy says he doesn’t use commas enough! This reminded me of my 12 year-old-daughter, as she was then, arguing over a comma with her school principal, who was editing a little book for the school. The principal won but, some months later, she said to me, “you know, Hannah was right about that comma”!

Anyhow, Stamatellis read the first “story” in his book in which he describes a typical cafe scene – the cafe, being, as Davies said, the book’s main character.

Camel Bird and Fair game (my review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Introducing Bird, Davies proposed that the current discourse in our society is polarising, but Bird’s book, Fair game, he said, digresses and weaves, telling the story of Tasmania through her personal reflections. Bird agreed with this assessment, saying that “the digressive form is native to me.” And I love this form as I wrote in my review: “I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind?” Oh, and Bird also said it was a wonderful experience to be edited by Julian.

Bird gave a wonderfully expressive reading. She loves being a little cheeky, as I also wrote in my review, and is clearly able to do that in person and well as in print!

Wayne Strudwick and The dark days of Matty Lang (bought at the event)

You meet authors in strange places, it seems. Davies met Strudwick through the latter peering into his eyes. Strudwick, you see, is an optometrist but, Davies soon learnt, also writes – and this led to the publication of Strudwick’s story, The dark days of Matty Lang, in the first series of flsmalls.

Given this story is set in a country town, Davies asked Strudwick about his interest in such towns. He responded that in these towns, everyone knows everyone else, which can be comforting but also claustrophobic. Traumas, he said, go through the whole community. His story is about a trauma, and the reading intrigued me, so I bought it too!

Bidda Jones and Backlash (my review)

Bidda Jones is Davies’ partner so the question was obvious: how did she find working on a book together. Jones explained that she’s a scientist not a writer. She did the book, she said, “through gritted teeth” and was very glad when it was over! But, she’s also glad, I believe, the story is documented.

Jones read an excerpt from the book describing how she and Lyn White took their research and footage to the ABC, but she also told us that already the book has been attacked in parliament. So, I went looking and found the speech by National Party Senator Barry O’Sullivan. My oh my! He name-calls, and he makes false statements about what the book does or doesn’t cover. But the clincher is that he concludes his speech not on proving that the government has made advancements in live export animal welfare but by attacking Jones and the RSPCA – attack after all being the best form of defence – for not focusing their effort on domestic pets and animals (as if they don’t do that too!), which he argued are the RSPCA’s “core and fundamental issues”. In fact, the RSPCA’s mission is broad: to “To prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection”. It’s hard to take such a speech seriously.

Paul McDermott and Fragments of the hole (my review)

McDermottFragmentsFinlayMcDermott’s book is heavily illustrated with his drawings, so Davies’ question to him related to the process of working with Finlay Lloyd’s Phil Day. McDermott, who attended the Canberra School of Art, told us that he is always writing little stories and making drawings and sketches. He described how creatively Day had used his drawings, making selections from what was apparently a big bundle, sometimes upending them, sometimes using only part of them.

McDermott, also an expressive reader of course, read the second part of his story “The boy and the goat” but I certainly won’t share that because it included the wonderful last line of the story. I loved this little book, but was a little disconcerted when, on having a copy of his book signed for a friend, he told me that he’d only seen one review of the book and the reviewer said it wasn’t for children, but it is he said! Hmmm, I thought, I reviewed his book. Was that I? I didn’t ‘fess up, because I couldn’t remember, but checked when I got home and it was. In my defence, though, I did qualify it by saying it wasn’t for “(most) children”. Oh dear.

Meredith McKinney and Mori Ogai’s The wild goose (on my TBR)

Fiction, non-fiction, essays, and even commissioned translations, Finlay Lloyd does it all. Davies talked about how, as he and McKinney were working on this Japanese classic, they compared three translations of this Japanese classic from 1959, the 1990s, and Meredith’s 2010s. He enjoyed their discussions about Japanese language and the decisions that have to be made in translating it.

But, his question for McKinney was why she chose this particular novel (novella, really). It’s because, she said, she’s interested in pre-western-influenced Japanese literature. Davies commented that he liked the sympathy Ogai shows to his minor characters, and McKinney agreed saying that he exhibits tenderness for everybody. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a couple of years, and it’s time I read another Japanese novel, so I really need to find time to read it.

Julian Davies and Crow mellow (my review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

The event ended with Davies’ own book, Crow mellow, which was illustrated by Phil Day. He said he gave Phil Day complete free rein and he enjoyed seeing Day’s illustrations come through as he was writing it. While I love art, my main focus tends to be text, but it was hard not to notice Day’s illustrations wandering as they do all through the text. In my review I commented that they provided “whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text”.

Davies read a scene in which two young women talk about sex. I remember the scene well. Its illustrations are a hoot, and it ties neatly, satirically, to the novel’s epigraph (from American author, James Salter) that “the new hunger was for sex”.

And on that, the event closed … I, and a few I spoke to, thought the format worked very well. I was only sorry that, due to other commitments, I wasn’t able to hang around for long afterwards.