The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Sydney the other day was an entirely different bouilloire de poissons from the presentation in Melbourne back in 2014. The Melbourne event – or ceremony, as some called it – was an ambitious demonstration of Establishment grandeur. The then Arts Minister George Brandis, backed by Louise Adler, the organizer of the night, proclaimed that the Abbott government had made a deliberate decision ‘to elevate the status and prestige of these prizes’ – to make them Australia’s equivalent of the Man Booker in London. In marked contrast (as Adler put it) with the usual tired scone at the back of a bookshop or perhaps a nibble of cheese on a toothpick, there was a splendid dinner in the splendid Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria. Hosted by Prime Minister Abbott, the proceedings were televised from beginning to end, compered by the ever-popular Ray Martin. The great Clive James sent a letter from his sick bed in Cambridge. Tony Abbott presented the Awards and announced the creation of the Book Council of Australia under Adler’s chairmanship. (Despite the ‘ideological chasm’ between us, she said, he is ‘one of us… a Prime Minister for books’.) In conformity with the guidelines Abbott overruled the judges of the Fiction prize, who would have awarded it solely to Steven Carroll for his A World of Other People. Abbott declared Richard Flanagan a joint winner with his The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It was a provocative intervention. (Can you imagine M. Hollande in Paris rejecting a decision of the judges of the Prix Goncourt or Mr Cameron in London deciding the Man Booker prize? But they are private prizes, not State-funded.) Some of the judges cut up rough: Les Murray said Abbott had pulled a swifty for political reasons. ‘I feel I have been treated like a fool.’ He declared that Flanagan, ‘the Tasmanian fellow’, is a ‘stupid and pretentious’ writer. He resigned from the panel of judges. The general view among writers and critics is that the guidelines should be amended to exclude a Prime Minister’s right to overrule the judges. But only Murray among the relevant judges resigned over this issue. At least the controversy generated publicity for the Awards for the first time since Prime Minister Rudd set them up back in 2008.
The Sydney presentation on December 14 was entirely different. A much smaller affair, it was staged in Carriageways – the old Redfern railway factory and blacksmith’s shop, decorated for the occasion with Sturt desert peas and other natives. A youthful orchestral ensemble performed valiantly against the noise and chatter. There was no dinner, only canapés. It was trendy, grungy, edgy. Very Sydney, not Melbourne. Everybody seemed to have a good time. Prime Minister Turnbull dropped in but did not dominate. He ‘circulated’ a little, gave a speech mainly about Aborigines, and presented a couple of Awards before dragging himself away, still smiling, to yet another demanding commitment, leaving the conduct of the celebrations to the Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield. There was no Captain’s Pick, no overruling of the judges, and no headline controversies. (Turnbull even complimented the judges.) The speeches were much shorter than in Melbourne. But there was the occasional tense moment. Adler told the Prime Minister that she deplored the Government’s intention to scrap the protection given to Australian writers by territorial copyright. ‘If second-hand cars are deemed worthy of support, surely Australian writers and their readers deserve a fair go.’ (Turnbull managed a poetic word in response: whatever happens to territorial copyright, he said, Australian voices will continue to sing across the ages.) The prize winners were asked to be brief – to take about a minute. They were always moving. Geoffrey Lehmann, tax lawyer and winner of the tax-free $80,000 Poetry prize, said that since the age of 14 his real purpose in life had been to write poetry. He was gratified, at 75, to be awarded a prize. He spoke for most writers. There continue to be calls for the abolition of monetary prizes for literature and for spending the money in better ways, for example on the abandoned Book Council to promote Australian writers. But abolition seems a lost cause. Although the Queensland government scrapped its awards a couple of years ago, a new government restored them, to general applause. Writers and readers like them.
One of the most persistent criticism of prizes is that it is often impossible for judges to distinguish among the handful of shortlisted books. The best are incomparable, the critics say. Any one of the short list could be the winner. Adler, chairman of one of the judging panels, has described prizes as ‘arbitrary, unfair and subjective.’ In the same spirit the painter John Olsen used to dismiss the Archibald Prize as a chook raffle. That is one reason why some judges award joint winners (although others dismiss that as a cowardly dodging of a hard decision.) In any case judges are often clearly wrong. Tolstoi never won a Nobel Prize for literature. But there may be a case for redistributing the prize money. At the moment the winner is awarded $80,000, and each of the other four shortlisted writers receive $5,000. Why not, some critics urge, $40,000 to the winner and $10,000 each to the others? Most writers and readers still welcome prizes and awards, whether they be grand or grungy. The Australian Awards still do not have an international reputation. But they are getting there. Some say the recent Awards in the old blacksmith’s shop were the best yet.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.