Prime Minister's Literary Awards

Peter Rose Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Published in ABR Arts

Much has been written about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PMLAs), now in their seventh year. Advances was at the National Gallery of Victoria on 8 December when the winners were named. An opulent affair, it was televised by Sky News and SBS à la the Man Booker Prize. The Great Hall – deemed rather small by one distinguished literary editor from Sydney – was full of publishers and journalists, but also assorted politicians, festival directors, and senior bureaucrats. Happily, there were many shortlisted authors amid the potentates.

Kevin Rudd, who created these awards in 2008, tended to stay away, which always felt odd – and discouraging. This year Tony Abbott and his entourage were there in force. The prime minister gave every impression that the government will maintain these awards.

These are lucrative prizes, liberating for winners. Each of them is worth a total of $100,000 tax free (would that more literary prizes were similarly exempt). This year, three of the six prizes were shared – Australian History, Non-Fiction, and Fiction. This seems sensible, given the value of these prizes.

‘None of the winners’ speeches was as riveting as Michelle de Kretser’s in Brisbane last year ... but, with one exception, the speeches were generous, witty, thoughtful – and succinct’

None of the winners’ speeches was as riveting as Michelle de Kretser’s in Brisbane last year – when she lambasted the Rudd government (in front of Tony Burke, the immigration and arts minister) for its treatment of asylum seekers – but, with one exception, the speeches were generous, witty, thoughtful – and succinct. Melinda Smith – winner of the poetry award with her fourth collection, arrestingly titled Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call – chose to dedicate her prize to Australian carers. (What a coup it was for new publisher Pitt Street Poetry to have two nominees on the five-strong shortlist.) Bob Graham, winner in the Children’s Fiction category, pointedly donated some of his prize money to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Then came Fiction. Advances was seated on the HarperCollins table and can attest to the comprehensive shock that Steven Carroll received when he was named co-winner with Richard Flanagan. Flanagan had a long, pally tête-à-tête with the prime minister, then announced that he intended to donate his prize money ($40,000) to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, a popular gesture.

Hal Colebatch2
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Hal G.P. Colebatch

Hal G.P. Colebatch – a surprise co-winner in the Australian History category – gave a rancorous and interminable speech about wartime traitors and unionists. One person seated on our table remarked, ‘Well, we don’t need to read the book – we’ve just heard it.’

In the days that followed, thanks largely to Stephen Romei (literary editor of The Australian), we learned much more about the judging process and the extent of the political intervention. Not for the first time, a prime minister had overturned a jury’s recommendation; but on this occasion judges were prepared to go on the record. Ann Moyal told Susan Wyndham (Sydney Morning Herald) that she was totally opposed to favouring Colebatch’s ‘poorly constructed and poorly written’ book. More ominously for the officials, an enraged Les Murray went even further. Murray (one of three poets determining the Fiction award) revealed that the judges had unanimously recommended Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People as the winner, only to learn on the night that Tony Abbott had chosen Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North as co-winner. Murray told Romei: ‘I was shocked that they went behind the scenes and worked a swifty.’ He also indulged in a few intemperate asides. Of ‘the Tasmanian fellow’s’ novel, he said: ‘It is a pretentious, stupid book.’ Then, Christmas upon us, he declared that ‘The literary scene is such a nest of vipers.’

The authorities tried to restore order by reminding the judges of the confidential nature of the judgements. One wag opined that the horse had probably bolted. Mixing our metaphors, Advances suspects that Les Murray is one whistleblower who is unlikely to be corralled.

Louise Adler – chairwoman of the judging panel – offered an extraordinary defence of the prime minister’s right to ignore the judges’ decision. ‘These are not Louise Adler’s literary awards or Les Murray’s literary awards – they are the Prime Minister’s literary awards,’ she told Stephen Romei. Have we really come to this? Taxpayers fund these awards: why should they be in a politician’s personal gift? Literary fiction is hardly Mr Abbott’s area of expertise. Did he read all five novels before honouring Flanagan’s book? And what of the judges? What of their expertise? Why would anyone now serve on the PMLA panel on such terms?

Carrol and Flanagan with PMSteven Carroll, Tony Abbott, and Richard Flanagan

Brouhahas aside, the PMLAs are a lucrative and galvanising reality. It’s important for a wealthy and cultivated nation like Australia to have awards of this kind. Only the current dilatoriness and unpredictability of these prizes prevent them from gaining widespread stature and traction. They should transcend the Miles and the Stella in importance and coverage, but at present they don’t. Announcing the PMLAs a fortnight before Christmas robs them of the commercial clout that would be welcomed by writers and an industry that has done it tough in recent years and that would benefit from a timely, well-publicised ‘PMLA boost’ in October or early November. At present these awards reward and gratify a number of writers, but the effect should be more diffuse, with major benefits for booksellers, publishers, and readers.

Published in ABR Arts

Comments (6)

  • Leave a comment

    It's time for winners, or shortlisted writers in the New Generation Indie Book Awards to be included in competitions such as this.

    Anna Funder self-published her book, 'All That I Am,' & won this prize. Only then was she picked up by a mainstream publisher.

    Friday, 19 December 2014 06:32 posted by Deci Wraxall
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    Murray is probably right on one score, the literary scene is a nest of vipers. Perhaps this is because the industry itself is so malnourished. Even some of our best literary magazines are elitist and discriminatory and the publishers with clout get the gong, while all others are sidelined or ignored. The whole system fails all but a few.

    Thursday, 18 December 2014 11:07 posted by R Hollingworth
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    What a hotchpotch event! How can the PMLA ever transcend the Miles Franklin and Stella Awards while their results are interfered with by politicians, while the winners are not chosen by the literary judges to whom the task is set? If the Prime Minister wants to fund and choose a winner personally, then let him do so, but while tax payers' money is used, leave it to those professionally equipped to do so. Louise Adler's defence of the PM's interference in this regard is ludicrous and goes against her role of chairwoman of the judging panel.

    Wednesday, 17 December 2014 17:58 posted by Liat Kirby
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    Rob Kennedy is right. There will never be chances for Independent writers to compete for literary prizes in this country. The Prime Minister's Literary Award should be thrown open to everyone, regardless of who they are, but with a forward judging panel to pick the shortlisted. It's time the administrators of this prize had the courage to include all Australian writers who want to enter their work. The world of publishing is changing rapidly, with the traditional publishers clinging to their positions as writers take matters into their own hands. There are many brilliant writers who have been rejected for such reasons as, e.g. the publisher cannot put out another crime novel because they have only planned for four this year! These writers deserve an opportunity to join in the quest for literary reward.

    Wednesday, 17 December 2014 17:22 posted by Diana Hockley
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    This prize does liberate writers, some writers. There was certainly never going to be any Indie writers on the list, or in any other mainstream prize or publication.

    More's the pity. As publishing has diversified so much in the last five years; no lit prize or mainstream media outlet in Australia has diversified along with its literature.

    This prize will only ever be for a few select writers in this country. It does not represent the depth or dynamic of Australian literature. And all Australian's are missing out because of the closed off world of lit prizes and media in this country.

    Wednesday, 17 December 2014 15:49 posted by Rob Kennedy
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    Incredible! The truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Wouldn't this make a fine tale of dastardly deeds?

    Wednesday, 17 December 2014 15:31 posted by Carol Middleton

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