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The State Library of NSW is literary prize central. Consider the portfolio of prizes administered by the Library and announced within its sandstone walls: the 13 categories of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards — which include novels, non-fiction, poetry and plays, television or film scripts, and writing for children and young adults with $300,000 worth of prizes on offer — the National Biography Award, the Mona Brand Award for Women Stage and Screen Writers, the Russell Prize for Humour Writing, and the five categories of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.
Of course, there are many prizes for books and writing announced across the land that are quite unrelated to the Library: the Stella Prize; the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards; the Queensland, Victorian, Adelaide Festival, Northern Territory and Western Australian awards; the Ned Kelly Awards for crime writing: the relaunched Age Book of the Year: the Walkley Book prize and many more.
The Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, has strong connections to the Library and not only because the Library holds Franklin’s papers. Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville has been a judge for 12 years and the shortlist and winner announcements are often hosted by the Library. In 2021, the shortlist was announced in the Galleries, crowded with people unaware that within weeks they would be back in lockdown. Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth went on to win.
Sara Fishwick is responsible for administering prizes for the Library, some funded by the NSW government, others by private benefactors. She lets publishers and writers know that entries are open and is deluged by boxes of books arriving before the deadline for each prize. Multiple copies of books don’t arrive by magic; editorial and marketing assistants working in publishing houses, who Fishwick says she gets to know on a first-name basis, keep spreadsheets to match books to the awards they are eligible for, pay a fee to enter and dispatch bulk copies of books.
‘As we unpack the books we take some home to read,’ says Fishwick. ‘We always wonder about which entries will be successful and try and guess who the judges will select as the eventual winners.’ Appointing judges is a major undertaking — there are 30 judges for the Premier’s Literary Awards alone. Judging is a huge job and for many the responsibility the role carries weighs heavily. An honorarium is paid, but most judges sign up as a way to give back to the literary community.
For writers, the prize landscape is getting more competitive: for the fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, assuming all books are equal contenders — which of course they are not — writers have approximately a 1-in-120-chance of winning. Final decisions can be fraught. Fishwick says the NSW Book of the Year, which is chosen from each category winner, is always hotly contested. Three-hour meetings while judges wrangle over a decision are not uncommon.
The best part of her job, Fishwick says, is letting writers know they’ve been shortlisted or have won. The heartfelt messages she receives from writers reaffirm the importance of literary awards, not least financially.
Covid lockdowns have meant moving events that were previously heaving with excited crowds to online platforms. One benefit has been that people from around Australia, and indeed the globe, can take part in the celebrations. The Library will likely continue video-streaming in conjunction with in-person events when, once again, exuberant writers can bounce to the stage, shake hands, pose for a photo and thank everyone who made their work possible. Often there are tears, especially when a writer looks up and sees their family and friends. And maybe disappointed fellow writers, too.
Fishwick says that award coordinators from all over Australia hold regular group meetings. ‘This group is invaluable for sharing information about how to improve awards and how to best promote Australian writers. We love writers and see ourselves as working for them.’ She adds, ‘So many writers spend time at the State Library researching and writing their books, so connecting with them again through the awards process feels like coming full circle. The awards program allows the Library to extend our reach into the literary community, developing ongoing relationships with writers and publishers.’
Asked if the wrong name has ever ended up in the envelope, she says no, adding ‘I would be mortified!’
What impact do these prizes have on Australia’s literary ecosystem and on individual writers? Sydney Review of Books editor Catriona Menzies-Pike, who also happens to be chair of the judging panel for the 2022 Douglas Stewart Prize (the non-fiction category of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) tweeted recently, ‘Prizes reflect the values, predilections, biases etc of a given group of judges, usually squashed into a negotiated consensus. The judges may be skilled and generally act in good faith, but the prizes are not a marker of transcendent, transparent, inherent value.’ Menzies-Pike is no doubt right, but many readers overwhelmed by the sheer number of new releases rely on that gold sticker gleaming on a book’s cover to narrow their choice.
Seeking to uncover more of the mystery behind the decision-making processes, and to find out what impact a prize can have, Openbook asked a judge, a writer, a publisher and a bookseller about their experiences. Here is what they told us, in their own words.
The National Biography Award attracts entries from multiple genres: memoir, autobiography, historical biography and non-fiction hybrids that entwine personal stories with traditional research. In 2021 there were 101 titles submitted that ranged from the self-published to the highly stylised hardback limited edition. In addition to selecting a longlist, a shortlist and a winner, we judges were also asked to select a recipient for the Michael Crouch Debut Award.
Piles of books were stacked on my dining room table, blocking out sunlight from the adjacent window. We decided that each book would first be read by two of the three judges, reducing the number of books to be considered initially from 101 to about 68. Since I was at the same time researching and writing a biography myself — my first attempt at this genre — I reorganised my schedule so that I would write for the first two hours of my working day, and read uninterrupted for the rest of it, including weekends. I averaged about four books a week over four-and-a-half months, taking notes on every title then entering them into an online spreadsheet created by the Library.
The winner of the Debut Award was to be included on the shortlist of six. This year there were compelling and utterly unique stories of immigration, prostitution, the Stolen Generations, homosexuality, disability, mistaken identity, adoption, addiction and travel. The best ones managed to unite story and narrative voice into a transcendent whole.
The traditional biography submissions also yielded great variety in terms of subject matter and style. Once, third-person biographies were written about ‘famous’ people about whom the public is unusually curious. Fortunately, times have changed and now a largely anonymous life can carry the same amount of gravitas as a notorious one.
Based on our notes, in late June 2021 my fellow judge Rick Morton and I submitted our ten recommendations for the longlist to the chair of the judging committee, Suzanne Falkiner, which she then compared with her own. To our surprise, many of our individual selections aligned and after a brief discussion, it was remarkably easy to whittle down our collective selections from 30 books to 10. Each of the judges then read carefully every longlisted title, making more notes, to which we now added a score out of 10. These unambiguous scores meant the shortlist almost created itself. Again, we were all in complete agreement and, unlike other judging panels I’ve been on, there were no fisticuffs or covert death threats.
Mandy Sayer, judge for the 2021 National Biography Award, is a novelist, essayist and non-fiction writer. The winner of the 2021 National Biography Award was Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, by Cassandra Pybus; the winner of the Michael Crouch Debut Award was One Bright Moon, by Andrew Kwong.
To paraphrase Julia Gillard, a prize doesn’t explain everything. A prize doesn’t explain nothing.
The Yield, published in July 2019, by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch, is a powerful novel exploring family, language, Country, storytelling and identity. A work that had 10 years of writing, learning and living informing it.
It was published with endorsements from Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe, Paul Kelly (the singer), Joy Williams, Kate Morton and others. It had a comprehensive sales, marketing and publicity campaign driving it into the market. Further acclaim and support soon came from booksellers and critics from all parts of the media. As did invitations for events and festivals. Sales were tracking steadily above those of Tara’s previous books and there was a nice uplift for Christmas 2019.
After some much-appreciated acknowledgement on prize longlists and shortlists, in May 2020 The Yield won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Book of the Year in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Around this time the Miles Franklin shortlist came out, too, and in July The Yield was announced as the winner. Sales increased by 365% week on week and remained elevated through Christmas when this very special book was awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
The Yield was always a brilliant book that was going to find and reward its readers. But 100,000 of them? And not only across Australia and New Zealand but the UK, North America, France and the Netherlands as well? Literary prizes made all that possible. Long may they continue.
Meredith Curnow is publisher of the Knopf, Vintage, Hamish Hamilton and Viking imprints, at Penguin Random House.
It took me eight years to write The Book of Dirt. By the time it was finished, I’d lost all perspective on whether it was any good. I had high hopes but was also realistic about the fate of literary debuts. The first couple of awards of the season came and went without noticing my little book so I was forced to make an uneasy peace with it not being an ‘award book’. I remember sitting in a hotel in Thailand with my partner and baby daughter when the email came that I’d been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I literally jumped around the room.
When the shortlist was released, any hope I had of winning was immediately dashed. I loved the other books and knew a couple of the authors personally. I was still overseas when the next email came. It was very cloak-and-dagger, asking me to sign a non-disclosure statement before they could tell me anything. I thought it strange and tried not to read too much into it. I signed. A day later, the email came to say I’d won not only the Christina Stead Prize but also the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing. The rest of the trip I spent in a daze.
Once we returned home, I spent a good month attempting to keep a poker face whenever I saw my editor, or anyone in the book world. I’m terrible at poker, so that mostly meant hiding at home. When asked, I straight up lied. Even to my grandmother. My partner and I went to the ceremony and acted as if we knew nothing. She sat to one side of me, my editor on the other. Much of what followed is a blur.
The UTS Glenda Adams Award was first. I got up and forgot to thank UTS, but at least made a pretty good joke about Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Everyone laughed. Then came the Christina Stead. I got up, thanked everyone this time but made a terrible joke about potato cakes/potato scallops. Not even my partner laughed. Then came the People’s Choice. I had no idea I’d won it and it was my biggest thrill for the night. I jumped up, thrust the other two awards in my partner’s hands, chipping the glass on one of them. When I got to the podium, I realised I’d run out of jokes. A quick thank you, and I was off the stage.
These days, the trophies take pride of place in my home library, on the mantel beside my writing desk. Not only are they beautiful, but they remind me of one of the most joyous nights of my life, of that brief period when I felt financially secure enough to commit fully to writing, and the incredible sense of validation they gave me as a writer, that what I had to say on the page was worth saying. I only hope next time it won’t take me eight years to say it.
Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt won three prizes at the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. He describes himself as a semi-reformed punk rocker, a recovering academic and lapsed criminal lawyer.
I’ve had different conversations about prizes for a long time. It’s a subject close to my heart.
In our experience as booksellers, more fiction gets read than non-fiction. Maybe not if you were to add up all the non-fiction, but when you take out the kinds of books relevant to prizes. Fiction can be such a subjectively received way of writing. Readers don’t always trust other people’s opinions, not just with genre fiction, but with literary fiction too. So, people are delighted to get the guidance that a fiction prize gives them, especially a prize with a reputation they trust. In Australia the award with the biggest impact is the Miles Franklin, by a length of many streets. It’s the most influential. In fiction, people pay a lot of attention to the Booker Prize as well.
Non-fiction prizes work a little differently. Often, it’s more that readers didn’t know about a book until it won a prize. But non-fiction readers perhaps don’t rely on prizes in the same way because it’s factually based — they know what they’re interested in. But the way that a prize is administered and marketed makes a huge difference.
Gleebooks had a lot to do with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for a long time because we used to sell books on the night. Also, we sponsored the prize for cultural criticism, which we saw as a neglected area. I can think of two books straight away that went from nothing to quite something as a result of winning an award. Ray Parkin’s HM Bark Endeavour was one, full of meticulous drawings he did himself. It was an expensive book, but no one had heard of this 90-year-old sailor, former prisoner of war, survivor of the Burma-Thailand railway — it was a story made in heaven for the media. Another book whose fortunes were transformed was nonagenarian Holocaust survivor Jacob G Rosenberg’s East of Time, which was unknown before it won a prize.
I remember, too, the massive boost that Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu got when it won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2016. We thought we’d been selling it very well, bloody well! It won Book of the Year too, and during the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few days later we sold a couple of hundred copies out of nowhere. Lots of people were hearing about the book and it had a story they were interested in. It was a whole package and it took off.
There has been a bounce for Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini since it won the National Biography Award. It had been out for more than a year and the sales had slowed to a trickle, but a quarter of our total sales have been in the last four weeks since the prize was announced.
Judges don’t always get it right. I remember in the late 1980s when Oscar and Lucinda won most of the prizes on offer around the country. NSW was about the last one for the year and the erstwhile judges wouldn’t give it to that book because it had already won too many prizes! I challenge you to recall the book they gave it to — Final Things by John Sligo. With all respect, I don’t think it’s in print anymore, but Peter Carey’s definitely is.
So, the general consensus is the more prizes the better. But often the prize means little — except for the author of course — until the media takes up the story behind a particular book.
David Gaunt has been co-owner of Gleebooks for more than 40 years. As well as the main shop in Glebe, Gleebooks has branches in Dulwich Hill, Blackheath and will return to the foyer of the Roslyn Packer Theatre.
This story appears in Openbook summer 2021.