The los­ing game of writ­ing books to win

Helen Garner pon­ders the ter­ri­ble anx­i­eties of the lit­er­ary prize cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

NO doubt, be­cause I am as­so­ci­ated with the Stella Prize, peo­ple will ex­pect me to jus­tify the ex­is­tence of an award for women’s writ­ing. But I’m not go­ing to go there. I’d rather talk about writ­ing and how ghastly it is, about the bizarre ef­fects of prizes on peo­ple’s idea of their own worth, and about the un­de­ni­able fact that ev­ery girl who writes needs a bucket of cash to be thrown over her at least once in her life, so she can sol­dier on, and even feel for a while that it’s been worth the tor­ture.

I spend a lot of time tear­ing sen­tences out of news­pa­pers and past­ing them on to cards. I do it to en­ter­tain my­self and to amuse the friends I post them to. A while back, in some ran­dom pub­li­ca­tion, I came across this des­per­ate lit­tle dec­la­ra­tion: ‘‘ I’m in­sult­ing me.’’

I tore it out at once and swept the glue stick across its back. But the re­sult­ing post­card is still sit­ting on my desk. I can’t think of any­one I can send it to who would get the joke. Is it a joke? Or is it a scream of rage from a shame­ful part of some­one’s psy­che, from the quiv­er­ing, ag­grieved ego?

Prizes are rather like wills. Ter­ri­ble anx­i­eties clus­ter around them. They can pro­voke in peo­ple the most ap­palling be­hav­iour. They thrust peo­ple back into their in­fan­tile selves.






Many years ago a book of mine was short­listed for a pre­mier’s award. In those days I didn’t know the win­ner is usu­ally no­ti­fied be­fore the event. I thought my book was good. I thought I had a chance of win­ning. I went out and bought my­self a pair of high heels. On the night of the award din­ner I was sit­ting at a ta­ble with an­other short­listed writer, try­ing to eat and drink and be charm­ing while se­cretly pre­par­ing my­self to get to the dais in heels, should the prize be mine. The an­nounce­ment was made. The other writer had won. As I re­ar­ranged my fea­tures into a smile of in­sou­ciant joy and sin­cere con­grat­u­la­tion, I glanced across at my pub­lisher and saw with a shock that her whole face had turned black.

It took me 30 years to un­der­stand that what I saw on her face that night was my own pro­jected rage. It is so shame­ful to put your­self for­ward and not be cho­sen. Most of us (ex­cept Sal­man Rushdie flounc­ing out of the Booker) are able to con­ceal the wound, at least un­til we get home. We can find enough grace in our­selves to get out the door and into the car be­fore we let our faces re­lax. But there al­ways is a wound.

When I be­gan to write non­fic­tion books, I started sell­ing a lot more copies but stopped win­ning prizes. Once I re­alised that what I was now pub­lish­ing was ter­mi­nally get­ting up prize judges’ noses, I im­posed upon my­self a se­vere dis­ci­pline. Year af­ter year, as the prize sea­sons came and went, I sang to my­self and to any other in­ter­ested per­son, ‘‘ I don’t care. I won’t care. What care I? Tra la!’’ And then I would turn the page of the books sec­tion, my eye would fall upon a short­list that I was not on, and my guts would fall down an el­e­va­tor shaft.

The trou­ble starts at the mo­ment when you get the crazy idea that not win­ning a prize means you’re no good. It doesn’t mean that at all. I have been a mem­ber of sev­eral judg­ing panels. I have wit­nessed the strange dy­namic of their func­tion­ing. Forces that out­siders can’t even con­ceive of are at work in those meet­ing rooms. Un­der all their beau­ti­ful in­tel­li­gent rea­son­ing, prize judges, like peo­ple in ev­ery sphere of ac­tion, are driven by un­con­scious

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