The losing game of writing books to win
Helen Garner ponders the terrible anxieties of the literary prize culture
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