A pair of ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

ON Tues­day Joe Hockey will hand down a budget that by all re­ports will have the head­line writ­ers reach­ing for a sharper phrase than “ra­zor gang’’. Big swinge­ing deficits un­set­tle the arts com­mu­nity and in re­cent weeks I have heard a lot of people worry out loud about the fu­ture of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards, which at a to­tal prize pool of $600,000 are hardly small change in the PFE (present fis­cal en­vi­ron­ment: we may as well ready the acro­nym). The awards, which were one of Kevin Rudd’s bet­ter ideas, have grown from their mod­est launch in 2008 to be­come an im­por­tant cel­e­bra­tion of lo­cal lit­er­a­ture, in pres­tige sec­ond only to the Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award. This year the awards are due to be pre­sented in six cat­e­gories — fic­tion, non­fic­tion, po­etry, his­tory, young adult fic­tion and chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture — each worth $80,000 to the win­ner. This is what has people talk­ing: while en­tries closed on Fe­bru­ary 28, Arts Min­is­ter Ge­orge Bran­dis, who is re­spon­si­ble for the awards, has yet to an­nounce the judg­ing pan­els. And be­cause a vac­uum is a great in­cu­ba­tor for a con­spir­acy, there is spec­u­la­tion the judg­ing pan­els will be stacked with “con­ser­va­tives’’. Per­son­ally, I don’t care if the judges are “con­ser­va­tives” or “rad­i­cals’’ or some­thing in-be­tween, as long as they know good books when they see them. But the tim­ing of the PM’s award is more prob­lem­atic. It has been all over the shop in its half-decade life, and I thought that in 2011 there was a vague pledge to stick to a timetable that would see short­lists an­nounced in May-June and win­ners in Ju­lyAu­gust. That sort of tim­ing is still pos­si­ble this year, of course, and it is to be hoped that once the budget is out of the way, Bran­dis will let us know what’s go­ing on. As this col­umn went to press on Wed­nes­day, the ad­vice from his of­fice was: “The awards judg­ing pan­els are re­viewed each year by the prime min­is­ter and min­is­ter for the arts. An an­nounce­ment of the awards judg­ing pan­els is ex­pected soon. The date for the an­nounce­ment of the short­lists and win­ners will be de­ter­mined in due course.’’ Fair enough; we will wait to hear more. SPEAK­ING of the Miles Franklin, which is worth $60,000 to the win­ner, this year’s shortlist will be an­nounced on Thurs­day. The 11 con­tenders are: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Richard Flana­gan’s The Nar­row Road to the Deep North, Ash­ley Hay’s The Rail­way­man’s Wife, Melissa Lu­cashenko’s Mul­lumbimby, Fiona McFar­lane’s The Night Guest, Ni­co­las Roth­well’s Belo­mor, Trevor Shearston’s Game, Cory Tay­lor’s My Beau­ti­ful En­emy, Tim Win­ton’s Eyrie, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing. It’s such a strong longlist that I am as­sum­ing a shortlist of six. I think The Nar­row Road to the Deep North, Eyrie, The Swan Book and The Night Guest are near cer­tain in­clu­sions. Take your pick for the other two spots.

Quote of the week:

“The lit­er­ary novel as an art­work and a nar­ra­tive art form cen­tral to our cul­ture is in­deed dy­ing be­fore our eyes. Let me re­fine my terms: I do not mean nar­ra­tive prose fic­tion tout court is dy­ing — the kidult boy­wiz­ard­sro­man and the soft sado­masochis­tic porn fan­tasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that se­ri­ous nov­els will ei­ther cease to be writ­ten or read. But what is al­ready no longer the case is the sit­u­a­tion that ob­tained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would ar­gue through­out the sec­ond half of the last century, the lit­er­ary novel was per­ceived to be the prince of art forms, the cul­tural cap­stone and the apogee of cre­ative en­deav­our.’’

English nov­el­ist Will Self, de­liv­er­ing the Richard Hil­lary me­mo­rial lec­ture, an­nounces the death of the se­ri­ous novel (again). You can find a long ex­tract from Self’s lec­ture on The Guardian’s web­site.

May 10-11, 2014

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