Well, here we are again: it will be Christmas before we know it and no word on the book prizes that should have claims to being the nation’s most important, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It’s a regrettable re-run of last year, when the shortlists were announced on October 19 and the winners on December 8, by which time most of the books were a bit long in the tooth. Having said that, the big night itself, presided over by Tony Abbott, was the best since the awards were inaugurated by Kevin Rudd in 2008, full of colour and movement and with a dash of the sort of controversy — the prime ministerial intervention in the fiction prize — that has made the Man Booker Prize what it is. But the ongoing uncertainty over the future of the PM’s awards is unsatisfactory.
I appreciate that new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has barely had time to dust George Brandis’s bookshelves, but even so I hoped for more when I inquired about the awards this week. I had heard the shortlists would be announced on October 7, but that date came and went. A spokesperson for the minister confirmed there would be a delay, again, but beyond that had little to add: “The date of the awards event has been postponed and further details will be announced at the earliest opportunity. The shortlisted books for each category are expected to be announced in the near future.’’ When I followed-up to ask if that statement could at least be taken as an assurance there would be a 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the response was: “Further details about the awards will be announced at the earliest opportunity.’’ That was the state of play when this column went to print. The awards, if they happen, are worth $80,000 to the winners (and $5000 to the unsuccessful shortlistees) in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history, young adult fiction and children’s books. It’s a lot sunnier in Queensland. The Queensland Literary Awards, scrapped by Campbell Newman in 2012, are well and truly back on track, thanks to a grassroots campaign that kept them alive in the first place and now the support of Premier (and Arts Minister) Annastacia Palaszczuk. This year’s winners were announced last night at the State Library of Queensland, with local academic Libby Connors collecting the big one, a new award that recognises a “work of state significance”, worth $25,000. She won for Warrior, her book about colonial indigenous warrior Dundalli.
The other awards, each worth $10,000, were dispersed far and wide. Fremantle author Joan London won the fiction prize for The Golden Age, Melbourne writer Christos Tsiolkas took home the short-story award for his provocative collection Merciless Gods, and the bard of Bunyah in northern NSW, Les Murray, won the poetry prize for Waiting for the Past. Melbourne dominated the nonfiction categories with writer and word nerd Don Watson winning the nonfiction award for The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia and Monash academic Carolyn Holbrook collecting the history prize for ANZAC: The Unauthorised Biography.
The young adult fiction and children’s books awards went respectively to Sydney writer John Larkin for The Pause and Fremantle-based Meg McKinlay for A Single Stone. Finally, the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished indigenous writer, the previous winners of which include Samuel Wagan Watson, Larissa Behrendt, Tara June Winch and Ellen van Neerven, went to Andrew Booth for The First Octoroon or Report on an Experimental Child. Congratulations to all. Quote of the week: ‘’That was a bad political decision.’’ Campbell Newman on ditching the literary awards, in Gavin King’s just-published authorised biography, Can Do: Campbell Newman and the Challenge of Reform, which some bookstores are refusing to stock.