Because we ran our Books of the Year last week this is the first chance I’ve had to make some comments about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which were announced in Sydney on December 14. I’m inclined to like Malcolm Turnbull but his performance at the awards left a lot to be desired. Indeed it was emblematic of the half-arsedness — pardon the French but it’s the mot juste in this case — with which the awards have been treated in recent years. It was good that Turnbull turned up, but his speech was the strangest yet by a PM at this event, and that’s saying something. He was introduced by Louise Adler, head of Melbourne University Publishing and chairwoman of the fiction and poetry judging panel, and seemed to take exception to her light-hearted description of the venue in inner-Sydney Redfern as “grungy”. “It is hard to compete with marvellous Melbourne but we do our best,’’ he said, before launching into a rambling discussion of the two eastern cities, which was odd given he must have known he was about to hand the $80,000 fiction prize to a writer from Fremantle, Joan London, for a novel set in Perth, The Golden Age. When he finally worked his way around to literature, the first book he mentioned was one by his wife, Lucy. He then dismissed Adler’s call — and bravo to her for having the guts to raise the issue — to rethink plans to scrap the parallel importation restrictions that protect Australian writers and publishers. “Even if territorial copyright were to crumble”, he said, Australian writers would “stand on their merits” and their works would “sing across the world and across the ages”. That just sounds glib. The PM handed out two of the six awards, for fiction and poetry (which went to Geoff Lehmann for Poems 1957-2013) and then departed, leaving Arts Minister Mitch Fifield in charge and the writers vying for the nonfiction, history, young adult fiction and children’s fiction prizes to reflect on their standing in the prime ministerial mind. For the record, Ross Coulthart’s Charles Bean, a biography of the war historian, and David Horner’s history of ASIO, The Spy Catchers, shared the history prize, Darleen Bungey ( John Olsen: An Artist’s Life) and Michael Wilding ( Wild Bleak Bohemia) shared the nonfiction prize, Claire Zorn won the YA prize for The Protected and David Metzenthen and illustrator Michael Camilleri took home the children’s fiction prize for One Minute’s Silence.
But it was what happened the next day that really left a sour taste. The government used the mid-year economic review to kill off the fledgling Book Council of Australia, an advisory group devised by former PM Tony Abbott and his arts minister George Brandis. Of itself, this may not be a terrible decision, but for the government to retain the $6 million gouged from the Australia Council to fund the stillborn Book Council is poor form. Say I borrowed $5 from you because I had no cash on me and wanted to buy a sandwich but then decided I didn’t want a sandwich after all. Well, I’d give you your $5 back. It may not be a lot of money in the context of the $52m the government plans to save from the arts budget over the next four years, but that $6m would go a long way in the writing world and the decision not to return it, along with the expected abolition of territorial copyright, is causing dismay and anger in a community that had hoped to find an ally in the urbane Turnbull. Adler, who was to head the Book Council, was succinct: “The Turnbull government’s respect for our literary culture seems to be less than wholehearted.” Expect to see a lot of activism from authors and publishers in the new year. Quote of the year: Lots of contenders, but I’m going with Harper Lee’s note in March to a reporter who wrote to her seeking an interview about her novel Go Set a Watchman. “Go away.”
Happy new year to all.