The Australian / Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by young writer, which this newspaper, the breadmaker, and publisher Allen & Unwin started in 1980, has an impressive honours board.
An obscure 21-year-old from Western Australia was an early recipient, in 1981 for An Open Swimmer. Tim Winton has won a few more prizes since. Other winners include Kate Grenville, Brian Castro, Mandy Sayer, Gillian Mears, Tom Flood, Andrew McGahan, Eva Sallis (now Hornung of Dog Boy fame), Kristel Thornell, Rohan Wilson and, yes, Helen Demidenko. What I like most about the Vogel, of which I’ve been a judge for the past four years, is that it is awarded to writers we are yet to know. I’ve judged lots of awards and one of the challenges lies in the fact the authors and their works are known. I expect this is particularly true of the Miles Franklin, which I’ve yet to judge (but my hand is up!).
With the Vogel, every writer and every book-to-be is new. Reading them reminds me of the passion, intelligence and innovation of Australian literature. Winton and Grenville can deliver that any day of the week, of course, but seeing it in debut manuscripts is exciting.
The other aspect of the Vogel I value is that it is not a winner-only prize. Quite a few manuscripts that make the shortlist end up becoming books, often at the judges’ recommendation. Some are published by A&U, some by other publishers, such as Romy Ash’s Floundering (Text) and Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette), both of which are terrific.
Only this week I was delighted to see Ben Hobson’s To Become a Whale land on my desk. I liked it a lot when it was in Vogel contention last year. Another from the same shortlist that is about to come out is Anna Daniel’s comic Girl In Between. Other recent ones include Gretchen Shirm’s When the Light Falls and Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season.
And so to this year’s shortlist, which includes an unusual contender: a military history. The other four are novels, ranging in subject matter from a justice minister’s daughter who becomes pen pals with a death row inmate, to a journalist son returning to his family property, and the harvest, as his father ails, to a comingof-age story involving a 14-year-old boy and his soldier brother, to, further from home, an intriguing take on the relationship between Franz Kakfa and Max Brod.
Following are short extracts from each, essentially the opening pages. With the history one I have chosen the preface because it well explains the idea behind the book.
The prize, worth $20,000, will be announced at A&U’s Sydney offices on Wednesday, with writer and TV star Ben Law hosting ceremonies.
Good luck to all.