The news arrived on Monday. Writing is dead. The novel is dead. Australian unpublished authors aged under 35 are no good, and there is no point publishing or reading anything anymore. The good old days, where we could revel in the coming-of-age story of scrappy Western Australian surfer kids, are over. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. There is nothing to see here but high standards. RIP Australian fiction.
On Monday, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript declared that there would be no winner in 2019. Annette Barlow, publisher at Allen & Unwin, was heard among certain circles to say, “I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.” For those of us left with this decision, it is important to heed Barlow’s words: we will not have new writing to read, but we do still have excellent standards to admire.
This is not, however, the first time the Vogel has rung the death knell for Australian fiction. They are, one could say, a little alarmist. 1985 was just as bad a year for young Australian writers. As was 2013. (Where were you when you heard the news?)
Established in 1980, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is awarded annually for an unpublished manuscript written by an Australian author under 35 years of age. The winner receives a handful of cash and a publishing deal with Allen & Unwin. Both of these things are extremely valuable to an author: a deal with Australia’s largest independent press creates a career and helps to get your novel into bookstores and into the hands of readers; the cash affords you time to write the next book.
A number of writers have already weighed in on the decision not to award the Vogel in 2019, highlighting not only the problematic nature of the prize’s eligibility guidelines but also the reality of this decision for emerging writers. Jane Rawson captured the sentiment of the Australian literary community, writing, “Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius?” [Side note: if you’re a published author who does not agree that mediocre books get published and win prizes all the time, it follows that your book is mediocre.]
Karen Wyld’s blistering Twitter thread provided a powerful account of the experiences of an emerging writer, concluding that the Vogel’s decision was making it harder for writers, that the eligibility guidelines for the award are ageist, and that not awarding the prize completely undermines the unpaid labour that authors put into their manuscripts to enter the award. Emily O’Grady, the 2018 winner of the Vogel, worked for close to four years on her manuscript before submitting it to the prize. So, for the Vogel prize judges to declare no winning manuscript in 2019, to not even announce a shortlist, to reveal that nothing will come from the work the authors put into their manuscripts is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Allen & Unwin and the Australian should know that this is possibly the worst example of gatekeeping by cultural intermediaries that the Australian publishing industry has managed to produce since 2013, the last time the prize refused to name a winner.
The Vogel, however, is not the only award that has the tendency to flex like this. There are three occasions in the history of the Miles Franklin Literary Award when no prize was given: in 1988 there was a brief administrative pause, but in 1973 and 1983 no title was considered worthy. A 1973 press release from Miles Franklin HQ stated, “This is the first time since the award was established in 1957 that the judges have failed to find a novel of sufficient merit among the entries to warrant the prize ... it was regrettable that more eligible published novels were not entered”. Similar disappointment was also expressed by the judging panel in 1983. However, in a speech at the 1984 Miles Franklin Award ceremony, David Davis, representing the trustees of the Miles Franklin estate, noted that although no entry was good enough in 1983, the winner of the 1984 Miles Franklin “went a long way towards rehabilitating the Award’s high standing”. The winner in 1984 was Tim Winton’s Shallows, which does not speak very well for the authors who entered the 1983 award.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a prize violating the unwritten-yet-universally-accepted “no take-backs” rule has to be that of Australian Book Review’s Gender Fellowship 2017. It was early in that year that ABR announced they would be awarding $7500 to an Australian writer to produce a long-form essay on the topic “gender in contemporary Australian creative writing in all its forms”. What an excellent initiative! However, editor of ABR Peter Rose, on International Women’s Day no less, announced that no submission to the Australian Book Review Gender Fellowship met the standards or requirements set out by the judging panel. Rose stated, “We received some interesting proposals, but none that, in the unanimous view of the selection panel — myself, Anne Edwards, Andrea Goldsmith — addressed the specific criteria in sufficiently new, focused and compelling ways”.
By not announcing a winner, a prize and its judges have an opportunity to spotlight and underline the literary standards that they claim to celebrate and uphold. Even more pointedly, this move serves to validate the past decisions that the prize has made, shoring up the prize’s own reputation rather than performing its own basic function.
Prizes operate separately to the marketplace, and the adjudication of literary prizes is usually based on vague aesthetic criteria. The ability of these prizes to hold our collective attention and engage in an exchange of symbolic capital with authors requires a collective belief — our belief — in their power to do so. This belief, this illusio, is the foundation of the power of the literary prize, and is the reason they command so much space in the cultural discourse. Much of the contemporary research into literary prize culture interrogates the balance between the role of the prize as the “sober consecrator of genius” (as Beth Driscoll says in her 2013 article ‘Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital’) and the delicate system of beliefs and symbolic rewards that maintain this power. While the real reasons why the Vogel refused to declare a winner this year or in 2013 or in 1985 are unknown, for them to cite their high literary standards as the reason is a good way to secure their in own reputation and the collective belief in their past and future decisions. What is lost in this conversation is the actual utility of the prize.
Prizes are a top-down approach to funding a small number of authors’ careers. When an author wins either the Miles Franklin or the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award or the Prime Minister’s Literary Award or the Stella Prize, the cash reward and the promotion of their work can fund this author’s writing career for at least a couple of years, giving them opportunity to write another book. Similarly, prizes for unpublished manuscripts give emerging authors the opportunity to publish and the time to dedicate to writing. Is it a perfect system? Not by any stretch. But it is the system that we have chosen? Well, no – it’s been chosen for us. But is it the system we have? Yes, and it’s not for any small group of judges to snatch away at their whim.
Dr Alexandra Dane researches contemporary book cultures, focussing on the relationship between gender, literary consecration and the influence of formal and informal literary networks.