Campbell Newman’s attack on the Queensland premier’s prizes wasn’t about doing something better for literature in Queensland. It was a brutish, if effective, piece of political theatre, which while achieving nothing of significance for Queensland’s bottom line signalled an attack on an idea of what society is and the place of books within it. Or the non-place. It’s a political idea, and one as old as the book itself. We can expect more of this nonsense, and the next target will be writers’ festivals. Gerard Henderson, a man who went from finding reds under the bed to searching for them in bookcases, described the Sydney Writers’ Festival as ‘‘an occasion when a group of leftists invite their leftist friends’‘, a description of possible concern for guests such as John Howard and Bob Katter.
But the knee-jerk defence of book prizes can be as foolish as the knee-jerk attack. The left views even questioning the prize system as an attack on literature and the values we tend to associate with it. During the past decade of lush GST revenues, the premiers’ prize system assumed the nature of a mad arms race, with prizes proliferating and increasing in value as states competed for the richest and most prestigious prizes. Instead of simply attacking or defending prizes on political grounds, we should ask whether they are the best ways governments can use money to support literature and writers. I say all this as someone who has won and lost prizes. I am not ungrateful but my gratitude is tempered by the awareness of the cruel serendipity of prizes and the pain for those who lose. We constantly read of the writers who were made by prizes. Yet how many more made it in spite of them? And how many gave up for want of recognition?