The Miles Franklin is presented next week. But are prizes really good for the literary culture? asks Richard Flanagan
LITERARY prizes exist to give dog shows a good name. Most literary prizes get it mostly wrong. No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist – Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively – as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs. Such a roll-call illustrates a simple truth: prizes need writers, but writers don’t need prizes.
National prizes are often a barometer of bourgeois bad taste. Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer for Gone with the Wind, but Faulkner, arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century, was garlanded with prizes in the US only after winning the Nobel in 1949, many years after his greatest works had been penned. Borges notoriously lost the Argentinian equivalent of the Miles Franklin to a sweeping novel of the pampas and gauchos in 1941. Borges’s entry? Perhaps one of the most revolutionary books of the 20th century, The Garden of Forking Paths.
The problem, perhaps, isn’t literary prizes but the way we take them too seriously. Australia, a sporting nation, continues to labour under the sorry illusion that, as Helen Demidenko so poignantly put it the night she won the Miles Franklin in 1995, ”the best book had to win”.
But what wins in literary prizes often tends not to be books at all but human follies. It’s like a grand final decided not by the game but by The Footy Show panel meeting in secret. Prize juries are notorious for dividing passionately over two books that excite readers and, unable to resolve their differences, endorse a bland third book, too inoffensive to excite anything other than indifference. In book prizes, wooden spooners can win.
Then there are the predictable vanities and passions of judges, and the dirty secret of book prizes is the vendettas, paybacks and payoffs that often go with them. Most judges are fair-minded people. But hate, conceit and jealousy are no less human attributes than wisdom, judgment and knowledge.
Book prizes end up competing with each other and with other public events for publicity. They seek attention through anointing a new writer, by endorsing a popular writer who will get their prize on the front page, by finding a writer who speaks of a category that is fashionable. Sometimes these goals coincide with great writing. But not always and sometimes not at all.
And like the national debt of Greece, book prizes have so multiplied there are now prizes for almost everything and almost none has value or excites any interest.
I am not arguing against prizes. I am arguing against taking them too seriously. The elevation and proliferation of literary prizes have obscured the slow erosion of our own literary culture – indeed, they have arisen with it – and disguise the near complete lack of support by our society of literary culture in general.
If awarding prizes is when we have a discussion about books and when good books are given a larger public space, prizes have a role. But if we believe that only the winning book has virtue and no others, then the prize has failed. And if we think prize culture is a way of stimulating and supporting a book culture of value, we are deluded.
This error takes on a political hue, which is lamentable. The right too often depicts prizes as a conspiracy of the elites and the rich, which is news to most writers, who struggle to survive on incomes that are barely taxable.
On a discounted paperback, a writer can expect to make between 3 per cent and 5 per cent – or between about 54¢ and 90¢ a book. A successful novel that may take three or four years to write now sells 20,000 copies. Do the maths. See if the result equals an elite of any type recognisable outside the rabid imaginings of opinion columnists paid in six-figure sums.
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?
I don’t wish to demean any of the fine writers who have won, nor disparage the many good people who are organisers and judges of prizes. But it would be good if we recognised that prizes do not a literary culture make, that the best writers do not always win, nor the worst lose, and very often the most important books go unrecognised.
Australia does less to support its writers than any developed country I am aware of. Though the publishing industry generates more than $2 billion a year, the total federal government spending on writers through grants is less than $2 million. Compare this with the more than $128 million spent on tax breaks for the non-profitable film industry.
The reforms of the book industry advanced by Kim Carr last year were a very good step in the right direction, and it is hoped they will be acted on rather than lost in the flailing of the drowning Gillard government.
If we want to see writing flourish, if we want to see more female and indigenous writers, there is much work to be done. But the place to start is perhaps not an excessive obsession with prizes.
Writing is the toughest of games and it is getting ever harder. The retreat of universities from Australian literature (and literature in general) is beyond shameful, but it is reflective of a general contempt that Australia, one of the most conformist Western societies, holds for those whose work at its best brushes against the grain of received opinion.
A century ago, Henry Lawson advised anyone foolish enough to wish to be a writer in Australia to reach for a revolver. It sometimes feels not a lot has changed. Writing rarely brings writers money or even respect. If it offers a certain freedom, it is one edged for most with loneliness, poverty and despair.
We face a very difficult time as a literary culture. The determined, dreary excitement around the digitisation not just of books but much more significantly of retailing, hides the grimmer reality of cultural power being dominated by two or three global molochs that have no interest in literature and every interest in increased profit.
Writers, most marvellously, continue to write. But without larger support their work will wither. And literary prizes will simply look ever more like tombstones for the dead.
• Richard Flanagan’s most recent book is a collection of non-fiction, And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?