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Abbott writes surprise ending to Literary Awards

14 December 2014 456 views One Comment

WHEN the nonfiction prize at the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards was awarded to two books, Kevin Rudd “went apeshit, to quote someone who was a judge at the time, and ordered there never again be joint winners. If we needed further evidence that we’re not in Rudd-land any more it came at the 2014 awards this week, the first under a Liberal prime minister, when three of six prizes were split.

Tony Abbott, who was in good spirits at Monday night’s awards dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria, made a show of being surprised when handed two envelopes, especially the third time, for the $80,000 fiction prize.

But not only did Abbott know of the dead heats — the rules of the awards stipulate the judges recommend shortlists and winners for the PM’s approval — he orchestrated the fiction one, insisting Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan share the spoils with the judges’ sole and unanimous choice, Melbourne novelist Steven Carroll. In another development yesterday, questions emerged over whether Abbott had read Carroll’s novel, ‘A World of Other People’, which is set in London during the Blitz. Sources told ‘The Weekend Australian’ he had yet to read it. Abbott’s office refused to comment.

The other split decisions, in the nonfiction and history categories (each category is worth $80,000) were as recommended by the judges, but the latter ignited its own controversy because of the ­inclusion of Hal GP Colebatch’s anti-union book ‘Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II’.

Abbott’s intervention in the fiction prize, revealed by ‘The Australian’, took everyone by surprise, not least the judges, who were in the dark until the announcement.

There was immediate grumbling, but confidentiality agreements deterred the judges from public comment. Until, that is, poet Les Murray, a more or less untouchable figure in Australian literature, came out with guns blazing. Murray, a judge on the fiction and poetry panels, said he felt he had been “treated like a fool. “It was nasty the way it was done on the night … they went behind the scenes and worked a swiftie.

He also dismissed Flanagan’s novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, as “pretentious and stupid. Murray revealed the chairwoman of the judging panel, publisher ­Louise Adler, was the sole champion of the book, but ultimately lined up with the others to recommend Carroll’s novel. Murray wasn’t alone for long. Histor­ian Ann Moyal, a judge on the nonfiction and history panels who dissented from the decision on Colebatch’s book, also made her dissatisfaction public. On Thursday, the PM’s office asked the judges to keep their thoughts to themselves, which was akin to closing the stable door after the horse had reached the next state.

Yet the overall result was that for the first time in their seven-year history, people were talking about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which had failed to gain traction despite being, at $600,000 in total prizemoney, among the world’s most lucrative book prizes.

While the lead-up organisation was a bit chaotic (authors learning of their shortlisting by press release, for example), the awards night itself was the most sophisticated and successful yet, boosted by live television coverage hosted by Ray Martin, the reading of a jovial letter from Clive James and the Prime Minister’s engaged presence. (Last year, Rudd dispatched his arts minister, Tony Burke, to officiate.) Abbott’s speech was generous and included the announcement of a new industry group, the Book Council of Australia, to promote Australian writing and reading.

And as the organisers of the Man Booker Prize have long known, a little controversy can produce a lot of publicity. Judges breaking ranks, divulging what went on behind closed doors, is pure gold. Whether by design or accident, this year’s PM’s awards had their Booker moment. They even trended on Twitter.

That Abbott acted to reward a writer who two months earlier said the government’s commitment to coal made him feel ashamed to be Australian fuelled the gossip and speculation. In Twitter terms, it was a WTF? development.

Was the Prime Minister being politically canny by bringing a critic inside the tent, or had he been genuinely moved by Flanagan’s novel, which explores a horror story of Australian history: the construction by Allied prisoners-of-war of the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II?

Abbott had not read the novel at the time of Flanagan’s Booker triumph on October 14 and did not publicly congratulate him at the time. At a press conference two days later he said he was “pleased another Australian has won the Man Booker Prize. He added: “I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the book but it must be pretty good or it wouldn’t have won. Indeed, this may have been another factor in Abbott’s decision: how would it have looked if he had snubbed the Booker winner?

Asked about Flanagan’s criticism of the government’s environmental policies, made during a BBC interview, Abbott said: “I don’t spend my time commenting on literature and I will leave the litterateurs to make their comments on politics. Two months later he made a dramatic comment on literature, overruling his own hand-picked judging panel.

It is understood Abbott read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, which draws on the PoW experience of Flanagan’s father Archie, in the weeks leading up to the awards. On the night he revealed he had written to Flanagan to offer his congratulations. An exchange ensued, with the author expressing the view that “too often in Australian politics the arts are seen as the province of the Left, and arts and artists are therefore to be shunned by the Right. “He noted, Abbott told the 300-strong audience of writers and publishers, “that this is not the norm in most political cultures and hoped that at some time it might cease to be so in ours. Well, that’s my hope, too.

Flanagan said he commended the Prime Minister “for lending this event the authority of his ­office simply by being here and for “continuing these prizes at a time of austerity.

“These are not small things but large symbols of what a civilised society should be — one in which culture is not understood as an economic utility, or a political embarrassment, but as the necessary nub of who were are.

Given such sentiments it is paradoxical that the awards immediately spawned an old-fashioned Left-Right split, with historians such as Peter Stanley and Stuart Macintyre decrying the decision to recognise Colebatch’s book. Their outrage was exacerbated by Colebatch’s long acceptance speech, which had the feel of a political broadcast.

“If the history-culture wars break out again, last night may be seen as one of the frontier clashes that presaged that renewed ­conflict, Stanley said.

Former Fairfax columnist Mike Carlton, who had been shortlisted for his naval history ‘First Victory 1914’, went ballistic, which left him open to accusations of sour grapes. Colebatch’s book, he said, was “an ideological tract that includes errors, hearsay, exaggeration and in some cases, sheer fiction and fantasy.

“History it is not, he wrote on the Crikey website. “Colebatch is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.

The seeds of just such a political row were sown when Abbott dismissed all of the previous year’s judges and selected his own arbiters. The nonfiction and history panels were chaired by conservative political commentator Gerard Henderson and included Peter Coleman, the former Liberal MP and father-in-law of Peter Costello, who edited conservative journal ‘Quadrant’ for 20 years until the late 1980s. The other three judges were Moyal, historian and author Ross Fitzgerald and psychiatrist and author Ida Lichter.

Colebatch’s book was published by ‘Quadrant’ after being rejected by several other publishers. The other winner of the history prize was historian Joan Beaumont for ‘Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War’, which has been widely acclaimed.

There was also a strong ‘Quadrant’ connection on the fiction and poetry panels, chaired by Adler. Murray is the magazine’s longstanding poetry editor and poet Jamie Grant is a frequent contributor. The other two judges were poet Robert Gray, who is close to Murray, and filmmaker Margie Bryant. (In yet another twist, Bryant recused herself from the poetry decision because she felt underqualified.)

‘The Weekend Australian’ understands that Coleman was influential in deciding the composition of both panels. The presence of three poets on the fiction panel has led to some speculation over their attitude to Flanagan’s book, which takes its title from a work by 17th-century haiku poet Basho.

While the official judges’ report says the novel is “grand in both its ambitions and achievement, Murray spoke of it with contempt. He made it clear the judges not only did not recommend “the ­Tasmanian fellow but disdained his book.

The most hostile review of ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ yet published was by English poet Craig Raine in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ a month before the Booker announcement.

Raine took specific aim at the poetic aspirations of the novel: “For Richard Flanagan, ‘poetry’ means exaggerated imagery, an uncertain, elevated tone, and ­generous rights of repetition …

As Abbott put it, Flanagan’s book must have been “pretty good to win the Booker. Yet it is not the first time an Australian Booker winner has been passed over by judges back home. Peter Carey’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ won the 2000 Booker and just about every prize going in Australia, but the judges of the Miles Franklin Literary Award plumped for Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Dark Palace’ instead. Flanagan, too, missed out on the Miles Franklin, which went to ‘All the Birds, Singing’, by English writer Evie Wyld.

There were also suggestions this week that the size of the prize, $80,000 tax free, made it easier for judges to recommend joint winners, to spread the largesse. As Flanagan pointed out, Australia Council research shows the average annual income of an Australian writer is $11,000. He said he would donate his $40,000 to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, observing that “the difference between my illiterate grandparents and me is two generations of free state education and literacy.

He ended on a note that perhaps all sides would agree on, saying that if his donated prizemoney helped just one indigenous child become a writer, “then I will think this prize has rewarded not just me, but us all. And for that we will all owe this prize an immense debt of gratitude.

Stephen Romei, ‘The Weekend Australian’, December 13, 2014

One Comment »

  • Susan Wyndham said:

    LET’S TRY THAT AGAIN

    Can the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards fight back from last year’s shemozzle? Tony Abbott and Arts Minister George Brandis sent out an oddly timed press release on Christmas Eve inviting entries for the 2015 awards (closing date February 28). This suggests an intention to announce the winners of the $600,000 prizemoney before year’s end.

    The 2014 presentation dinner in December, four months after judging ended, had a low-priority feeling. And despite divisions on two judging panels (and Abbott’s heavy-handed intervention) that resulted in joint winners of the fiction and history awards, most judges are willing to step up again, though they have not had formal confirmation. History/non-fiction chair Gerard Henderson and Peter Coleman, Ross Fitzgerald and Ida Lichter have agreed to return. The fifth judge, historian Ann Moyal, told ‘Undercover’ last year she would not judge again because the others had worked “as a team” and insisted on including Hal G.P. Colebatch’s “poorly constructed and poorly written” ‘Australia’s Secret War’ as history co-winner with Joan Beaumont’s ‘Broken Nation’. Moyal confirmed this week, “I am not staying on and nothing would induce me to”; she hopes a younger historian will replace her.

    Louise Adler is expected to chair the fiction/poetry panel again with Margie Bryant, Jamie Grant, Robert Gray and Les Murray. Last year the three men, all poets, backed Steven Carroll’s ‘A World of Other People’ as the panel’s recommended winner, and were outraged when Abbott named Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ as co-winner. Rather than resigning, however, says Grant, they have decided to stay on if not “dismissed for our failings as judges”, rather than “concede power to somebody who values politics above literary excellence”.

    Susan Wyndham, ‘Undercover’, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24-25, 2015, Spectrum, p 27.

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