The abolition of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards

The abolition of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards represents a harbinger of things to come. Not just in that state, though you’d have to say that Campell Newman’s decision to cut a major book award bang in the middle of the National Year of Reading does not bode well for arts funding in Australia’s north.

No, one rather suspects that we’re also getting a preview of the priorities of Tony Abbott, Prime Minister.

When right-wing parties win elections, arts administrators generally repeat to each other a piece of consolatory folk wisdom, along the lines that conservative governments fund culture more generously than their Labor counterparts. But if that were ever true, it rested upon a patrician sensibility in which certain manifestations of high culture (opera, ballet, etc) were understood as ritualistic reinforcements of class power: thus an orchestra, say, might be subsidised because its performances featured on the social calendar of those people who traditionally bankrolled the Liberal Party, even as experimental poetry might be allowed to wither.

In any case, Tony Abbott’s a politician of a different stamp. The right-wing Catholic tradition from which he emerged always had a frosty relationship with the (deeply sectarian) old money Tories who dominated the Liberal Party of the past. Abbott’s not a born-to-rule grandee but an activist and culture warrior. Like many of the new generation of Liberals, he’s spent his career chasing the Left out of what he sees as its institutional footholds. That seems to be at least part of the reason why Newman shut down Queensland’s awards – as the Oz helpfully reminds us, they ‘attracted controversy last year when former al-Qa’ida trainee David Hicks was shortlisted for the non-fiction award for his Guantanamo Bay: My Journey.’

Abbott’s previously made clear his disdain for modern art – he famously described the paintings at parliament house as ‘avant-garde crap’. For many conservatives, Australia’s literary infrastructure essentially serves as a giant teat suckling all manner of whinging and carping environmentalists, lesbians and Gramscian Marxists. You can see how the argument goes: Why not abolish the lot? Writers never vote Liberal anyway!

Unfortunately, the supposed Leftism of the literary world is more apparent than real. Indeed, that’s one of the difficulties we now confront. In a context where widespread cuts are on the agenda, can we actually articulate a defence of art?

It’s a question worth pondering, precisely because the arguments that you most often hear from writers about the value of literature provide little basis to oppose Newman’s cuts. Worse still, they go a long way to legitimate them.

Most obviously, since the 1980s, many have embraced, almost unconsciously, the approach pioneered by Labor in the Hawke/Keating years, in which art funding is justified by framing culture as an industry. That is, in the era of economic rationalism, the ALP moved away from the mushiness of aesthetics to talk instead about how many people worked in the arts, and how much value they pumped into the nation’s coffers. For some, even on the Left, this approach was a way to get a place on the big table, to talk the Serious Language of Serious People, a hard-headed discourse of dollars and cents that could be sold to cabinet much more credibly than nebulous claims about creativity.

Today, though, you can see where that leads.

While the book industry employs plenty of people, most of the revenue comes from titles that will never feature on awards shortlists. The literary end of the spectrum isn’t a big money-spinner. State-based prizes generated debates and discussions about books but it’s doubtful that they make much of a difference to the economy, at least not in any direct sense.

In any case, because an industry-based explicitly accepts the logic of the market, it doesn’t provide any basis to challenge the cost-cutting that mandates these attacks on the arts. Today, all the Serious People agree that budgets must balance. So what then do we say to them?

Nor is there much help forthcoming from the other traditional Leftish claim about arts funding, the one that emphasizes the role of literature in fostering a ‘national culture’, ‘letting us tell our own stories’, ‘giving voice to the Australian experience’, yadda yadda yadda.

This is, in many ways, a zombie argument, in that the theoretical assumptions that once underpinned it are all pretty much dead but the rhetoric still stalks the earth – we heard a lot of it during the wretched debate about parallel importation. In the era of Facebook and Youtube, it’s by no means clear what a ‘national culture’ is or why it should be defended.

That is, if the old cultural nationalist paradigm around bush ballads and the Legend of the 90s and all the rest of it ever made any sense, it clearly doesn’t today. It’s symptomatic of the problems inherent in the argument that the cultural baggage of the old nationalist Left has now been embraced, pretty much holus-bolus, by the far Right (think of Katter’s Australian Party). Indeed, there’s a pretty clear lineage from today’s conservative populist mobilisation against urban elites (which also probably underpins Newman’s abolition of the Prem Lit Awards) back to the holy texts of ‘progressive’ cultural nationalism (think of Lawson’s ‘The Uncultured Rhymer To His Cultured Critics’).

Where, then, does that leave us? Here’s a few scattered thoughts.

We need to build popular support. That seems obvious but too often the responses to looming cuts in the sector begin and end with attempts to convince those making the decisions. What we need, instead, is public recognition of the value of culture, sufficient that ordinary people will rally to defend it.

That might seem like a tall order but there are reasons for optimism. Reading is, according to the ABS, a favoured leisure activity for about 60 per cent of Australians over the age of 15. The recent Books Alive survey claimed that in the week before the research, some 67 per cent of adults had read for pleasure. Writers’ festivals draw extraordinary numbers and are popping up all over the country, while creative writing courses are one of the biggest growth areas in Australian universities.

The people who care about books are out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can articulate why literature is of importance or why reading is more than simply an enjoyable pastime.

That’s the challenge for those who work in the field. There’s an urgent need for a new defence of literature, arguments that are neither philistine populism nor patronizing elitism but instead make the case why writing should matter to ordinary people.

It’s something we’ve traditionally been very bad at. We need to get much better, very quickly.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I would have liked the newly formed national body, Writing Australia, to be collaborating with the ASA and other orgs to strengthen support for Australian writers and to celebrate their crucial role in our lives… Maybe when it has been around a little longer it can join in these sorts of debates.

  2. The disdain of LNP for arts and science threatens planetary health and human social cohesion.Unfortunately Queenslanders’ anger with Julia G’s broken promise and Anna’s sell off of public holdings will come back to haunt them.

  3. I wonder about this. Is part of the difficulty the fact that trying to argue why art matters so quickly slides into the abstract? Is the key to making a successful argument for the practical issues (like arts funding) that we need to start articulating why literature and the arts matter in a specifically concrete way without reducing it simply to a discussion about economics? Because I wonder if that’s not the reason so many in arts admin embraced the whole economic framing – it gives a kind of tangibility and order and practicality to these practices that usually get discussed and defended on a totally different plane. Unfortunately, it also reduces them to mere commodities.

    I think I just rephrased a lot of the things you just said. Oh well!

  4. ‘Philistine’ is not an apt word in the context of the Qld Government (Campbell Newman’s?) decision re the Literary Awards. Had they continued, I can only wonder what sort of award it might have been, and who might have judged the awards (other than Campbell Newman himself). Time to mobilise and move on for the Qld arts community, and time for the nation’s art communities to heed the warning and rethink the future too, as this blog suggests. As it stood, and as they stand still, Premiers’ Literary Awards, although deserved recognition and payola for individual recipients, were and are more attuned to the culture of corporate celebrity, rather than representative of the many many thousands of Australians who write and read and produce and discuss and participate in the living and developing and continually burgeoning print and electronic literary fields. That’s where the story lies.

  5. Thea Astley , Kevin Hart , David Malouf ,Judith Wright , Barbara Blackman , Barrie Reid , Judith Rodriguez , Tom Shapcott , and many others / all Queenslanders , all great writers – Queensland LNP , what are you thinking ?

  6. Surely there are a hundred other less deserving expenses Campbell Newman could have dispensed with rather than the Literary Award?
    Having said that I’m not sure there is a material base for a campaign to oppose the cut and furthermore there is more than a whiff of cultural elitism surrounding the whole idea.
    How many of the 67% of adults who read for pleasure read ‘Literature’ and not the latest Twilight installment or Jamie Oliver cook book? Would it not be the case that you would need even a large minority reading the type of works that are considered for the Literary Award for a campaign to be viable?
    Furthermore,wouldn’t mobilizing the majority of readers to support ‘Literature’ involve basically telling them they have bad taste and aren’t smart enough to appreciate what is supposedly really good for them?

    1. Well, you could make that exact argument against the Left per se. Is it less culturally elitist to suggest people read, say, Capital, a book most people find more challenging than literary fiction?

  7. Well no, because reading Capital might actually assist them in improving their lot and that of rhe society they live in.

      1. Well if you take a non-materialist view then yes I guess it is…
        I mysef haven’t read Capital but I think everyone should who can. I just don’t see how encouraging readers to engage politically is the same as tellingthem the’yre dim because they like the Twilight series and the read some qwality fiction.

  8. Jeepers! Even the children’s book features a dog that develops “rich and meaningful relationship”…I rest my case!

  9. But more seriously, surely a campaign requires a modicum of support and I don’t see how u can reach out to a popular base without telling how they should be spending their leisure time.

  10. More seriously, this is a weird anti-intellectual workerism.
    Look, the Left has never had any qualms about telling people how they should spend their leisure time. What does urging folks to come to meetings or protests entail, if not that? I can’t see how there’s any difference between suggesting they read political tracts and suggesting they read literary novels — unless you seriously think that literature has no value, which is just silly Philistinism and has nothing to do with the tradition of, say, Marx (who, at one stage, waned to be a poet).
    Culture is how we make sense of the world. That’s why art, literature, etc, has always been a central part of the Left’s project.
    I do agree with you that one shouldn’t campaign for literature by simply hectoring people in a sneering fashion. That was, after all, a central part of this post — an insistence that the Left needs to find new, democratic ways to talk about writing.
    As for a ‘modicum of support’, literature might not compete with film or tv in terms of audiences. But very large numbers of Australians do read, at some point in their lives, literary novels.

      1. My point is that there is no or little similiarity between telling someone they should come to a rally or read a Marxist tract and telling to bin the Harry Potter and pickup the Miles Franklin winner.

        1. First, no-one’s telling anybody to ‘bin’ anything!

          Second, since when are these things – rally, TV, AFL game, Harry Potter and Amanda Lohrey – mutually exclusive?

  11. Given that even capital C culture is so thoroughly driven by economic considerations I’m not sure how relevant the cultural elitist argument is anymore – there are various degrees of cultural capital but there just isn’t some pristine elitist autonomy separate from the rest of society anymore.

    I guess part of the point being made is that the fight over the whole realm of cultural value and its incommensurability with capitalist economics has been fought largely as a kind of defensive battle to preserve. But if the challenge is to pose a forward-looking alternative that has popular support I’m wondering about this being a fight purely in the realm of literature and reading. For example, if the old cultural nationalist position is no longer viable what is the broader conception of cultural value that underpins such a fight? And just on this, I’ve always had the impression that Overland’s history had a stake in cultural nationalism (is this impression mistaken?) so what has replaced it now?

  12. Language is the base for all literature, and, to revert to old school, even Stalin understood how language escaped the superstructure, so the fight is over the control of the narrative about the value of such cultural forms as literature, art etc. That value in the case of literature remains to be articulated anew, and, as I understood it, that was the closing position of this blog.

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