At a Melbourne Writer’s festival panel in 2013, author Carrie Tiffany disclosed that her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, had been rejected by ‘many Australian publishers’. This book picked up The Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, launching Tiffany’s career as a novelist. Same early-rejections-then-won-a-prize story with Graeme Simsion’s internationally bestselling The Rosie Project. Other unpublished manuscript awards have recently brought us Favel Parrett’s Past The Shallows, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat & Light, Christine Piper’s After Darkness, Oliver Mol’s Lion Attack and many other titles. There’s a wide reading palate here. Something for every reader to love. And probably also a book here for every reader not to love. Such is the nature of reading.
These unpublished manuscript awards pluck emerging writers from relative obscurity, turn the heads of publishers, launch literary careers with fanfare. In the acknowledgements of Foreign Soil, I credit Francesca Rendle-Short, Sam Twyford-Moore and Paddy O’Reilly, the judges of the Victorian Premiers Award for an unpublished manuscript: who in selecting Foreign Soil, made the bravest of decisions where others may well not have. This acknowledgement was carefully and painstakingly worded: what Indyk said recently in his Sydney Review of Books article about the commercial element of literary prizes is true, at least in part. Nobody wants a book or manuscript to win a prize and not be published or sell well. It isn’t good for anyone in the industry – publishers, booksellers, writers, judges, readers – least of all the profile of the prize itself.
I felt that in selecting a work not as easily accessible as the other shortlisted entries, written in patois, broken English and many different vernaculars, with challenging subject matter and primarily black characters, the judges had paid little regard to the commercial viability of Foreign Soil. This was an often-cited reason publishers, both explicitly and by implication, had given for rejecting the book. Indeed, at a recent writing conference, an Australian publisher from an independent publishing house boldly declared that diverse literature simply ‘doesn’t sell’ in Australia.
The judges of this first award were not diverse in a cultural sense, but in terms of their openness to content and form: one is a master of short fiction, another has a strong interest in hybrid forms, the third is well known for diverse reading tastes and an interest in exciting new writing.
There’s been an outcry that Giramondo publisher Ivor Indyk was taking aim at ‘women’s writing’ when he used the term middlebrow recently in Sydney Review of Books to describe the kind of Australian work being awarded prizes. Some have pointed out that this the term has been used for decades to denigrate writing by women. But I’m not so sure this assessment of intent holds.
Given Giramondo’s list, Indyk could just as easily have meant: structurally linguistically and thematically accessible. Sure of genre. Safe. Not overtly confronting or politically engaged. Comfortable and palatable in subject matter. Essentially, writing that is easily marketable to the reading masses. Books your average reader on the street would have no qualms devouring on their lunchbreak. Which doesn’t automatically mean a book contains bad writing, or is not literary or prize-worthy. It also doesn’t automatically mean the book is written by a woman. But we should indeed be alarmed if, in 2015, the vast majority of books winning our major literary prizes happen to tick all these boxes.
We are told time and again – often by white female commentators – that women are more likely to write this kind of literature, and to write what’s been pigeonholed as ‘domestic fiction’ (which is not necessarily the same thing). We are told that to rail against this kind of work is to fundamentally disadvantage women writers.
This is only part of the story. Every time I hear this argument made, and it is mostly made without reservation, I am reminded of just how narrow the conversation around women’s writing in Australia has become. Toni Morrison once pointed out:
Black women write differently from white women. This is the most marked difference of all those combinations of black and white, male and female. It is not so much that women write differently from men, but that black women write differently than white women.
And we haven’t even started talking about queer literature, or the kind of work being written by women with disabilities in this country. My God, so many intersectionality conversations Australian literature has not even started to have!
There are certain questions we should perhaps be asking of our literary prizes. How is an award treasured as our ‘most prestigious’ literary award renowned for its mostly conservative shortlists? How can our major prize for the best book written by a woman in Australia have so far only been won by white, tertiary-educated women with academic backgrounds, whose (albeit very excellent) work is largely concerned – in character and ambit – with white Australia? Why isn’t there not a major book award for queer writing? How is it possible that in the same year the Sydney Morning Herald shortlisted five writers of colour as their Young Novelists of the Year, one state premier’s literary award gave lucrative awards across three or four categories to white writers whose work either heavily relied on multicultural Australia or told the stories of real or imagined people of colour in favour of works written by writers of colour?
Of course, it is taboo to even ask these questions. It is whinging. Vindictive. Destructive. And in my case, no doubt, it will be pegged as ungrateful. But when we do discuss these issues, it is not difficult to see the sense in Indyk’s call for literary prize funds to be redistributed where they’re most needed to help those whose voices are the most unheard, who work within genres that are less readily supported or marketable or who are considered, themselves, unmarketable. After all, the combined prize pot is large, and we are so very many hungry.
By their very nature, prizes make champions of the few, and leave the disappointed many covetous. I have been blessed enough to have seen and been both. No prize-list will make every commentator content – yet I am evidence that literary prizes can be absolutely career-making. I do not think they should be abolished. I do think that if we are going to attach vast funds to them, these questions need to be asked.
We need to be able to dissect these things, as a writing community. To air these truths, and grievances. It makes our literary prize culture robust, and keeps prize panels accountable. Writers – particularly those most marginalised among us – don’t speak more openly about these things because voicing our concerns makes us fear for our future prize prospects, or more immediately, for our reputations and livelihood.
On the question of whether prizes help writers or publishers financially, I can only speak to my own experience, which I acknowledge may not be typical. Foreign Soil was put out by a large publisher with a decent marketing budget. It was well-reviewed. Festivals booked me. Readers passed on word to their friends. The book sold about 3,000 copies between May and December 2014. For any literary fiction debut in Australia, that’s a decent effort. For the book Foreign Soil is, it was nothing short of extraordinary. Debut short fiction collections in Australia generally sell around 1200 copies – and that’s considered doing very well.
By the end of 2014, sales had flat-lined. I counted my blessings, dusted off my hands, and started working on my next book. Then prize season arrived. There was no money attached to the post-publication prizes the book picked up, but each time the book showed up on a shortlist there was a new round of publicity. Each time there was a new round of publicity, sales figures rose. Each time the sales rose, the word of mouth would also increase. To date, sales have grown to more than 6500. This is by no means a living, especially for a book which took a good five years to write, but other things also came of the increased visibility the prize-lists brought: a UK, and more recently a US, publishing deal; some small grant success where there had previously been none; increased offers of teaching and writing work.
Indyk also asserts that prize culture should be measured by the way it treats poetry. As the author of three poetry collections, I have often lamented that, in terms of prize recognition, poetry often gets shafted. Ineligible for the larger prizes, and the hardest sell to boot, poets get a raw deal. Especially female poets. Especially poets of colour (see Omar Sakr’s article below).
Part of this, as Indyk points out, is the commercial aspect. Three weeks after Jennifer Maiden’s poetry collection Liquid Nitrogen won the $125 000 Victorian Prize for Literature, I wandered into a Melbourne bookstore and saw it on prominent display at the front of the store.
‘Out of interest,’ I asked, ‘is this book selling?’
‘It’s a fantastic book,’ the bookseller said. ‘We are pushing it as much as we can. We ordered in a heap, but we’ve only sold two copies. No one wants to buy it because it’s poetry.’
In an ideal literary prize climate, no genre is disadvantaged. In an ideal literary prize climate, there is always a diverse judging panel. An ideal literary prize climate acknowledges where privilege or bias exists, and interrogates it. In an ideal literary climate, conversations like the one Indyk has started give birth to robust, hearty and constructive reflection.