The future of literary diversity?

Established in 2013 as reparations for the women overlooked by the Miles Franklin Award and to advance and protect female authors in the future, the Stella Prize seems to be doing its job. Last year was a fine year for female authors. Out of sixty literary prizes surveyed for the purpose of this article, prize money amounted to $1,061,500 for female writers (not including the $135,000 endowed by the Kibble Awards, the Stella Prize, and the Barbara Jefferis Award), compared to $481,000 for male writers. Furthermore, prestigious short story awards like the Jolley Prize, and Overland’s VU Short Story Prize and inaugural Story Wine Prize boasted female authors placing first, second and third. The same can be said for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, the Calibre Essay Prize and the Porter Poetry Prize. A good year, indeed.

And this is no cause of concern for male authors. The figures above don’t represent the antithesis stage in the Hegelian Dialectic of Gender Inequality in Literature. Anyone familiar with games of almost-even chance (red and black on the roulette wheel or the flip of a coin, for instance) knows you can witness a streak of twenty of the same result without there being a systematic bias, or effecting the almost-even odds of the next result. If anything, the prize winners of 2014 amplified the voice of the literary community in Australia demanding one thing: diversity.

In his recent article in Sydney Review of Books, publisher and professor Ivor Indyk suggested literary prizes and literary festivals pander to the lowest common denominator in the interest of provoking popular appeal. Yes, we are seeing greater attendance at literary festivals. Yet, rather than popularising literature, which in itself might be impossible, the literary community is embracing more voices. What Indyk perceives as the mediocrity of popularism could just as easily be seen as the growing competitive force of inclusion.

As the systematic biases are stripped away from prize-giving and the reviewing of Australian authors, I do expect we will see more authors from wider and richer backgrounds represented on shortlists for these prizes. And it makes my heart swell, even though it means such a strong competition. These literary awards are the one place in the literary world where year after year, success is a zero-sum game. It strengthens the entire community when the voices of the disenfranchised and the overlooked are represented alongside those who have enjoyed the lion’s share of awards and accolades for so long.

Literary prize money plays a large role in subsidising the cost of the starch-heavy diets of starving artists. The truth is that authors and readers in this country cannot afford any more insults. The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards becoming biennial this year was a disgusting affront. The Queensland premier abolishing the state’s literary prize entirely in 2012 was intolerable. Not only do we strip away the small consolations of a career in letters, we also silence voices so beautiful that the reading of them drowns out the dissonance of our daily lives with euphony.

One such voice, that of Jennifer Down, I would never have heard if not for her win in the 2014 Jolley Prize. Because I had the pleasure of reading Aokigahra, I was moved to read her other short stories, like Turncoat, which won the 2013 VU Short Story Prize. I think anyone who shared the same satisfaction in reading these stories would join me in promoting the necessity of literary prizes in Australia for nurturing talent and presenting new voices to readers.

If anything, we need more prizes, more awards, more festivals, more literary journals, more writers, more readers, and greater inclusion. The experiences I have had reading prize-winning authors and attending literary festivals in the last few years reminds me of Hunter S Thompson describing the feeling of being a party to the activism and the inclusive spirit of the 1960s in San Francisco: ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.’

It is my responsibility and yours to keep up the momentum by doing what we can to support prizes and festivals and the literary community in Australia.


Image: simonbooth / Flickr

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  1. Why though are prizes the answer to the ills of ‘literature’ – here thought of as prose? Why should competitive forms of assessment where money is the expression of congratulation be seen as a boon rather than the proliferation of market logic? Does prize-money really afford people a sense of security? Who lives from prize to prize? Surely, changes in the eco-system, changes Indyk has suggested elsewhere, are what is necessary. Moreover, there is no mention of how the central point of his piece ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’ was to boost poetry because of its neglect in the Melbourne Prize. Why too the failure to articulate what constitutes the aesthetic requirements, parameters, logic, method, elements for choosing X over Y? In that sense there is very little argument or criticism that takes place in the public domain to justify why a winner is a winner – judges do themselves and the industry as a disservice because they fail to adequately explain why one is deserving and one is not. This is applied in this article as well – quite simply, it is to ask of Jennifer Down’s appeal: please explain?

    • You can read my reply below. If you’d like me to edify you about any other subjects, I’d prefer to do so via private correspondence.

  2. “No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself. This radical principle of artistic economy applies specially to a time of crisis, and today when the highest form of art has been just preserved by desperate sacrifices, it is strange to see the artist making terms with the rabblement.” (‘The Day of the Rabblement’, James Joyce)

    We both agree with the Nolan, Mr Wood. I agree with you further that prize-giving is a flawed system. Here, we differ on the path of recourse. You will note my primary concern in the article is the skewed spread of prize-winners compared to the demography of Australia, and I am concerned with this distortion because I assume talent is parceled out unequally to the individual yet evenly across the population. However, I also perceive progress in the yearly data and it fills me with tremendous hope because it suggests the current pulls us towards that highest form of art.

    You see, my concern is artistic excellence, and in the same way baseball in the United States must be considered an inferior and incomplete sport until 1947 with the inclusion of black players, the practice of prize-giving must be considered a circle of congratulatory lip service until the excellence it advertises is demonstrably inclusive.

    For a moment I will digress by clarifying my own position and criticizing another author’s response to the issue.

    I was reluctant to address minorities. Firstly, I have not the time or inclination to deduce a prize-winners background based on their skin tone or by their name or by LADO or something equally distasteful. I have no intention of parceling out identity based on arbitrary racial and social epithets as if I’m an authority. Secondly, the sample size is inadequate to analyse. If you spin a roulette wheel a hundred times you should witness a more or less even distribution of red and black, odd and even. You would not, however, be able to estimate sincerely a 2.63% representation of the number 22. Such a prediction is known as the gambler’s fallacy. If I suggested because Kim Scott has won the Miles Franklin Award twice in its fifty-eight years that the prize adequately represents Aboriginal writers I would be committing myself to the gambler’s fallacy. However, this is not intended to dismiss the very real issues of structural and systematic bias which cause under-representation of certain minorities, but rather to highlight my own inadequacy and the inconclusive data. It is enough that I can extrapolate the world is unfair and the odds uneven, and that the opportunity cost of becoming even an amateur writer is too high for the impoverished and the subjugated and the downtrodden, and that those who persevere in a career in letters deserve what small compensation literary prizes endow.

    Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote, in an article on this matter for this same website, ‘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 writer’s of colour?’ Behind the ambiguity and confusion of her meaning lies a philistine accusation without the merit of consideration or aim. It is a slander against the imagination, experience, and empathy of those writers she leaves anonymous. Here I quote from Nabokov’s lecture ‘Good readers and good writers’ “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.” Furthermore, the wise maxim “Write what you know” is not synonymous with “Write autobiography”.

    To conclude on the matter of under-representation I should clarify when I referred to “voice” in my article I referenced the artist’s voice which is individual, and not some abstract voice of a people, which belies the nature of the artist.

    Onto the subject of the winners. Again, I agree with you and Indyk and the Nolan. Often prizes seem to be awarded as arbitrarily as one hundred spins of the roulette wheel, and only very few have I seen given for the highest art. It is not because any prize or panel is corrupted in some way, only every panel suffers the humanity of its judges. A multitude of cognitive biases come into play. I think when panels fail it is due to a plural ignorance, when one judge fools the others that the Emperor is wearing clothes. But why are we discussing human error as if it’s a surprise? We could sit all day and think of experiments. To gain some insight, institute a prize for the best collection of poetry. The prize would be judged by a double-blinded judging panel, chosen from the pool of candidates Indyk dismisses in ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’. In this model, two panels would discuss the entries separately, without any collusion between the panels, and their conversation could be recorded digitally or by a stenographer. Any discrepancies in the shortlists and winner would need to be addressed. Such an experiment would surely help in some way to clarify your issues with process, in the same way that measures like the Stella Prize will be able to compensate for under-representation with varying degrees of success by the virtue of the mindfulness such measures provoke. But you won’t be able to compensate for human error. We are a prejudiced animal, and the literary hall of fame so often inducts its members posthumously that “hall” might be misspelled. Ken Kesey explained this phenomenon more eloquently than I can, in a lecture he gave at the University of Virginia: “Shit floats, Cream rises.” The instances of inadequacy in prize-giving might be a stench we have to experience sometimes if in some other vessel we want to find the cream.

    As to the aesthetic, I presume Thomas Aquinas would be considered high-brow in Indyk’s estimation, and so quote from his aesthetic, ‘The good is that towards the possession of which an appetite tends’ and ‘Those things are beautiful the apprehension of which pleases.’

    As to the impact of prize money, I’m sure I don’t know if prizes provide a sense of security, Mr Wood, but I will let you know if and when the Scandinavians abandon the tradition they have of not awarding Borges and me the Nobel Prize. Considering the inadequacy of my answer, I will quote for you from Robert Musil’s preface to the ‘Posthumous Papers of a Living Author’ (now deceased) “The age that brought out the pre-fab custom-made shoe, and the tailor-made suit to fit all sizes, also appears to want to bring out the pre-fab poet, who is put together out of ready-made inner and outer parts. Almost everywhere these days, the made-to-measure poet lives completely cut off from life, but even so does not share with the dead the ability to do without roof, food, and drink.”

    I prefer to ignore Indyk’s destructive impulses, because I think gutting the prize-giving system to fund his social engineering project is unnecessary once you accept that literary prizes and his fine ideas are not mutually exclusive, and that funds could be procured to bolster one and build the other. And if he chooses to ignore this in favour of his bloodlust and if you continue to support him, I will have to make a formal accusation that you and Indyk were responsible for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and I will posit as motive your belief it held a few hundred lines of mediocre poetry.

  3. Consider for a moment if the future of literary diversity is Nolan, Kesey, Nabokov, Aquinas, Musil. If ever there was a list of pale, male, stale references here it lies, now exposed. If one advocates for diversity surely one’s own references could reflect that?

    So, ‘the excellence it advertises is demonstrably inclusive’? Inclusive of whom? To use the baseball analogy, inclusivity butts up against the rules of the game. Should something be seen as excellent because it came from a certain type of person? My assumption would be no, you still have to play the game to a particular level. This holds for sport, but for art there needs to be change about what constitutes the guidelines, criteria, possibilities for excellence, not grounded in identity politics but in aesthetics, which are of course always political. And the failure to discuss aesthetics is what rankles with prizes and something that is pointed out by Indyk. The failure to discuss aesthetics is evident here too, not even a mention of why Jennifer Down is ‘pleasurable’.

    Why then the focus on the author? Why reify the liberalism in such a position? This is advocacy of a certain type of diversity that might be inimical to real progress and actually assimilative. I refer back to the author list mentioned in the beginning.

    If this is who the target is for prize winning – ‘the impoverished and the subjugated and the downtrodden’ why not state there is an economic imperative at work rather simply assuming that diversity is essentially identity based? Kim Scott or Ken Wyatt are not the same as people I know in ‘the Village’ in Roebourne.

    Moreover, if one were so inclined the sample size is big enough – there have been hundreds of prizes awarded in Australia over the years, which might be Indyk’s point. So why propose yet another layer of bureaucracy? That is what seems eminently wrong with the literary economy at the present – a point made by Indyk. Why should there be more time and money going to judges rather than writers? It is not necessarily a destructive impulse, but a redistributive one that he highlights. And I don’t think that would be redistribution towards the estates of Nabokov or Musil.

  4. Why do people think the only gatekeepers are in competitions and not inherent in being published more generally? For what it’s worth, I thought the establishment of a second bureaucracy was exactly what Indyk was proposing, something akin to the Australia Council, where monies and fellowship would be awarded by some kind of cultural gatekeeper to work said cultural gatekeeper deemed aesthetically pleasing, and which would rarely be the work of new and unpublished writers or poets (as it’s hard to be awarded such things without a body of work/awards/shortlistings behind you).

  5. I look forward to the day when literary prizes have no monetary value attached. Would these arguments exist still? If not, what does that tell us? If yes, then the argument is worth having.

    • further, didn’t thespis get a goat for winning the first dyonisian drama prize, hence tragedy (goat song)? and we know that the extant tragedies we have were but a fraction of the total output. the point? a greater proliferation of literary forms and genres, both high and low, including writing and reading the real, included in prize lists, rather than those overstuffed xmas narratives churned out by corporate turnkeys, please

  6. The willful, if productive, misreading continues. As Jacinda writes: ‘awarded by some kind of cultural gatekeeper to work said cultural gatekeeper deemed aesthetically pleasing.’ As opposed to now, as opposed to this very thing? One suspects this comes with the terrain. The future of literary diversity is not because of who we are, but the stories we tell. If you come from a marginalized background – like I do – why would you want to publish at all when gatekeepers such as editors refuse your right of refusal?

    But surely the abolition of prizes means less administration? Where, in all these prose opinion pieces, which share a remarkable lack of quotation from Indyk’s piece, is discussion of poetry? Poetry, where administration is done by participants (witness the absence of agents), offers us one potential model that is inimical to the bureaucratic largess of the Australia Council. My logical leap of faith is that poetry, which Indyk has championed elsewhere for precisely this reason (and others), has a different set of social relations, a differ market, a different logic. Why can’t there be a gift-esque economy model in a new, prize-less literary environment? And could you please point out where he states this would exclude new and unpublished writers? By jumping to the opposite conclusion, we see an argument that in generating more heat than light demonstrates both the market driven desire for concocted outrage (which gets readers) and a profoundly anti-progressive attitude to literature.

    You could get 2 Hannah Kent book deals for $2m or you could get a whole nation of poets. Prize winning pulp that does nothing for the nation and everything for the individual or a change in the culture?

    Please though let me know though when someone else publishes Carpentaria or Death Fugue. Perhaps Jacinda, or even the author of this piece, would also care to elaborate on how the cited European canon is new or indeed how Joyce matters for the future of literary diversity? Lolita, anyone?

    • Nowhere did I mention the European literary canon, nor that new and unpublished writers would be ineligible. Rather, that it would be hard, even in a prize-less ‘gift-esque economy model’, to make oneself eligible for such ‘gifts’ without a body of work behind you (which often comes through the awarding of prizes, or the publication of books, which have often been supported by universities or funding bodies).

      Yes, quite possibly poetry is different, but it seems like people in these arguments often want the benefits of the market without recognising it’s a market they’re talking about. There are already levels of competition embedded in literature. For instance, how many poets have been able to get APAs for postgraduate research?

      What Indyk seemed to suggest he didn’t like was the quality of literature been chosen by judges of competitions, and that he’d prefer a different way of distributing that money, via a different group of people who could determine what challenging/real literature was. But to just put that into historical context: when has that ever been a model for supporting radical literature (which by its very nature is anti-establishment)?

      I see it this way: there’s a finite amount of money under capitalism, and these current debates are all different ways of determining where that money goes. Ultimately, someone somewhere is doling it out, whether that’s based on commercial imperatives, artistic prejudice or a publisher deciding what great literature is. Seems to me that the only alternative under capitalism is what Joshua Mostafa suggested on Twitter – a universal basic income, which will allow people to live while writing.

  7. Yet again, the willful, if productive, misreading continues. Reference: ‘Nowhere did I mention the European literary canon, nor that new and unpublished writers would be ineligible.’ You did not mention the canon, but Dobson did – to which I asked for a response from both of you, perhaps in authorial and editorial capacities. The desire for a response still stands. As for the second part of that sentence, this refers to my previous question: ‘And could you please point out where he [Indyk] states this would exclude new and unpublished writers?’ That question still stands and nowhere did I suggest you had done otherwise, simply that you had misread Indyk.

    The gift economy is, of course, from Mauss and in this instance is used to refer to the lack of financial administrative burden in a prize-free culture.

    Why though conflate competition with the market unless it is to shoehorn both into a convenient argument? Why though should we want to support ‘radical’ literature? Or what do people even mean when they say ‘radical’ (Jacinda) or ‘excellent’ (Dobson)? Does Overland think that radical literature is simply because of an author’s identity? Or could we point to the rank conservatism of form in this very journal’s prose? Moreover, those terms are eminently, gloriously, contestable – for example Overland likes to wear the mantle of being ‘progressive’ but readily accepts and doles out cash in prize giving that approximates capitalist modes. Or is it more a system of patronage befitting its Stalinist roots?

    Where is there not a finite amount of money – do Communist regimes print more money? Does a living wage just materialize or is it also doled out? And if this is a question of welfare and income, how might this connect to the very quality of literature in the first place?

    To my mind the benefit of Indyk’s piece was, as he stated,:
    ‘I would spend it on fellowships and residencies and international exchanges. On a national body to coordinate the reprinting of Australian classics. On the proper funding of literary translations, into and out of Australia. On the establishment of ‘literature houses’ in metropolitan and regional centres, to host national and international touring programs. On a centre for Indigenous storytelling. On a national poetry festival and archive.’
    Those are changes in the ecosystem that are beneficial to the diversity of literary futures (translation, Indigenous storytelling most obviously), which seems eminently more progressive than spectacular outrage.

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