A few years ago I was discussing the Vogel Award with former Island editor Matthew Lamb; he was describing the relief he remembered feeling at inching past the age of thirty-five and no longer being eligible to enter. I’m sure Lamb won’t mind me observing his contrary approach to many things life and literary and, to me at the time, it seemed sensible to put his arguments down to that.
But now that I’m past the age of entry myself, I’m sure that he was right.
Certainly, the Vogel has merits. The award offers a deadline for writers to work towards and an incentive to begin full-length manuscripts. It represents a high-profile, encouraging and lucrative way to have your first book published, and for some shortlisted writers, it serves as a pathway to publication. Whatever debates we might have about the merits of prizes, respect is due to Allen & Unwin for continuing to run the award in what can be difficult publishing circumstances. While other Australian publishers have begun to sponsor similar awards – Hachette with its Richell Prize, Penguin Random House, and most recently, Harper Collins with its Banjo Prize – Allen & Unwin has been sticking it out for decades.
But the Vogel’s prestige can also be oppressive, and for younger writers it is easy to be caught in an all-eggs-in-one-basket mentality. The Vogel can still be seen as the pathway to success, and many writers feel that their chances of establishing a writing career are markedly diminished if they do not win it. The result is extreme disappointment when the rejection letter turns up. The perception of failure in such circumstances can be devastating to a writing practice, particularly one that hasn’t learned to cope with the norm of continual rejection.
Most critiques of awards like the Vogel centre on the age restriction – Bronwyn Lea has described its arbitrary nature in a context when many fine writers produce their first significant work when much older, while Robin Black has observed that ‘[y]outhful achievement is often linked to privilege. Not everyone can afford to write when young. Some are already working more than one job. Others are raising children.’
My argument relates to a much broader issue, and one that these earlier critiques assume: the persisting myth that the Vogel sets up a literary career.
What is never discussed in the annual spread in The Australian (complete with awkward photographs), is that by any measure, winning the Vogel is just about meaningless in terms of how likely you are to be a successful writer. Of course, the notion of ‘success’ in writing is contestable, but it’s important to discuss the Vogel in terms of the assumptions surrounding it – of having finally ‘made it’ as a writer.
You only need to look at the numbers to know that, while the Vogel may help you get a grant or a decent university position, it means very little in terms of literary longevity.
Straightforward comparisons between awards can start us on this track: of the thirty-nine writers who have won the Vogel since its inception in 1980, only four have gone on to win Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin. Of those four, two of the authors (one of them Helen Darville/ Demidenko) won it for the same book that took out the Vogel.
Prizes, though, can be deceptive – Richard Flanagan has famously never won a Miles Franklin, nor have other successful Australian authors such as Christos Tsiolkas and Helen Garner – so we need to drill down a little further.
Aspirants to the Vogel are often led astray by the stories of high-profile winners: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Andrew McGahan, Mandy Sayer and Brian Castro. But all of these writers won the award in its first twelve years (and prior to Darville winning in controversial circumstances). While it can take time to build a literary career, it’s much harder to find even medium-profile writers on the list since then. Eva Sallis/Hornung and Danielle Wood are the names that stand out for me.
Indeed, of the twenty-six writers who have won the award since 1992, it seems that only thirteen – just half – have gone on to publish a second novel. More remarkably, at time of writing, only four of the twenty-six (Hornung, Wood, Bernard Cohen and Julienne Van Loon) have gone on to publish any more than this. Later this year, Belinda Castles will make it five.
Of course, these figures are biased against more recent winners, who still have time to develop long-term literary careers. It’s unreasonable to expect a winner from 2013 to have published two further books. But if we make the dates more generous, the figures still make grim reading.
The numbers are striking even if we include winners from the award’s glory days: the Wintons, McGahans and Grenvilles. This, perhaps, is the crucial point: only eleven of the thirty-nine winners – just over a quarter – have published more than one novel since their prize-winning book.
While it’s not desirable to make book publishing the measure of a writing career, it remains a substantial indication of where a writer stands in the literary landscape. In any case, we need not restrict our analysis to books. While a small number of Vogel winners have indeed published short story collections, or works of nonfiction, the Austlit database suggests that many Vogel winners have published very little since their award in any creative form; some have published nothing at all.
At the risk of undermining my argument, I’ve not attempted the mammoth task of running the numbers for first novels published in a conventional way for purposes of comparison; it may be that the figures are worse. But even on the raw numbers, these are disappointing results for Australia’s most prestigious award for an unpublished manuscript. It is hard to argue that this prize, or any other, sets up a literary career in a truly disproportionate way; certainly, it doesn’t meet our expectations of it.
None of this is to disrespect writers who have won or those who are currently shortlisted, or the many legitimate and sensible reasons they may have marginalised, transformed or abandoned their writing careers; nor is it to minimise the challenges that authors face in the modern publishing landscape, where the economics are just about impossible, and where an author can be abandoned by a publisher when a single title doesn’t perform to expectations. Frank Moorhouse’s recent survey of Vogel winners in Meanjin illuminates some of these issues.
It is simply to observe that in the medium- to long-term, prizes like the Vogel do little to insulate authors from such challenges.
Rather than being disappointing, this should be liberating. There is no sense in young writers obsessing about the Vogel or feeling devastated if they slip past the age restriction without making the grade. The same is true of other prizes for unpublished manuscripts. There are other pathways to publication, and after that first novel, everyone is sailing in the same unsteady boat.
By all means win it if you can, accept the cash and the temporary kudos – but if you want a long-term literary career, it may be more important to pretend that you’re thirty-six, and then concentrate in bloody-minded fashion on the habits, relationships and disciplines that will help build it.
And then hope for the good fortune that makes any of this sustainable for the longer term.
Image: Chris Devers / flickr