Just award the Vogel’s already

In 2019, there will be no Vogel’s literary award. None of the manuscripts – the prize’s press release suggests – were up to scratch: ‘the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.’ In other words: we’d be embarrassed to publish any of the submissions.

The judges’ ‘respect for the award’ seems misplaced. While organisers claim that the award – given to an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 – has ‘launched the careers of over a hundred Australian authors,’ it rarely does any such thing. As Ben Walter pointed out in a 2018 essay for Overland, half of Vogel’s winners never publish another novel.

Some people don’t like prizes like the Vogel’s because they award young writers, and what kind of person has time to write a novel when they’re under thirty-five? Only privileged people, making young writers’ prizes a form of discrimination – at least according to Robin Black in the New York Times, Joanna Walsh in the Guardian or Bronwyn Lea in The Conversation.

Yet when I take a look at, say, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist, I do not cop an eye-load of privilege. Jennifer Down, Shaun Prescott, Robbie Arnott, Rajith Savandasa, Julie Koh: these are writers who have been working their guts out for years to produce novels and stories, but also to feed themselves, make careers outside of fiction, keep friendships and families together and even, hair-raisingly, bring up children. Working out how to be a writer and also live a decent human life is complicated.

As any emerging writer can tell you, ‘how do I make this life work?’ is a far more pressing question than ‘how do I make this sentence work?’. Trying to answer the former can take up most of the brain-space you should really be dedicating to the latter. For most writers, there isn’t a solution. Many plug away for years at jobs, children, friends, elderly parents and watch that magic ‘under-35’ deadline disappear in the rear-view mirror. For some, the passing of that deadline is the cue to give up their dreams of writing. Others cling on, and as kids get older and careers don’t really pan out – or, sometimes, stabilise to the point of being bearable – they have another crack at it. Some, having written manuscript after manuscript of crap, alone in their bedroom or at the kitchen table, finally figure out after decades how to make a novel that works. (You may not realise this, but it can be really hard and very time-consuming to write a book that’s worth reading.)

Some of these ‘late’ bloomers are men. Most of them are women. And many of them will, when their novel is finally written, discover they’re excluded from all kinds of opportunities for emerging writers and will feel a bit miffed. Because even if you’re over forty when you emerge, you’re still as damp and hopeless as those baby-faced chrysalises in their mid-twenties, right?

Writing is difficult – finding time, learning skills, overcoming the horrors of crippling self-doubt. Getting your writing published is even more so. Winning a prize is next-to impossible.

Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius? The people who’ve submitted manuscripts have found a way to carve out time and space to write. They’ve dedicated themselves to a craft that has almost no financial or social reward. They’ve put their hopes on the line. Choose the best of the bunch and shortlist them: give one of them a prize. Maybe it will be the only money and recognition that writer ever gets, or maybe it will be the encouragement they need to go on to write better books. Either way, who cares: anything is better than the big plate of nothing most writers are served. And while you’re at it, prize-giving-organisations, how about setting up a prize for emerging writers over forty? How about one for an emerging writer whose career has been delayed by raising children, caring for parents, making a living, getting an education, being sick.

It’s embarrassing doing things for the first time when you’re old. You can feel pretty dumb, finally nailing a thing that you feel you should have mastered when you were young. Telling people that my first novel had just come out and that I was forty-three years old felt nearly as daft as getting married for the first time at the age of thirty-seven. Author headshots and bridal photos are no place for faces over thirty. This is an age for cynicism, wisdom and world-weariness, not naïve excitement and hopeful optimism. The dearth of prizes and fellowships for emerging writers over forty is a reminder that you have definitely – as usual – done it all wrong.


Image: Ulrich Peters

Jane Rawson

Jane Rawson is the author of two novels – A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists and From the Wreck – as well as a novella, Formaldehyde, which won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. She is the co-author of The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. Her short fiction and essays have been published by Sleepers, Slink Chunk Press, Overland, Tincture, Seizure, Griffith Review, Funny Ha-Ha, Review of Australian Fiction and Meanjin.

More by Jane Rawson ›

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. Yes, yes, yes! Also, I suspect this decision relates to there not being a manuscript ready to hit print on – but I bet there were many very, very good manuscripts that just needed a little bit more development and support. But frustratingly publishers don’t do much of that anymore. It’s more cost-effective to only accept the manuscripts that are ready to go and not the one’s that could be brilliant with some editorial direction.

    1. Quite so. As an editor of an art publication and a frequent reader of fiction, I lament the lack of editing in the latter these days.

  2. Totally 100% agree. My first thought was that it wasn’t the prize committee, but the publishers themselves (more specifically the publishers’ marketing department) who decided they didn’t want to publish any of the manuscripts bc none of them fit with existing publishing success trends. Just another encroachment of commerce onto publishing. No idea if that’s true, of course. You’ve got to wonder what the conversation was like when they decided that THIS was the way to go.

  3. This is not the first year the Vogel hasn’t been awarded due to quality of entries. Maybe there were a lot of those PhD novels submitted that might fulfil academic standards but not publishing standards As a teacher of creative writing, if the standard I see in my students (who are proud to admit as first years that they rarely read) is anything to go by, then it’s better to be ruthlessly honest and admit that work isn’t at publishing standard. We can’t fail them at Uni but in the real world maybe it’s best for everyone – especially readers who lose faith if the book they’ve paid some $25 for isn’t up to standard – that the bar is set high.

  4. I agree Jane, it is cruel on many levels. This kind of award needs to be judged with a generous spirit, and with a desire to build and nurture young writers. This result must be devastating for those who entered. I hope the judges take the time to more fully explain their decision to the writers.

  5. Cruel, to be sure!

    It’s also cruel seeing writers shortlisted (often for many things in a given year, and repeatedly over time), not winning anything. All that work, then hope, and then bugger all to show for it. There should be prizes for short-listers – because there’s never any difference in quality between them and the winner who ‘takes all.’

    Seems a very arrogant and lazy stand for the Vogel judges to take – whatever happened to writers being ‘taken on’ by a publisher (and a readership) and grown/developed over time? As a reader, I enjoy seeing a writers’ work grow and change…

    Age limits (or anything limiting eligibility) should be chucked – the work alone should be all that matters…

    Good article, Jane!

  6. From the 2019 Vogel terms and conditions – “It cannot be under consideration to any other publisher or entered into any other award.”

    For writers under 35 (which, regardless of arbitrariness, is the time that a lot of young writing hopefuls are going to be making major career decisions) to have to put their money and their manuscript on the line for this prize for however long is required for assessment (months upon months I assume), rejecting the temptation to proffer their manuscript up to any other publisher or agent or prize in that time, only to be told at the end of it that nobody’s a winner…

    I don’t see why one would bother. It’s a shame too, because I believe many Aussies under 35 don’t read because of a lack of Aussie authors that can speak to their experiences. If these competitions are imposing impossibly high standards, looking for the next *insert 35+ author here*, they may never get them.

  7. I was a judge for a literary prize some years ago, and the adjudicator was a first time judge at that (I’d judged the award for a couple of years).
    It was discussed that maybe we shouldn’t award for that category that year because they felt that none of the entries were worthy (they were). But I think that there is so much power in awarding a prize, that it goes to some people’s heads. It’s quite the power trip…

  8. Anyway, why get so het up over this – it’s not exactly the end of the world – and there are more pressing issues of concern now presaging the end of the world. Write about that, and stuff the Vogel’s.

  9. “Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards …”

    Yup ! And even more bizarrely, celebrities whose memoirs everyone knows have been ghost-written for them by someone else still receive literary awards.

    It really is a nonsense in many ways and at every level. One only need recall the scandal surrounding the granddaddy of all awards – the Nobel Prize for literature.

    If in doubt, just recite William Goldman’s immortal line which applies just as readily to the publishing world as it does the movie-making : ‘Nobody knows anything’

  10. An excellent article, Jane. Thank you. Just wanted to let you and Overland readers know that the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition administered by Writers Victoria welcomes fiction and non-fiction from emerging writers of all ages (details here). Writers Victoria also has hosted digital residencies for writers whose caring responsibilities have acted as a barrier to their participation in the literary industry. We hope to raise funds to continue this initiative in 2020.

  11. I agree with the opinion of the author.

    I find that nowadays most creative opportunities are totally leaving to young people.

    Before 35, who will have the time to write the novel and creative piece? Apart from wealthy people, I think most of us should make a living in our job. It is totally discrimination.

  12. I disagree. We need to know there are high benchmarks for us to work up to, not that every mediocre writer can win the prize.

  13. The Vogel Award was initiated by Niels Stevns in 1979 and is maintained by his family to honor Stevns vision for thanking the country that gave him a home post war.

    The aim of the award is to encourage the young who have yet to receive recognition which is why the award has certain criteria attached to it. Stevns vision was to give another young person a hand.

    The judging panel is independent of Stevns family, the Vogel company and Allen and Unwin.

    The award is not an entitlement. It is not the only creative arts award to choose not to make an award in particular circumstances. The Nobel Prize for Literature has not been awarded seven times.

    That the judges, having read past Vogel prize winners, in seeking to maintain a standard of literature choose not to make an award merely seeks to maintain a literary standard that represents the Vogel.

    Doing so protects the integrity of the award as well as protecting future Vogel winners in terms of books sales, public speaking events and the like.

    In other words, the money chain that the author of this article rattles on about. One would not want a book buyer to say, “don’t bother with a Vogel winner, they are generally rubbish”.

    It does not degrade the Vogel that numerous writers never publish another novel again. This ignores that who use the Vogel experience and award to carve a living teaching creative writing, doing reviews, writing paid web content or who simply use the confidence gained to break glass ceilings in other fields.

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