The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards have proved contentious, but this year’s winners are worth celebrating
The winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced this morning at a ceremony in Launceston. This year’s shortlists presented a challenge for the judges, who selected 30 titles from more than 540 eligible entries.
The winning books in each category are:
The awards have a short and occasionally contentious history. This year, they were met with strong criticism.
Given the “consecrating” value accorded to literary awards, the judging panels are closely scrutinised. The panels are a measure of credibility; they define the notions of literary merit upon which the awards are based.
This year Peter Rose, editor of Australian Book Review, called out the judging panels as Sydney-centric. Central to his critique was the clear links of six judges with the Murdoch-owned NewsCorp papers:
Remarkably, six of those ten judges have close associations with The Australian newspaper. This includes no less than three literary editors (including the current one, Caroline Overington). The other three are Troy Bramston, a senior writer and columnist with The Australian, Peter Craven (a frequent columnist), and Chris Mitchell, a former editor-in-chief (2002–15) and current columnist.
The 2022 panels were appointed by the previous federal government. Rose sees the composition of the panels as evidence of the Morrison government’s “cosy association with News Corp”, the charge of partisanship evoking wider conversations about the “stacking” of cultural institutions.
Indeed the July 2022 Grattan Institute report, New politics: A better process for public appointments, shows that “pork-barrelling” and “jobs for mates” can have a corrosive effect on our democratic institutions, seriously affecting the impartiality of decision-making.
Literary prizes are inherently if implicitly political; the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are explicitly so. One of their peculiarities is that they are bestowed at the prerogative of the prime minister, who can overrule the decisions of the judging panels.
The timing of the awards also came in for criticism this year. Although they represent a significant injection of funds into the literary sector, the benefits would be greater if there were time for titles to build momentum.
The shortlist was not announced until November 7 2022, and the announcement of the winners is timed to fit around the prime minister’s schedule and parliamentary sitting requirements. But the mid-December date is not ideal for its visibility. It allows little notice for the publishing and bookselling industries to spotlight titles for Christmas, which inevitably affects potential sales. As Mark Rubbo, managing director of independent bookshop chain Readings, told Peter Rose:
I think the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are the worst-run prizes in Australia; there is no consistency in the timing of the announcements of either the shortlist or the winner, giving neither booksellers nor publishers the opportunity to promote the shortlisted and winning authors.
Two thirds of Australian authors are women – new research finds they earn just $18,200 a year from their writing
History of the awards
The winners of the 2022 awards each receive A$80,000 tax-free, with shortlisted authors receiving $5,000 each. It’s a substantial prize, but not the highest amount of money for a literary award – the Victorian Prize for Literature offers $100,000.
The awards are intended to recognise individual excellence and the contribution Australian authors make to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life. They have evolved every year since their inauguration by Kevin Rudd in 2008.
In 2008 and 2009, awards were given in the fiction and non-fiction categories. In 2010, the awards were expanded to include young adult and children’s fiction. The decision to reward all the shortlisted authors was made in 2011. This was a widely applauded move.
There is growing public awareness of author poverty, with a 2022 Australia Council report finding that the average income is $18,200 per annum.
In 2012, the poetry category was added and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History was incorporated into the Awards.
Something remarkable has happened to Australia’s book pages: gender equality has become the norm
Literature and diversity
The inauguration of the Stella Prize for women’s writing and the associated Stella Count have sharpened our focus on questions of gender and diversity in the awarding of prizes and in literary reviewing.
The Prime Minister’s awards are beginning to mirror the multiplicity of modern Australia. This year’s shortlists included five First Nations authors, with one in every category except history. The young adult category was the most diverse, containing two authors of Asian-Australian heritage, Leanne Hall and Rebecca Lim, and one of Muslim-Australian heritage, Safdar Ahmed.
Andy Jackson’s winning poetry collection, Human Looking, elevates the profile of disabled poetics and “crip culture” more broadly.
The gender mix is relatively even, an overall trend that aligns with Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond’s report, released in March 2022, which found that gender parity was becoming a reality when it comes to prizes.
Minister for the Arts Tony Burke has been open about his love of literature. In his Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote for the Australian Society of Authors on 15 November, he revealed that he reads a poem each day. Among his favourite local works are Tara June Winch’s The Yield (which won the fiction category of the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards) and Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius.
A government that says “you are creators, you are workers and you are required” has been missing for a decade, Burke said. In his new role, he has pledged to improve authors’ conditions.
University of Melbourne publishing and communications scholar Alexandra Dane has argued that “literary prizes have long served as a shorthand for the nation’s understanding of what constitutes literary value”. Prize culture is a flawed mechanism for establishing that value. The choice of an ultimate winner also involves the elevation of one set of values at the expense of others.
Whatever their shortcomings, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards still expose works of literature to new readers and enhance their chances in a crowded market. Two of the finalists, the poet Jordie Albiston and musician Archie Roach, are no longer with us, but their shortlisting recognises the excellence of their late works.
In common with other controversial prizes, the awards are fought over precisely because of their symbolic and enduring cultural function.