Monday, March 12, 2007

New prize on the horizon (with the inevitable segue to Patrick White)

Susan Wyndham at Undercover has some advance knowledge of a new Australian literary prize to be announced at the end of this month.

If it's as lucrative as the Miles Franklin and its terms 'are likely to be inspiring to some but also controversial', then it should get a lot of press when the official announcement is made on March 31. What the 'controversial terms' part suggests to me is that the prize may favour a particular demographic. The young? The female? The gay or lesbian? The *gasps, makes sign of cross* multicultural?

If that's the case, here in the land of literary hoaxes, such a substantial offering will no doubt attract people out to make some sort of point. I know other countries have literary hoaxes too, but it seems to me that what with Ern Malley, Gwen Harwood, Helen Demidenko, Paul Radley, Wanda Koolmatrie, Wraith Picket and that's just off the top of my head, we are punching well above our weight.

I've been on a few judging panels for literary prizes over the last decade or two, and in that capacity have kept an increasingly jaded and suspicious eye out for anything that looks as though it could be a hoax. Most of these things are perpetrated by people out to either get around the terms of the prize in order to (a) win it (Paul Radley's uncle wrote the book he won the Vogel with), (b) fight skirmishes in ideological/aesthetic flame wars (Ern Malley), or (c) (closely related to (b)) make various ideological/political points (Demidenko, Koolmatrie, Harwood, Picket. Spot the real person in that list).

The 'Gotcha!' impulse behind this kind of thing has always struck me as a bit of a double-edged sword. If the motivations of the people behind the Wraith Picket/Patrick White hoax (and I still think that if they were going with anagrams then they should have called him Keith Crapwit) had been different, they could have spun that puppy 180 degrees and said 'Look: no fewer than twelve literary experts have said this guy isn't any good. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate him. Perhaps his work was mediocre all along.'

Not that I would ever claim such a thing myself, believing as I do that literary value is not absolute, and belonging as I do to the generation for whom Patrick White's work was a major formative experience, for whom his literary gifts are self-evident, and for whom his ideological freight was and is a great deal less simple and more radical than was claimed in Simon During's correct-line little book. But it's something that they could, if they'd been on the other side of the culture wars, have very easily done.

As it is, the conservative hoaxers seem to have shot themselves in the foot. What they wanted was to cause further damage to all those naughty lefties who are trying to destroy "our" heritage by not teaching Australian literature in "our" universities. (Which is, of course, factually quite wrong, as with the claims from other conservative culture warriors that "the feminists" have been silent on the subject of repellent fundamentalist-Islamic practices and beliefs regarding women. When in doubt, make stuff up.)

What they have created instead, quite unintentionally I'm sure, is a new upsurge of interest in White himself: there's now a blog devoted specifically to an online Patrick White reading group, an upcoming conference devoted specifically to his work and reputation, and an all-day event at the National Library, where Friday March 30th will be Patrick White Day.

But creating this new wave of interest in a writer who was an acknowledged homosexual and whose work introduced the country's fiction readers to new ways of thinking about Aborginal Australia, about class relations, about multicultural issues long before that was what they were called, and about autonomous, unforgettable female characters at the centre of a story (Theodora Goodman, Laura Trevelyan, Elizabeth Hunter, Ellen Roxburgh ... the list goes on) may not have been quite what the conservative elements had in mind when they set out to humiliate the contemporary literary left and score points in the culture wars.


Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

3 comments:

James Bradley said...

I'm Deputy Chair of the ASA for about the next fortnight, so I know the details of the prize. Obviously I'm not going to let too much go, but I'll promise you two things - it's big and it will astonish a lot of people when they find out where it's come from.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thanks, James -- now I'm even more intrigued than I was before!

Mindy said...

Right now all I have to do is write a prize winning book and my future is assured. Better look up noun in the dictionary first... (just kidding).