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Judging the judges: the PM's Literary Award

By Beth Driscoll - posted Monday, 7 April 2008

The judges for the new Prime Minister's Literary Awards for Fiction and Non-Fiction, worth $100,000 each, were announced last Monday. This prize will be the richest in Australia by a hefty margin (the nearest rival is The Melbourne Prize, at $60,000, followed by the Miles Franklin at $42,000). It may well become Australia's leading literary prize, but to do so it will have to delicately negotiate a mix of prestige and popular appeal.

The really juicy news to emerge last week is that Kevin Rudd isn't ruling out intervening in the process: according to the “rules”, the final decision on the shortlists and the winners rests with him.

Some of the judges claim they didn't know about this, although it's been up on the web for a while, but I can still understand their shock. Having it in the rules is one thing, but the idea that he might apply independent thought has set the cat among the pigeons.


To appreciate the true scandal of this potentiality, imagine the Queen actually choosing the Governor General! Or the Governor General exercising his powers! The entire charade of our constitutional monarchy would be exposed and we'd have to become a republic or something.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Literature, the issue of Rudd's urge to join the literati barely scratches the surface of the messages these judging panels send about Australian culture. While each of the judges is well-respected and has outstanding achievements in their fields, the judging team as a whole is light on for specifically literary expertise; the panels seemed designed to produce public appeal, not prestige.

The winner of the fiction award will be “recommended” by Peter Pierce, John Marsden and Margaret Throsby. I suppose you can't fault the inclusion of a Professor of Australian Literature as the chair of the panel, but the selection of the other two represents decidedly populist leanings.

The inclusion of John Marsden may skew the award towards young adult fiction, a genre that, unlike any other, is specifically included in the terms of eligibility for the prize. Marsden writes almost exclusively for teenage readers, from his classic So Much to Tell You (1987) through to the acclaimed Tomorrow When the War Began series, the highest selling young adult fiction ever written by an Australian. Marsden has a strong involvement in teaching English, starting his own alternative school in the Victorian bush. So, is his inclusion a push for a younger audience for the awards?

If Marsden wears the youth hat, Margaret Throsby doesn't. My Dad and my Grandad both loved listening to the mellifluous tones of Margaret Throsby as she introduced classical music on ABC radio. Now she hosts a morning show. She's a credible woman in the media who probably reads books ... but all in all, she probably represents a “woman in the street” judge rather than an expert. Will this be an enduring category of judge for the award, and if so, will it lead us down the path of the Orange, which next year will feature the judging style of Lily Allen?

The Non-Fiction award will be overseen by Hilary Charlesworth, Sally Morgan and John Doyle.


Hilary Charlesworth was one of my lecturers when I studied law at ANU: she's totally cool.

Sally Morgan is a welcome break from the whitebread flavour of the judges, but her most famous work, the autobiographical (ish) My Place, was written more than 20 years ago. Since then, she's worked on art, scriptwriting and children's books and other endeavours, none of which is particularly relevant to the terms of the prize.

The inclusion of John Doyle is, I think, a more up-to-date and savvy choice. He's popular as half of Roy and H.G., and then earned himself a different cred when he co-hosted Two Men in a Tinny with Tim O'Flannery last year. Behind the scenes, Doyle is the writer of the TV series Changi and Marking Time. Doyle is known as a laidback, smart Aussie Bloke, but not as one who has any special knowledge of books or writing. So, as we saw with the fiction award, the panel is anchored by an academic and filled out with likable, credible “ordinary Australians” with no particular expertise.

What this looks like to me is a determined push to make the award one that appeals to the public. Certainly, that's an essential part of creating a successful literary prize: but organisers should perhaps be wary of using the judging panel to achieve this, rather than their PR budget. Without credible judges, the prestige of the prize will suffer.

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About the Author

Beth Driscoll is a freelance writer and researcher at the University of Melbourne. Her doctoral thesis investigates aspects of the contemporary literary economy.

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