Gerald Murnane’s Prime Minister’s Literary award is long overdue

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Gerald Murnane has long been recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers.
Ben Denham

Anthony Uhlmann, Western Sydney University

I first came to Border Districts through a brief description of it given to me by Gerald Murnane when I first met him three years ago. I thought he had told me that he did not think it was as complex as another work he wrote around the same time, A Million Windows.

I clearly misunderstood the insight Murnane was offering into this book, which he also claimed would be his last. The more I read and reflect on Border Districts, the more profound and difficult it becomes.

Murnane, who has long been recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers, has also long been neglected. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award is the first major award a book of his has received. The recognition is long overdue and just in time. It shows that there is still a place in Australian life for works of art that challenge us to think; that unapologetically ask us to think about what things, the things we live among and perceive, mean.

The novel is situated within a framing setting much like present day Goroke in the border districts of Victoria and South Australia where Murnane now lives. Within this frame, the narrator moves between scenes of a remembered life, using motifs and images to draw these fragments together.

In Border Districts, the narrator claims that the work he is writing is not a work of fiction; rather it is “a report of actual events and no sort of work of fiction”.

He continues:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

What comprise actual events, however, are the images that occur within the mind of the writer. In the passage just cited the narrator is imagining what it might be like to be within the mind of a long dead maiden “aunt” or cousin of a friend at whose house he stays when visiting the capital city of his state.

He imagines he might be sleeping in the room she slept in. He knows certain things about her, most tellingly, that she was being courted by a young man who went to fight in world war one and never returned. He pictures her associating images that concern a narrative of a possible life she might have led if her suitor had not died, if she had instead married him and moved with him to a farming district to work for a landowner.

The story he imagines would, in anyone else’s terminology, be called a fictional story, and yet the narrator insists that all of these image-events are actual. The heart of the matter is the feeling of understanding, or meaning, that is given to the reader. The narrator questions whether “feeling” is adequate to this process, and so uses the word “essence”.

Fragments into patterns

The narrator of Border Districts speaks of the images with which meaning is created as fragments that are drawn together as a kaleidoscope draws together its fragments of colour.

The narrator sees his mind as drawing together these fragments into patterns, which then become meaningful to him, and this includes beliefs that once gave his life meaning, which he no longer believes in:

He might have begun to understand that even the images that he claimed no longer to believe in — even these were necessary for his salvation, even if they were not more than evidence of his need for saving imagery.

“Saving imagery” might mean “imagery that relates to salvation” or it might mean “imagery that is preserved”.

While unfashionable to do so, then, Murnane charges fiction with a heavy responsibility and claims immense value for it. Fiction needs to preserve or guard images that give our lives a sense of meaning.The Conversation

Anthony Uhlmann, Director, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Why the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards need an urgent overhaul

Patrick Allington, Flinders University

Odd rules can help shape a writing prize’s long-term character in wonderful ways. But that’s not the case with the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, set up by the Rudd government and first awarded in 2008. (In 2012, they also took in the PM’s Prize for Australian History, which John Howard had begun.)

The expanded awards — with separate categories for fiction, non-fiction, Australian history, poetry, YA and children’s books and a winner’s prize money of A$80,000 tax free — should be well-placed to be our pre-eminent national literary awards. Instead, they bob on the vast sea of daily politics, occasionally getting dumped by a breaker.

As Colin Steele, a former judge of the non-fiction award recently suggested, the issues facing the Awards include Prime Ministerial interventions in deciding winners, the appointment and treatment of judges, and the quality and focus of publicity and marketing.

I’d add that the name doesn’t help: almost anything — from the silly (The Oi Oi Oi’s?) to the prosaic (National Book Awards?) — would be preferable to the current one.

But the key flaw in the Awards’ guidelines is this:

The Prime Minister makes the final decision on the awarding of the Awards, taking into account the recommendations of the judges.

As Beth Driscoll put it in 2008,

To appreciate the true scandal of this potentiality, imagine the Queen actually choosing the Governor General!

Steele identifies three separate instances of prime ministerial intervention in the awards. In 2013, he writes, Kevin Rudd overruled the judges’ recommendation for the History Award, Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012). The Award was then given to Ross McMullin’s collection of World War I personal histories, Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation (2012).

In 2014, meanwhile, the fiction judges chose Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People (2013), a novel about TS Eliot and London during the blitz, as the winner. But then PM Tony Abbott intervened to make Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) a joint winner. Years earlier, in 2006 (before the wider PM’s Literary Awards existed), John Howard had intervened to make Les Carlyon’s The Great War (2006) a co-winner of the History Prize.

Tony Abbott awarding Richard Flanagan the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2014. Mr Abbott intervened to make Mr Flanagan a joint winner.
AAP Image/Joe Castro

The lack of transparency around these awards is palpable. Should a Prime Minister intercede for purely literary reasons? Or are political reasons fine? Or “history war” reasons? Or local constituency reasons? Or personal reasons?

Can a PM reject a winner because of a cover image or an epigraph? Is a PM who wishes to intercede obliged to read all the shortlisted books? Can a PM “call in” a book that hasn’t made the shortlist or isn’t in competition?

In the meantime, judges engage in delicate debate and compromise amongst themselves, without knowing if they are actually choosing the winner. This is no clearly-defined two-tiered process – with one panel choosing a shortlist and another panel the winning book, as happens with the Pulitzer Prize. This is arbitrary.

Other complaints about the judging process have dogged the Awards. Senator George Brandis claimed in 2014 that the Labor-chosen panels lacked balance, as no judges were “conservative or even liberal democratic”. He suggested that that his government instead aimed for “balanced panels”, citing as examples Gerard Henderson as chair of the non-fiction and history panel (“conservative”) and Louise Adler as chair of the fiction and poetry panel (“a woman of the left”).

At around the same time as Brandis was complaining about past judges, Morry Schwartz and Chris Feik from Black Inc. protested the choice of Henderson as a judge:

Henderson has a history of incessant and obsessive criticism of leading Australian writers and commentators with whom he disagrees politically … His appointment politicises what has until now been an apolitical award based on merit.

I happen to disapprove of Gerard Henderson’s politics, to the limited extent that I understand them. But any isolated scrutiny of a single judge mainly demonstrates the susceptibility of the awards to the politics of the moment, including the more tedious elements of the culture wars.

In any writing competition, a judge arrives with personal, political and literary baggage, preoccupations and biases. But judges also, ideally, bring a commitment to identifying and rewarding excellence that transcends their personal politics and previous public statements.

In turn, the judges’ collective decisions should provoke productive and passionate disagreement on literary, cultural and political grounds. In other words, in calling for changes to the PM’s Literary Awards, I am not seeking a saccharine or apolitical outcome. A prize’s idiosyncrasies can help define it.

For example, the flawed but magnificent legacy of the Miles Franklin Literary Award stems in large part from Franklin’s inspired stipulation that the winning novel (or play, if no novel measures up) should not only be of the “highest literary merit” but “must present Australian Life in any of its phases”.

The stipulation within the PM’s Literary Awards that a Prime Minister has the final say about winners is equally defining: it compromises the Awards’ credibility, purpose and depth.

That stipulation must go, without delay. To function effectively, the Awards need entrenched breathing space from the government that funds them. They need an unambiguous mandate: what are these Awards for?

And they need transparency. In the context of questioning Henderson as judge, Schwartz and Feik called for a published list of all entries received. In the spirit of critically celebrating the breadth of Australian writing, the PM’s Literary Awards – indeed, all major Australian book prizes – should embrace this suggestion.

In the meantime, I, for one, look forward to the 2017 judges of the PM’s Literary Awards perhaps choosing Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin: how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government (2016) as the winner of the non-fiction award.

If this eventuates, what happens next may well depend on whether the Prime Minister is Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten … or perhaps even, by then, a reawakened Tony Abbott.

The Conversation

Patrick Allington, Lecturer in English & Creative Writing, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.