Last night in Crows Nest, Sydney, John Birmingham presented the 31st Australian/Vogel Literary Award to Melbourne writer Paul D. Carter for his novel Eleven Seasons. It was a big night with many speeches – by Allen & Unwin chairman Patrick Gallagher, publisher Annette Barlow, John Birmingham, Paul D. Carter, Vogel judge Sophie Cunningham, the Australian‘s literary editor Stephen Romei and Alan Stevns, whose father Niels Stevns started the award 31 years ago.
Before I go into the speeches, here’s the opening of the night’s main attraction: the award-winning novel.
All ten of the 1985 Hawthorn VFL swap cards are arranged in two rows on Jason Dalton’s bedspread. Most of them are creased and rain damaged. Brand new they cost fifty cents a pack from Arthur’s milk bar around the corner, but Jason had to win them playing flicks at school. Two players flick their cards against the wall, and the first player to land his card on top of another wins the other’s cards. It took him only two days to collect the Hawthorn set. Afterwards, the other kids in Year Seven wouldn’t play him. ‘No way, mate – you’re a freak,’ they said.
Michael Tuck, the Hawthorn ruck-rover, is card ninety. He has a long-sleeve guernsey, a taut, wiry body and a teacher’s brown beard. Jason wonders if his dad had a beard like that. Probably not. He might have looked like back-pocket Gary Ayres, though: tall and broad with black hair swimming around his collar. Card ninety-eight – last card in the Hawthorn set.’
So, it’s a coming of age novel about football, specifically, football Victorian-style. AFL. As the back cover says: ‘Some guys are good at school and telling jokes or they have the latest stuff. Others are cricketers and basketball players: they can do things with the ball that make their classmates talk about them when they’re not around. His thing is football. He becomes the centre of whichever team he plays for: he becomes the advantage.’
I don’t know a thing about AFL – but I can’t wait to read Eleven Seasons. Carter says it was inspired by the prologue to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is about a live-or-die baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers in New York on 3 October 1951. I don’t know a thing about baseball either, but Underworld and especially its prologue are among my favourite pieces of writing in the world. (‘He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.’)
Patrick Gallagher introduced the evening and spoke about the revamped award. For the first time last year the winning novel was announced not after the judges had selected it in September but six months later when the novel had been published. This is an excellent innovation because it means there’s an actual book to go with the excitement of the announcement, something we can read and review. As Gallagher said, this also means a secret has to be kept for six months by the judges, publishers, editors, the winning author, but so far so good. The secret has been kept.
Allen & Unwin publisher Annette Barlow spoke about the success of last year’s Vogel winner, Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, which has been praised by critics and shortlisted for literary awards.
Next up came John Birmingham who saluted Vogel’s bread – ‘Love your bread’ – and recounted his dangerous passage from Queensland, where it’s now illegal to give literary prizes, to New South Wales. He’d been smuggled out on the freedom train, eluding the border guards who’ve been given strict orders by the new premier to allow no writers of any sort to cross the border.
The Queensland premier’s decision this month to can the QLD premier’s literary awards led Birmingham to ponder the idea of literary prize giving in general. With tongue in cheek he questioned the efficacy of rewarding one writer over another, especially in the case of Queensland, where ‘the money could be better spent returning 0.0001% of fuck all to the state’s debt’. Or not.
Birmingham said we mostly can’t distinguish between the relative merits of writers because ultimately there’s an element of subjectivity in these literary awards decisions. There’s no mechanism to make these judgements.
‘What’s that, Mr Premier? We already have such a mechanism, the infallible, invisible hand of the market?’ Birmingham joked about the trash the invisible hand throws up and argued that the great thing about literary prizes is they involve judgements made by peers who know the value of a writer’s work beyond price points and money.
Birmingham then turned to the prize winning author. ‘As reality TV tells us, there can only be one winner. I’d like to invite Paul Carter the receive the award.’
After thanking Niels and Alan Stevns, the Australian and his publisher, editors, publicist, Carter talked about his double life for the past six months. By day he worked as an English and creative writing teacher at a Melbourne high school, telling his students how fun creative writing is. By night he revised Eleven Seasons for publication, agonising over two 15-page editorial reports and sometimes wishing his novel never existed.
The ‘novel writing process’ began 12 years ago when Carter was 20. During those years he had half a dozen day jobs, finished postgraduate study (he wrote his novel as part of a PhD at Deakin University) and changed careers. Carter wanted to write about football and how Australia had changed in his lifetime. He expected it to take one or two years – ‘but stories don’t work to timelines’. He had to build his writing skills as he wrote and he had to grow up. Eleven Seasons took him 9 years to complete.
Carter thanked his family who never laughed at him when he said he wanted to be a writer, his partner Kate for her talents as a reader and storyteller, and concluded: ‘With your assistance, I’m honoured to call myself a writer tonight.’
This year’s judges were writers Margo Lanagan and Sophie Cunningham and writer and literary critic Geordie Williamson. Cunningham spoke about the judging. She said of the 150 entrants there was a clear longlist of 12 manuscripts and the winner was a standout – and a unanimous choice. The judges were looking for a novel that grabbed them from the opening page to the end.
Cunningham said that many of the entrants dealt with passivity, with characters keenly experiencing the world around them but not knowing how to act on it. She wondered whether this flatness of tone ‘might say something about this historical moment’. This flatness is hard to do well – and that’s one reason Clare Carlin’s shortlisted novel Excursions stood out.
This year – not surprisingly – saw a shift towards fantasy and science fiction, with a proliferation of apocalypses, vampires and zombies. Cunningham said this interest in death emerged not just in the supernatural and the afterlife, but in more realist fiction in writing about death, which is the subject of the other shortlisted novel, Michael Hugill’s Living Rooms.
Next up came Stephen Romei, who’d just flown in from Europe that morning and said John Birmingham had stolen all his jokes. After giving Paul some advice – ‘write faster next time’ – he too pondered the canned QLD literary awards. ‘The more I think about it, it’s boneheaded.’ Literary awards matter, the Vogel’s in particular. ‘You only have to look at the alumni – and not just the winners. The whole Vogel process is an incubator of young writing talent. A lot of writers who go through the process end up leaving their mark.’
Romei said that among the doom and gloom of publishing and bookselling ‘writers are doing brilliantly’. At least 12 outstanding works of literary fiction by Australian writers were published in the last year. And literary awards matter because they recognise those writers.
He summed up his position by declaring: ‘I think writers are a bit special – so why not given them praise and money?’ Why not indeed.
Alan Stevns concluded the proceedings by telling us that the Vogel Award had been going for 31 years ‘and I’ve stood here before you on 26 occasions’. His father Niels presided over the first five awards. Stevns said the prize was his father’s way of giving something back to his adopted country ‘and I know he’d be proud to see how it’s developed today’. He said the prize had ‘more than fulfilled’ his father’s initial aim, which was to give young Australian writers confidence and support.
THANK YOU Niels and Alan Stevns – what a great legacy. And congratulations to Paul D. Carter and the two shortlisted writers Clare Carlin and Michael Hugill.