It seems it might be much easier to create a suite of literary awards than to kill one. For Premier Beattie, his literary awards were thought a triumph. For Premier Newman, the quarter of a million dollars saved from their axing has already created a mess of his first foray into the arts. By nixing the suite of 14 literary awards that exist under his name—the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards—anyone would think he had come to cause trouble or to remind everyone too soon about Queensland’s cultural history. But the awards, a 1998 initiative of Beattie’s, were always going to be a bad fit for Newman. What is unclear at this moment though is whether this decision is just ill-thought through or if it tolls a bell for the new LNP Government’s support of the arts in the state.

While Anna Bligh comfortably inherited the task of presenting the literary awards from Beattie, and while she could boast each year that she had read most the 30 to 40 books on the various shortlists, this gig was always going to be difficult for Premier Newman. As Lord Mayor, at least, his interests in the cultural portfolio were limited to community level or economically driven initiatives. It was too easy for him to misunderstand these awards as the province of the “elites”.

As Lord Mayor, Newman was not wholly poorly disposed towards literature and writing. Like Mayor Soorley before him, he wasn’t much of a supporter of the Brisbane Writers Festival, but Newman did roll out the “One Book Many Brisbanes” program (OBMB), which replaced the problematic “One Book One Brisbane” scheme. I was the industry advisor on the development of the OBMB, and what Lord Mayor wanted was community level involvement in the telling of local stories. And he stated that he was happy with the outcomes and the community participation that he got for his $150,000. The scheme saw the publication of many good Queensland writers: such as Venero Armanno, and it helped uncover important new voices such Christopher Currie. And they were all writing stories set in the city of Brisbane: a bit too provincial perhaps, but no harm done.

By contrast, even before he became Premier in 1998, Peter Beattie was sounding out the small Queensland writing and publishing sector as to how he could help in its continued development. After the scorched earth years of Joh, there was some green-shoot development under Goss. From 1989, Goss supported new infrastructure—such as the Queensland Writers Centre, the Brisbane Writers Festival—and grants for publishers and individuals. While David Malouf, Rodney Hall, Susan Johnson, Gerard Lee (et al) had all left under Joh, new voices emerged under Goss: Nick Earls, Mary Rose MacColl, Melissa Lucashenko, Venero Armanno, and Andrew McGahan. This new development wasn’t all government’s doing, but there was a change in the cultural climate and in the apparatus of support (a longer account is here: http://alturl.com/7oqvk).

From 1998, Beattie as Premier was more interested than Goss (as Premier) or Soorley and later Newman (as Lord Mayors) in the symbolic and discursive value of literary and intellectual culture. Beattie, in cahoots with his then departmental Director-General Glyn Davis, rolled out the Queensland Ideas Festival, the Brisbane Institute, and, in 1999, The Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

While now the Prime Minister and nearly every state premier have similar suites of prizes, at the time Beattie’s were innovative and were an important investment in the state’s cultural identity. The Awards covered many genres, which grew in number over the following decade. Some prizes were more significant than others. While there were already several national fiction awards, the Queensland awards were most important for establishing an Emerging Queensland Author Award (never an easy thing to be) and for incorporating the David Unaipon Award (for unpublished Indigenous writers) and the Steele Rudd Award for best collection of short fiction.

Some critics argue that literary awards have little developmental value: that mostly they reward established writers, or books that no-one reads, or darlings of the Left. But these awards were significant in two ways. Firstly, they supported new writing in Queensland and new Indigenous writing nationally. They gave local writers and new writers something to aspire to. Prizes for unpublished manuscripts throw up dross and specks of gold, but these awards introduced us to Karen Foxlee, Steven Lang, Tara June Winch, Larissa Bahrendt, Vivien Cleven, and Sam Wagan Watson.

Secondly, and more subtly, the Awards had great symbolic value in signalling continuing cultural change in Queensland. The state has been acutely aware of (and rightly embarrassed about) its cultural backwater status. And again and again since Expo it has announced that it is re-inventing itself culturally–as a new, more cosmopolitan community. And in the twenty-five years since Expo it has changed profoundly: economically; demographically; but also culturally (see here: http://alturl.com/n36c7). The Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were a signal, projected both to the local population and to interstate, that Queensland was now part of national and international communities that sought to celebrate and support culture, speech, ideas, difference, and even aesthetics.

These Awards cost far less than nearly any other government program, but they deliver clear cultural and economic dividends. Culturally, they give permission to the work of local artists and writers. Additionally, they support writers from elsewhere come to the state—at the time of the Brisbane Writers Festival—to see Brisbane and Queensland in a new light: no longer a cultural backwater or the butt of jokes. Economically, they signal that Queensland values cultural life and cultural appurtenances. They help make Brisbane the kind of city where educated and skilled labour might choose to re-locate. Culture and economics go hand in hand.

Killing these literary awards is a worse outcome than never having had them at all—particularly for Queensland. In the context of Queensland history—one of cultural repression and censorship–Premier Newman’s act strikes a threatening note. Newman might not hate literature or writing, but he has immediately signalled that he has no appreciation for its usefulness. He has signalled that he doesn’t understand the way artists and writers help us make a civilized society, and the way they help us discuss and negotiate who we are. Newman may not like to read, but he is mistaken to think that we should not encourage others to do so. While the writing community roils today, the rest of arts community might well shiver.

(Just to clarify, while i am a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, this doesn’t officially represent the view of the Board. I might say though, that all the individual board members are more than a bit fucked off.)

 


 

 

 

 

34 Responses to literary awards: early own-goal from premier newman

  1. *applause*

    Brilliant, Stuart.

  2. Sarah Ellen says:

    Thank you, Stuart! :)

  3. Anna Krien says:

    I love a little context. Thanks Glover! And that disclaimer is killer.

  4. Scott E. says:

    While the importance of literacy and cultural development is obvious, your article comes across as if Newman is burning books while cackling gleefully and whipping writers. Awards are acknowledgement of achievement, not the sole driving force behind increases in childhood literacy or adoption of arts as a passion and calling. Children don’t care about which author won what award – they care about engaging stories, and those stories will (hopefully) promote themselves. The only people who care about the awards are eligible authors and associated literary aficionados, and even then, no author will throw their hands up and declare “Well, that’s it, no awards, no career. No more tales in my head, no more expressing myself through written word. I might as well become a yak herder now.”

    I’m not Newman’s biggest fan but from all reports, Queensland is broke and we need to cut corners. I for one, would rather see that $250k go towards book programs for schools or health or roads or anything that will help the state, not just a small number of writers. I can appreciate that recognition is invaluable and motivating, but perhaps the money can come from other sources.

    I’m open to my horizons being expanded on the subject, but in my humble, and admittedly-lay-person-when-it-comes-to-higher-literary-issues opinion, the awards were expendable.

  5. I came across this post and am in two minds about how to react to Campbell Newman’s decision.

    In general I find myself being more libertarian over time. i.e. the government should step out of as many things as possible. Or at least use public funds in a way which multiplies their benefit.

    I think the best government programs are the ones which directly cause people to do new things which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. e.g. superannuation co-contribution encourages people to chuck money in their super fund which wouldn’t have previously been saved; NEIS encourages the creation of small businesses which wouldn’t have found their feet without the buffer of government funds.

    The literary awards seem like they were a very indirect way of encouraging the creation of art via government money. I say that because they target works already produced, rather than directly encouraging new stories to come forth.

    Just throwing out these devil’s advocate comments in the spirit of discussion.

  6. Anne-Mare Britton says:

    Hilarious disclaimer…!!

  7. Doctor D says:

    Newman is off to a good start cutting back the wasteful spending of the former government. I’m all for promoting awards and spending money on the arts, but you don’t furnish your flat with lavish art whilst your can’t even pay the rent.

    Queensland is broke. Lets focus on awards when we have money in the bank and are in a financial position to do so.

    • Phil says:

      Oh please! Queensland is not broke – most of the world would give anything to trade places.

      This is a clear signal that Qld no longer values a vibrant artistic culture. The cost of Newman’s blinkered new Philistinism will be felt not only in terms of quality of life and civic pride, but also in real economic terms as years of painstaking effort to build our cultural standing are thrown into reverse.

    • Alex says:

      Seriously? Let’s see if he cuts some sports funding then, or funding for anything else which would negatively affect the interests of people whose votes he depends on.

  8. Karen A says:

    Bravo!!

  9. James says:

    The David Unaipon and Queensland emerging writer awards were created by UQP and grouped with the Premier’s awards from the early 2000s. They were paid for by the independent press. They were not the Premier’s awards to cut.

    We need a champion to take back these awards and give them all independentlent. Just call them the Queensland Literary Awards and make it very clear that neither the Premier nor the Minister are welcome.

    • stuart says:

      I am with you james about the future — but your history is not quite right. Unaipon predates the Premier’s Awards, but the Emerging Writers’ Award was always a partnership between Premier’s and UQP from the start–but did not predate the Premier’s Awards. I am pretty certain of this because Laurie Muller, Tess Brady and I were the judges for it in its first year.

  10. Michelle says:

    I guess if you are paying for all those mining subsidies you can’t pay for the arts as well…

  11. […] others who have commented on the issue include: Stuart Glover and Some people interviewed by the Courier […]

  12. Jennifer Tucker says:

    I am disappointed that such an interesting article about literature was concluded by using an explitive . It spoilt the message of the article as I believe it is a lazy use of our wonderful language .

  13. Lynne Lumsden Green says:

    Literature awards encourage literacy. School students like to read books they can relate to, and Queensland has provided Australia with a rich tradition of excellent YA writers: Michael Gerard Bauer springs immediately to mind. But by sending the message that ‘literature’ is elitist and/or disposable, ‘Can Do’ is telling students that literature and literacy are unimportant. So much for the Smart State…

  14. BLMac says:

    I can’t recall ever feeling the urge to read state sponsored literature. It’s a bit like the artificial pop stars from all those tv talent shows.

    The literary community needs to organise and fund raise to continue these awards rather than be dependent on the crumbs from the master’s table. $250,000 isn’t a huge amount to raise if there is sufficient support in the community – and surely there is.

    I’d happily stick in a few dollars to continue these awards, and hopefully there’s enough people who would do that. If there isn’t, then the premier is right.

  15. Bravo, Mr Glover. Thank you for this – it has helped me through an incredibly disheartening day – most especially when it came to the disproportionate SUPPORT this axing received. Horrifying.

  16. Benjamin Law says:

    And this is why we love you, Dr Strangeglove. Finely written. Also, I want to marry that disclaimer.

  17. Irma Gold says:

    Brilliant, Stuart. The most insightful piece on this whole debacle so far. And your disclaimer gave me a much-needed chuckle on this very dispiriting day.

  18. Lloyd says:

    Through out tutorials at QUT Writing Classes today, this was discussed. We all felt a little robbed, mainly because these are seen as our ‘end goals’, a useful foot forward into the industry. This article summed up the majority of our discussions.

    I don’t like the idea that people think this is some form of ‘money saving technique’ initiated by Newman due to lack of funds. This isn’t an outlandish amount it serves more of a symbolic gesture towards the arts.

    I also disagree with the idea that this money is wasteful, the awards are seen as an investment in the future of Queensland writers. If there are 15 awards covered by the money, each highlighting notable works and providing a platform for discussion and appreciation: isn’t that worth it?

  19. Adair Jones says:

    In 1996, when I first arrived in Brisbane from New York City, I spent months in shock. While I knew few places could match the arts of NYC, the Brisbane I came to was culturally stark. Much has changed in 16 years: the Powerhouse, the Judith Wright Centre, BWF, Brisbane Ideas Festival, TEDx, GOMA–all have made Brisbane vibrant and interesting, a cultural scene I’m proud to be part of. We all knew Campbell Newman would be a disappointment. He’s made his point: the arts are not his priority. Is there any way we can pull together to carry on the Queensland Literary Awards without him? We’ll have to act quickly, but I for one would love to find private funding for the awards, put on a great bash in celebration, and watch Newman’s face when he realises he hasn’t been invited.

  20. Claire says:

    Just a few questions. I’m hoping someone can help me out. I understand the awards had several major sponsors (UQP, Griffith University, the ABC etc) for the awards categories. Did they help fund the categories’ prizemoney, or was it mostly funded by the state government?

    The judges were appointed by the state government, but were they also paid by the state government to read the entries and carry out their judging? Would this have contributed significantly to the cost of running the awards? Or did the judges do their work for free?

    I’ve searched online extensively about this but can’t seem to find any sites that clarify the full costs of the awards.

    For the record, I’m not setting out to bash the awards’ cost – I’m trying to settle an argument with my crotchety, old, LNP-voting dad. :) And am genuinely curious about it.

    • tina says:

      I do know one of the judges, (well, ex judges now!) My understanding is that she was given copies of the books submitted – publishers do that, government doesn’t buy the books. And she was paid a token amount of $1000 for the considerable hours she spent reading and critiquing the books.

  21. chelsea says:

    God dam you, ‘Can do’ Campbell. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should

  22. […] politics and state premier egos aside (Stuart Glover has written a helpful background to the Queensland awards), what are such awards good […]

  23. […] 25 years to transform the state from a laughing stock into a vibrant literary and arts community.  Stuart Glover, University of Queensland academic, discusses the history and usefulness of the awards, concluding […]

  24. lehank says:

    I’m going to the Rugby tonight. Free travel on trains and buses. If the crowd is 52,000, and say 15,000 travel on a train where they would have spent $5 at least on fares, then the cost to the state government would be $75,000. If patrons were charged for train transport, then 3 or 4 matches would recoup $250,000, give or take some.

    As a betting man, I’ll wager that the odds of Mr Newman cutting the train transport freebie is about 500/1. Free transport to sporting events is not sustainable if we are so badly off, unless there are votes in it.

  25. […]  Government literary grants and awards for writers and artists are as valid to Australia’s development as a nation as sports funding or farm aid to those battlers on the land. That’s why we in the arts community, plus those Australians who believe in what we do, are so angry and dismayed at the new Queensland government’s action, under Premier Campbell Newman, to slash the State’s Literary Awards. […]

  26. […] example, you can read Stuart Glover’s brilliant blog here. I also recommend Benjamin Eltham’s article on Crikey and George Megalogenis’ article in […]

  27. Hear, hear!
    Not sure why everyone is surprised, liberals are the first ones to cut support to the arts especially Literature.
    I don’t vote them just because they destroy what is most precious to me. Business is all that matters to them and I know where that takes us. Queensland is one of them most backwards states in arts development, yes I know there is the NT but I won’t count that. I didn’t need a liberal premier, neither did Queensland.

  28. […] example, you can read Stuart Glover’s brilliant blog here. I also recommend Benjamin Eltham’s article on Crikey and George Megalogenis’ article in […]

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