literary awards: early own-goal from premier newman
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.)
I am an academic and an editor who teaches writing at the University of Queensland. This is the final resting place for some of my work.
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