I’d like to begin with a hearty “DUDE, SERIOUSLY” that belies both my age and my complete inability to accurately express the level of outrage broiling up within me.
Come on, Campbell Newman. What were you thinking?
I realise you’re just one of I-don’t-kn0w-how-many politicians, advisors and such whose opinions and brow-furrowing would’ve influenced this decision, but I like to think you, and not some puppet master or non-existent concerned constituency, had the ability to make the final call. Hence, you and me have a problem.
For those fresh off the boat, Newman is Queensland’s brand-new Premier and one of his first acts of duty was canning the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Even as I write that, I realise I’ve conveyed the ludicrousness of this scenario – intended for a lengthy blog post – in one sentence.
Way to win hearts and minds, Cam! Can I get a “Hey-o!”?
Jibes aside, Newman’s actions come as a result of re-evaluating that pesky State budget and looking for areas in which to do some spring cleaning. The literature prize, totalling about $244,000 across 14 entry categories in 2011, was one of the first things to go. The collective sigh of aspiring and established Queensland – and Australian – authors can still be heard in the walkways of libraries and bookstores nationwide.
Open to novels published within the previous year (generally – and sometimes categories for unpublished writers feature), a State’s Premier’s awards are arguably its most prestigious annual literary event. It’s no Miles Franklin or Man Booker, but it certainly sees Australian writers celebrated and rewarded for their hard work. In 2002, Markus Zusak’s chronically under-appreciated novel When Dogs Cry won the YA category and Venero Armanno’s The volcano won the fiction category. Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Mark Tredinnick, Paul Jennings – all have taken home the Pineapple State’s prize for one work or another since its inception in 1999.
In a column in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Jane Sullivan vented her frustrations that Newman’s actions “legitimises the idea that not just literary prize funding but arts funding in general is a waste of government money”. She cited a depressing statistic from the Australian Society of Authors that indicated Aussie writers earn on average $11,000 a year from their pursuits. That $30,000 in prize money looks really good about now, and that’s the problem. Writers – the poor fools – have chosen to spend considerable time and energy on sitting at a desk, alone, in total silence, to stare at a computer screen and put words into sentences and mould those sentences into something someone actually cares about. I can’t say I’ve ever invested actual blood in any project, but there’s real sweat and tears involved. Unpublished as I am (except for you, dearest blog), I can still attest to the fact that writing is hard. Which is ironic, considering I’ve come to this particular field based on the realisation that I suck at everything else and writing is about the only thing left I can accomplish without having a hernia.
And writers rely on prizes, and grants.
Just think about that.
Writers love their craft so much they’re willing to stake an unreliable income on the chances of it succeeding. Willing to throw their work into the ring with hundreds of other, potentially much better or much worse pieces, on the really slim chance that they’ll then get paid a significant sum for their efforts. If they don’t – here’s the kicker – they keep going and try again.
I realise for every person holding a minute’s silence in memory of yet another piece of the arts sector thrown under a bus, there’s another who can’t believe the ridiculous funnelling of thousands of dollars into an elitist prize hadn’t been chopped off at the neck years ago. Like the money goes towards a bi-annual Tea Cosy knitting contest.
Well it doesn’t.
It’s more than that. It’s intellectual property. Expression. Creativity. Vibrant and tangible one second, subtle and fleeting the next, whether it’s being read to a classroom full of wide-eyed children or sought out by an aging scholar between dusty rows in a government building, a book is a tool. An investment, a weapon, a treasure, to be shared and loved and debated over and discarded and kept for years and years and years. The minute you start dissuading the people who create these precious things, make it less viable for them to fund subsequent projects, is the minute their production slows. So you don’t get a state-of-the-art sports and recreation centre at the end of it. A hospital keeps on keeping on with a few hundred less rooms than it probably needs. Valid arguments, any sane person can admit that. But when we sacrifice books, we sacrifice more. Inspiration, wonder, laughter, satisfaction, compulsion, obsession and plain and simple joy. Forget Kindles and iPads; it’s people who think culling the expenditure of a mere $250,000 – small change in State budget terms – because it supports such a petty activity as writing who are bringing about the demise of the book.
If you become a writer for the money, you’re an idiot. Go study hard and be a lawyer. But if you get to the point where you feel you’re a writer enough to say you’re a writer, well, it’s too late for you. We lost causes can make ends meet somehow while chasing pipe dreams into the early hours of the morning, delusions of grandeur guiding the way.
Then a guy like Newman comes along and cuts off our arm by axing an avenue – a prestigious avenue, jam-packed with worthy contenders narrowing your chances of getting anything out of it, but an avenue nonetheless – of potential revenue. It sends a message. It tells me something. That I stay up until 1am weeknights bashing out the skeletal structure of a story I hope to one day share with at least a few hundred people, face the harsh reality that it will probably never see the light of day no matter what I do, maybe one day actually see the fruit of my loins end up on a shelf for someone to buy and then – ha! – end up on a revered State literature prize shortlist, and you don’t think I deserve to make a living out of it.
I once read that in order to have a sufficient argument against something, you must be prepared to provide an alternative.
I DON’T HAVE ONE.
There’s plenty of funding bodies (the Australia Council for the Arts springs to mind) who are 100 per cent pro-creative endeavour, the heads of which probably think Campbell Newman is a fly in the ointment and his decision will go down as one of the stupidest and most unnecessary we’ve seen. But it doesn’t change the fact that Queensland’s cultural identity has a literature prize-shaped hole in its heart.
And between you, me, the recognised and unrecognised writers of Queensland and a nation of avid readers, thinkers and creatives, it’s undeniable that an alternative does exist. You have to want to find it, seek it, embrace it, Mr Newman. Or at least turn around and face the fact that you felled one hell of an inappropriate tree. If you don’t, you do something else. You set precedent. And a world without books isn’t one I want to live in any time soon.