Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Patrick White Award, prizes, lists, elephant stamps and so on

The brilliant David Foster has won the 2010 Patrick White Award, and used his acceptance speech, as he is wont to do whenever he wins something, to attack something or somebody else.

Sigh. Apart from anything else, it's not usually a matter of writers 'putting their hands up' for prizes and awards; usually it's the publishers who put books in for prizes and awards, and I'm guessing the publishers would scream blue murder, and I can understand why, if a writer (a good writer, anyway) these days said No no, leave me out of it. It might even be in some of their contracts. All very well for Patrick White, whose publishers were British and didn't give a toss what was going on in Aw-stralia. Times have changed.

On the other hand, the guy is a genius. There are many Australian writers whose work I admire and some whose work I love, but for sheer power and originality of vision and style I think Foster is up there with (to list them in order of birthdate) Joseph Furphy, Christina Stead, Patrick White, David Ireland, Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, Barbara Hanrahan and Alexis Wright. There's them, and then there's everyone else. And all of them, apart from Alexis Wright, who's lovely, were and/or are known for their intermittently difficult, prickly, eccentric, combative and/or contrary-Mary moments. So I suppose it goes with the territory.

This is my Aust Lit List of writers -- not of 'favourites', for my favourites list is quite different, but of people I think were or are genuine originals and geniuses -- and I can just imagine the trouble it could get me into, but here I stand, etc.

And it's an opportunity to explore a different issue that has been bothering me more and more in the wake of the publication last year of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, which with the exception of such actual scholars of Australian literature as Professors Ivor Indyk and Peter Pierce seemed to be read by critics and commentators not for what was actually there, but rather almost exclusively in terms of who did or did not get an elephant stamp to say they'd been picked for the First Eleven.

But for me, and I'm guessing for most or all of my fellow editors, it was far less a matter of 'who was in and who was out' than of what was in, and what it was for, and how it fitted together with all the other things that were in, within the stern constraints of our word limits.

So while that's my personal Who's Who list up there, my personal What's What list of poems, stories and novels is quite different: individual works that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis. If I could teach an Aust Lit course based solely on the texts that I personally think are magical in this way -- not 'representative' of anything or anyone, not there for any educative or ideological purpose, just magical, like a swirling snow globe or a glowing old-fashioned night light -- it would look like this:

Jessica Anderson, The Commandant
Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup
Marjorie Barnard, 'The Persimmon Tree'
Charmian Clift, Images in Aspic
Delia Falconer, 'Republic of Love'
Helen Garner, The Children's Bach
Jack Hibberd, A Stretch of the Imagination
Elizabeth Jolley, My Father's Moon
Baz Luhrmann, Strictly Ballroom
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life
Olga Masters, 'The Christmas Parcel'
Les Murray, 'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle'
John Shaw Nielsen, 'Let Your Song be Delicate'
Kenneth Slessor, 'Five Bells'
Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians
Don Walker and Steve Prestwich, 'Flame Trees'
Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock


  1. A propos of nothing other than nostalgia (the last refuge of the geriatric) my first serious girlfriend (in my matric year - anyone remember that?) as a Christmas present gave me Astleys 'The Slow Natives'.

    45 years later she remains (other than my long suffering missus) my best mate.

    Who says books don't have an influence?

  2. BTW, to state the bleeding oblivious, 'The Slow Natives' segues beautifully into the 'elephant stamp' bit.

  3. Oh I love Thea Astley. She is, or was, Bad, but I do love her.

  4. A Kindness Cup is awesome. I even visited the relevant rock (legacies of a North Queensland childhood and, later, working life).

  5. Yes, but Cliff Green 'wrote' the script for Picnic at Hanging Rock.

  6. Of course, and Joan Lindsay wrote the novel -- but that was a very deliberate ascription to Weir, in his role as the head honcho of the magical object that is the film. By that criterion I should probably have acknowledged not only Don Walker and Steve Prestwich but also the rest of Cold Chisel for 'Flame Trees', since it's their version that is the magical one and other people's covers don't cut it, at least not for this list.

  7. But you're right, Susan, I did sort of drift a bit there, artform-wise.

  8. Oh yay! There's something about a reading/re-reading list that makes the student in me sit up and sparkle. Pavlov's dog reaction for Pavlov's cat :)

    WV: pationyt, Chaucer for sitting on the patio reading at night.