When Richard Flanagan gave the $40,000 prize money he received to the Indigenous Literary Foundation, the country applauded. In his award speech he gave two reasons for his generosity.
Firstly, the lesson his father took from the POW camps and imparted to him was that the measure of any civilised society was its willingness to look after its weakest.
Secondly, if Flanagan’s presence at the Awards means anything it is the power of literacy to change lives. The difference between him and his illiterate grandparents is two generations of free state education and literacy.
His stirring acceptance speech is available here.
Stephen Romei, Literary Editor of The Australian newspaper, reported that Prime Minister Tony Abbott overruled the judges’ unanimous selection of Carroll’s A World of Other People, deciding that the novel must share the award with Flanagan’s.
Poet and member of the judging panel, Les Murray, was thunderstruck when he heard the results on the night, claiming Carroll’s novel was the sole winner.
“It was nasty the way it was done,” Murray told The Australian. “I was shocked that they went behind the scenes and worked a swifty.”
The Australian obtained the official judges’ report to the Prime Minister and Murray’s comments were confirmed:
“The judges unanimously recommend that Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People be awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.”
According to prize rules, the Australian prime minister has the right of “final decision” over the award’s selection. It was reported in The Australian that Prime Minister Tony Abbott exercised his prerogative to change the judges’ decision.
Whether or not Flanagan’s novel was good enough to win isn’t the discussion here.
There can be no doubt the Prime Minister’s Literary Award is one of the most lucrative in Australia. But what is now in doubt is whether it can still be seen as one of the most prestigious. These disclosures bring into question whether a novel should win because a panel of peers recognised its superior merit or because someone in power saw it as politically expedient? What is concerning is that the final selection made by an elected and eminent panel of people working in the literary field can be so easily over-ruled by the whim of someone who potentially has little knowledge of the complexities of writing.
Louise Adler, chairperson and judge of the fiction and poetry sections, lamented that judges were breaching confidentiality agreements by voicing in public their opposition to the “nasty surprise” they were confronted with.
Perhaps she should also consider the way the judges’ decision was over-ridden, the manner in which the change was revealed, and the opportunity for uninformed partiality to displace quality.
These are the things that need to be discussed.