Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Prime Minister's Prize for Literature: A welcome gesture

The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) congratulates the new Rudd Labor government on the announcement on December 4 of two major new literary prizes. In 2008, there will be a Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for fiction and a Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for non-fiction.

The annual awards will be worth $100,000 in each category, with a further budget of $100,000 to be spent each year on promotion and administration of the prizes. The ASA is pleased to note that the prizes will be awarded tax-free, a policy the organisation has been encouraging the government to adopt for all awards and grants to creators.

The Prize will be the richest in Australia, and will rank among the top literary prizes in the world. Some details are still to be confirmed, but it is anticipated that the award will be open to Australian writers working anywhere in the world, and writing on any topic. The award will be run through Arts Minister Peter Garrett’s office.

Some commentators have criticised the Prize, arguing that funding should be spread more broadly. I don't disagree that we need more funding options, but the Prize represents a welcome recognition that Australian culture is to be valued under the newly lected government.

Literature is a crucial part of Australian culture. I would go so far as to say it is the wellspring for all the other narrative arts — drama, film, television and so on. Whether it is fiction (in all its myriad genres), poetry or non-fiction, literature is the means by which we as Australian portray ourselves. But the coat our literature weaves is one of many fabrics and, like cotton or silk, each fabric evolves in different ways. It is crucial for our culture and our literature that we nurture each of the ways those diverse fabrics evolve, even the rough hessian and the smooth nylon that we might otherwise discard for snobbish reasons of one form or another. Nylon, after all was once highly sought after. And hessian will still keep you warm on a cold night. This means we need many ways of manufacturing fabrics. It also means we may (I trust we will!) be manufacturing some that literary purists will consider inappropriate. In this context literary prizes are one way we can provide authors with the means to sustain their writing. But they are by no means the only way by which the fabrics of our literature can be encouraged and produced. Writers centres, readings, festivals, creative writing courses and organisations like the ASA all help research new or variant fabrics, and they must be allowed to continue to do so.

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