Ned Kelly Award winners

This years Ned Kelly award for best fiction went to Garry Disher for Wyatt and best first fiction to Mark Dapin for King of the Cross.

Wyatt is the first crime novel featuring Disher’s anti-hero in thirteen years. Of Wyatt, Disher says: “He is a professional hold-up man: banks, payroll vans, jewel heists, etc. We don’t learn much about him and that is part of his appeal. He’s cool, all business, with not much of an emotional life, doesn’t suffer fools gladly (but is sometimes forced to rely on them), and although not a thrill killer will kill those who cross him. He has certain standards: no drugs, for example, no unnecessary violence.  Readers say ‘I don’t approve of Wyatt but I want him to win’, which is exactly my intention.”

Part of the Ned Kelly Awards now is the S D Harvey short story competition. (the award was established in memory of journalist and writers Sandra Harvey) Each year a word a particular word must appear in the title of the story and in the text. For 2011 the word is “hemisphere”, in 2009 it was “farewell” and 2010 “fountain”. The comp closes on 31 March 2011. See the award’s website for details

Is Jasper Jones literary fiction?

Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award this year. Most commentators thought it a surprise inclusion, along with Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly. It was unusual, the argument went, for YA books to be considered. However, surprisingly, Jasper Jones was not published as YA but as adult literary fiction. And that raises the question, what makes JJ fit in this category?

The novel has a thirteen year old narrator, Charlie Bucktin, and the story follows Charlie through a hot summer in a small town in WA as he grapples with his involvement of the cover up of the death of a girl, Laura Wishart, in an attempt to help the eponymous Jasper Jones who fears he will be accused of her murder. Along the way we follow the vicissitudes of Charlie’s ever cheerful Vietnamese friend Jeffrey Lu, problems at home with Charlie’s unhappy mother, and the beginnings of a relationship with Eliza, the dead girl’s sister. The novel is written in an energetic, almost breathless style that is accessible to young readers. It is also full of wonderful imagery and original turns of phrase.

But does this all add up to adult literary fiction? Could it be that Silvey’s references to Harper Lee and Mark Twain throughout the novel have led critics to elevate JJ to the exulted firmament where these texts reside? There is indeed a Boo Radley figure in the feared Mad Jack Lionel, where the town boys’ rite of passage is to steal a peach from the tree near Mad Jack’s house, and there are also instances of racism against a Vietnamese family and the town’s normative acceptance of this. As narrator, Charlie Bucktin explicitly likens his mild-mannered father to Atticus Finch, unfavourably. In the case of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the comparison is less clear. Charlie, though a self-deprecating narrator with a flair for words, is much more straightforward than Huck. Silvey may be referencing the verbal gymnastics of Twain’s dialogue in Charlie’s sparring with his friend Jeffrey Lu, and the use of vernacular in the speech of the half-Aboriginal Jasper Jones (the first less successful than the second) but, however Silvey references these texts, which were obviously starting points for his approach to writing this novel, I think, JJ falls short of what should be expected of a top literary award.

That is not to say Jasper Jones is not an enjoyable book that successfully portrays a boy’s struggle to maturity and the banalities and cruelties of small town life; and it’s not surprising that it has sold well and been generally loved by those who’ve read it. But does it in any way say something new, is it challenging to the reader, does it raise issues in a sophisticated way, is its language compelling and elevating? The answer has to be no.  It shouldn’t have been on the Miles Franklin shortlist. On the other hand Jasper Jones did win the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year and the Booksellers Choice Award, and deservedly so.

Flanagan on book culture

On the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club recently (3 August) Richard Flanagan had some interesting things to say about book culture, and in particular prize culture. The panellists were discussing Yann Martel’s next novel after Life of Pi. The consensus was that the book Beatrice and Virgil was something of a failure. Here’s what Richard Flanagan had to say:

“The problem with book culture now is writers aren’t allowed failure. It’s become like the movies – you have to proceed from success to success. Perhaps [Martel] needed to write this book to liberate himself from the terrible enslavement of that huge success of Life of Pi (ie the Booker prize and big sales) in order to go on and write some more great books…”

“The real problem is we have a prize culture and if you happen to have the serendipity of winning one of those your books sell hugely, and if you don’t they almost vanish… twenty or thirty years ago most books sold moderately and they were judged for what they were. [Martel] had great success and now he has global humiliation. That’s a terrible thing to have happen to a writer. Something has gone terribly wrong with the world of writing when it’s been perverted to that extent.

“There are a whole lot of other accessible books, beautiful books, not high-brow books, great books. Great books are those books that people like. Novels are the great democratic art form … but the little bit of public space allowed for discussion of them, promotion of them, the marketing of them, is becoming increasingly restricted to the prizes and we are losing a lot in that.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this. It also feeds into the tendency of publishers to gamble on the next big thing with book auctions netting ridiculous windfall advances for the select few. The publishers, having spent so much, have to protect thier investment so they spend big bucks on promotion and marketing, meaning the spotlight shines down relentlessly on only a handful of books. As Laura Miller noted recently in a piece in “Bestselling authors continue to sell better and better, while everyone else does worse and worse”. I live in hope that the cost changes that ebooks will eventually bring to publishing may herald a new democratic age for writing similar to that Richard Flanagan harks back to.

On a summer’s day, a writers’ tent

Apart from the big writers’ festivals, writers’ sessions at fairs and community events are popping up more and more. There’s been a writers’ tent at the Newtown festival in Sydney for a few years, for example. On holidays recently I was in the little fishing village of Crail in Scotland during its annual festival, this year celebrating 700 years of becoming a royal burgh under Robert the Bruce. Amongst the parades, stalls, competitions and musical events, there was a “meet the writers” session in the kirk hall. On stage was the usual ill assortment of writers – a crime writer Gillian Galbraith, general fiction writer Robin Pilcher (son of romance writer Rosamund) and historian Alistair Moffat. Gillian was a lawyer before becoming a crime writer and she was considered and serious in her answers to questions like “how much of you is there in your detective heroine?” Robin Pilcher, by contrast, was flamboyant, erratic and bombastic. Coming from a PR background he was intent on giving “his readers” what they wanted which seemed to be anodyne, bland, human interest in the vein of Bryce Courtenay. Pilcher made number 1 on the New York Times best seller list, though, so who am I to make fun? He must have thought his one-man self-justification show was going down well because he went horribly overtime leaving poor old Alistair Moffat, only a few minutes. The contrast could not have been greater as Moffat read out the first chapter of his book The Highland Clans. Using the battle of Culloden as his starting point and  following the POV of a young boy watching the fight from a vantage point, it was a wonderful example of non-fiction writing, He skilfullybrought together the background stories of the various clans gathered there that day. We were all a bit bemused as we walked out into the pale sun of a Scottish mid-summer’s day.