Putting Quarters in a Broken Machine: on the merit of literary prizes in Australia
Responding to Ivor Indyk’s call to abolish literary prizes, Omar Sakr finds himself agreeing that prizes deserve to be scrapped … or at least heavily interrogated.
In the Sydney Review of Books, Ivor Indyk has called for the abolition of literary prizes. I don’t agree with Ivor’s reasoning that prizes have become a bastion of the ‘middlebrow’… but his conclusion, that prizes deserve to disappear, is worth serious consideration. This is a tricky position to take, especially as a writer who has been shortlisted for literary prizes already. Whether I were to win or lose, though, in their current form they are flawed.
With recent cuts to the Australia Council on everyone’s minds, as well as calls for writers to get paid properly for their work, the financial landscape of the arts scene is no longer as settled as it once was. This period of disruption is a perfect time, then, to look anew at existing structures and question whether they are working as best they can. Perhaps that means reviewing the awards granted over the past few years (and the judges who do the awarding), or perhaps it means scrapping certain prizes altogether. One way or another, though, it seems like literary prizes, artistic judgment and funding are all due a major shakeup, if not in form than at least in transparency.
The outsized cash rewards for prizewinners exist thanks to corporate sponsorships or grants by philanthropists/governments, but the fact that this money exists at all warrants an interrogation as to whether it’s being utilised in the best possible way. Instead of hundreds or thousands of writers paying entry fees for a prize only a few winners end up benefitting from per year, might it be better to funnel these funds into initiatives that would serve more of us – as Ivor suggests? Regional literature centres, or a national centre for Indigenous storytelling, or national poetry festival – all, and more, could be built with the money currently funneled into prizes.
The unpalatable fact is that writing competitions are literary lotteries. An organisation or journal reliant on such models for funds is little different to a club which makes money off poker machines; after all, it’s every bit as much a gamble for writers as to whether they will get anything back for the amount they pay to be considered. In fact, if you’re a poet of colour in this country, you probably have a better chance with the pokies: of the last 120 poetry prizes awarded in Australia, only two non-white writers have received recognition – which must surely be tied to the whitewashed field of judges.
The unpalatable fact is that writing competitions are literary lotteries. In fact, if you’re a poet of colour in this country, you probably have a better chance with the pokies.
Once writing reaches a certain objective level of quality, choosing one piece over another comes down purely to subjectivity and individual taste. An honest judge will tell you that some days the winner is based on no more than their mood at the time, and that each of the finalists was excellent in different ways. In that sense, we should be looking more closely at who is presiding over these prizes – not in order to guard the gates of ‘high literature’, but to ensure that judging panels are diverse, which should lead to a more equitable playing field for all.
There, at least, is hope for real change. Literary prizes are unlikely to go anywhere, realistically speaking, as much as we might rage at them. They are too vital a financial lifeline for writers, but greater transparency about the judging process, from those selected as arbiters right through to their choices, is essential going forward. As far as prizes being a marker of literary prestige, I do not need my work validated by a white judge or a brown judge or anything in between – the sole reason I enter these competitions is because I’m too broke not to, a sentiment I’m sure you’ll find among many a gambler. The money on offer is too tantalizing in the respite it could potentially provide from the everyday grind that gets in the way of making art.
Recently, I was heartened by Sherman Alexie’s brutally honest insight into his editorial process while putting together this year’s edition of Best American Poetry. Regardless of how I feel about his problematic decision-making, I was thrilled by the transparency. Why aren’t our prizes—which we can all agree constitute a fundamental part of artists’ income—subjected to a similar level of interrogation? I can’t help but feel that if they were, we’d be able to make more informed decisions going forward for the betterment of all. In the meantime, I’ll just keep putting quarters into this broken machine, hoping for a miracle.