Dog boy is PM’s favourite

I’m sure it is a bit of a surprise for everyone that Eva Hornung won the PM’s literature award for fiction for her novel about a young boy in Moscow living with a pack with dogs. I’m really pleased, though. Was it Gillard’s choice? There’s a judging panel but this choice seems idiosyncratic. A newspaper article suggested she hadn’t read the shortlist because she was going to get to some of them over summer. I’ve commented elsewhere (see Animal in Fiction piece) about the paucity of novels including animals. So, good on Eva for going there. I haven’t read Dog Boy but my partner has. He says the first third was riveting but he thought the latter part didn’t live up to the promse of the early sections. I hope Eva gets a sales lift from winning the award but I don’t know if it has the oomph of the Miles Franklin. Interestingly enough, the two previous winners of the PM were Steven Conte for The Zookeepers War and Nam Le for The Boat – both mostly overseas set. Perhaps the PM’s Award is setting itself up against the Miles Franklin with it’s Australian setting requirement. Read Dog Boy review here.

Dog Boy creates, in Romochka, a touchingly complex and credible dog boy – cunning, tender, angry, wild, strangely beautiful – as well as a wholly convincing study of how a feral dog-pack works.” – John Burnside The Guardian. Full review here.

Sweet for Sea-Hearts

Congratulations to Australian writer Margo Lanagan for winning Best Novella at the World Fantasy Awards for “Sea-Hearts”. It was announced at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

“Sea-hearts” is a heart-rending fantasy loosely based around the selkie legend and was published in the anthology X6 which  includes six novella-length speculative fiction works. It’s edited by Keith Stevenson and published by Sydney-based Coeur de Lion. More info here.

Masala mix

We’ve got the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth, Dublin Impac, the Orange and now there is a prize for South Asian writers. The DSC prize is worth US $50,000 and is to “raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world”. It is open to works by authors of “any ethnicity from any country which predominantly features themes based on South Asian culture, politics, history, or people”. South Asia is defined as “India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan”. Interestingly the shortlist includes Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James, a US citizen born and bred. It’s a novel about two Indian sisters, one of whom takes up a scholarship to New York.

Strangely, or perhaps strategically, the shortlist was announced at a “prestigious gala dinner” at Globe Theatre in London. The winner, though, will be announced in India – at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2011. DSC is an infrastructure company. See the DSC prize.

On the Jellicoe Road

For some reason I read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi when it came out in 1992, YA in a contemporary Australian setting not really being my thing, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Although the book, and the film that followed it, were very successful, it took Marchetta 11 years for her next book Saving Francesca to be published. This was followed by On the Jellicoe Road in 2006. I noticed this book because I was attracted to the cover. Something about it reminded me of country towns with big shady trees, gravel roads and empty school playgrounds. I spent two years of my senior schooling at Leeton in the Riverina and I have a nostalgic pang for the flat land, ­­­big skies and swimming in the Murrumbidgee. I hadn’t twigged until I finally got around to reading On the Jellicoe Road that the book is set in that area.

Nostalgia aside, I loved On the Jellicoe Road. The novel has a complex structure set around a mystery that resolves itself slowly through the eyes of our heroine, seventeen year old Taylor Markham. Marchetta’s brilliance is to make the reader totally accept Taylor’s viewpoint. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away details that would make the unravelling of the mystery less satisfying. Suffice to say it deals with a modern day group of teenagers, some from a boarding school, some from the town and some from a group of cadets who camp there every year. The various groups are involved in a territory war every summer. Taylor is head of her ‘house’ at the school and she has to lead the school’s group against the townies and cadets. The enclosed nature of the ‘wars’ and the lack of adult interference is expertly handled by Marchetta but we soon find out the wars are a backdrop to Taylor discovering things about her past that for unknown reasons are being kept from her. The pleasure of the novel is all in the unfolding, and in the development of the relationship of the teenagers (or should I say young adults?), Marchetta’s forte. There are really two stories in one – what happens to five friends after a tragedy twenty years before and how this interweaves with the present day characters. I found this relationship cryptic to begin with – it was brave of Marchetta to just go with the story, confident her YA readers will follow Taylor and be patient enough to let the scenario play out at its own pace.

I was surprised, given the many awards Marchetta has garnered, that in Australia On the Jellicoe Road has only won a category of the 2008 WA young readers award. Last year she won the US Michael Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature, an award associated with the American Library Association. Why, I wonder, is Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones categorised as literary fiction, and short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, and On the Jellicoe Road relegated to YA? Could it be that Silvey’s book has a male protagonist and overtly references literary classics?

Apropos of the cover I loved so much, the B format cover makes the book look like a soft relationships novel for teenage girls and has none of the sense of place and intrigue of the first cover. As a point of contrast, on the cover for Marchetta’s latest book, The Piper’s Son, the publisher has gone 180 degrees the other way – a monochrome photo of a young man walking down a depressing looking inner-city street. It shouts ‘take me seriously’. I checked just in case the book was categorised as adult fiction. But no, despite the protagonist being in his late teens or early twenties, it’s still YA according to Penguin.

Opportunities for manuscripts

In the ongoing round of Premiers’ Awards, Queensland just announced their winners. Coetzee got the fiction gong for Summertime.

The Qld awards are great for having a big number of categories including short story collection (there can’t be too many of these!) which Karen Hitchcock won for Little White Slips.

They also have an emerging writer manuscript award which is great. Not all emerging writers are under 35 and can go in for the Vogel.

ABC books did run an unpublished novel competition for a number of years but, unfortunately, they stopped publishing fiction.

Recently Text Publishing has established a YA manuscript comp but this is open to both published and unpublished writers, nevertheless they should be given credit for providing a space for getting ms noticed.

(This year’s Text award was won by Jane Higgins for a post-apocalyptic action novel The Bridge and last year’s winner Leanne Hall’s This Is Shyness has just come out to good crits.)

Credit should also be given to CAL and Scribe for their fiction prize “for an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer over 35, regardless of publication history”. Again emerging writers are up against established authors, and the fact that CAL/Scribe are doing this shows how hard it is for anyone to get literary fiction published in this country.

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 www.nedkellyawards.com.

Man Booker shortlist

Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America came and went here in Australia not making much of a splash. (Much to Carey’s disgust – I think he complained about small sales in the Antipodes). Never fear he has made it to the Man Booker shortlist, along with:

Emma Donoghue – Room
Damon Galgut – In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson – The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy – The Long Song
Tom McCarthy – C

The lucky winner hears on 12 October.

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 salon.com: “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.

Blacklands, Blood Harvest – it’s scary

The Gold Dagger is a UK crime writers’ award for made for the best crime novel originally written in English and published in the UK. Peter Temple won it in 2007 for The Broken Shore.

  •  This year the shortlist is:
    Conman Richard Asplin
    Blacklands Belinda Bauer
    Blood Harvest S J Bolton
    Rain Gods James Lee Burke
    Shadowplay Karen Campbell
    The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge Patricia Duncker
    Still Midnight Denise Mina
    The Way Home George Pelecanos

Interestingly Amanda Flood, writing in the Guardian, notes that this year two of the shortlisted books have 12 year-old protagonists – Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, in which a boy writes to the serial killer suspected of murdering his uncle and S J Bolton’s Blood Harvest, which has 12 year-old Tom as a main character in the action.

It is also interesting to note that Australian Gabrielle Lord, a gritty crime writer, has now made the move to write young adult crime with a “Conspiracy 365” series (it’s going to be 12 books in 12 months – now that’s series fiction). Of course there’s a difference between writing for a YA readership and having a young protagonist in an adult novel.

Not being a big gritty crime follower (I prefer those snootily referred to as “cosies”) I like the sound of The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge from those above concerning a suicide sect in France, with the writing having, by all accounts, a philosophical bent. The winner will be announced on 8 October.

The Australian equivalent of the Daggers is the Ned Kelly Awards. You can see the nomination list here.  (It’s way too long to include here). The winners will be announced as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on 3 September.

Peter Temple graciously withdrew the nomination for Truth for the Ned Kellys to “clear some small space” for other writers. Temple has won 5 times before and, anyway, Truth took out the Miles Franklin in June.