Postcard from Melbourne for Open Book, BBC Radio 4, Broadcast 25/04/14

Here’s the script for my Postcard from Melbourne, written for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book.

Listen to it here.

Hello from Melbourne here at the bottom of the world where our newish government has just delivered its first budget and for those with a literary bent, all eyes were on the status of the Prime Minister’s Literary Prizes, introduced in 2008 by a former PM to reward great writing and encourage reading. Usually announced in August, no judges have yet been appointed and this seemed an ominous sign as there’s quite a bit of reading and mulling over and gentle persuasion needed before agreeing on winners.

Indeed it was hard to find any mention of literary or arts matters in the budget – other than a mysterious million dollars set aside for a boarding school for ballerinas. Someone with a direct line to the treasurer must have quite a few constituents in tutus.

Our unofficial poet Laureate Les Murray once expressed surprise at the fuss made over writers getting what he called his wages, but in truth lately Australian prize giving has been quite fraught.

A couple of days agothe short list for the prestigious Miles Franklin Prize was announced. Back in 2009, somewhat controversially, and then again two years later the judges came up with an all-male shortlist.

This was provocative and partly responsible for the launch of the Stella prize based on your own Bailey’s Women’s Prize, except that it takes in all genres, not just fiction. Stella was the first name of Miles Franklin – the name she had to drop so that people would think she was a bloke and take her seriously as a writer, so it was a suitable “up-yours” to the Miles Franklin people – who by 2011 had only awarded ten women the prize in 54 years.

Anyway this year the $50, 000 Stella was awarded to Claire Wright, for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and saw its sales increase two thousand percent in the week it won.  The Stella Prize has easily become one of the most important and influential awards for the Australian book industry, comparable with the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin for sales impact.

Now, in the Stella’s first year the Miles Franklin judges came up with a surprise all female shortlist. It’s easy to assume they were shamed into this, but that would be to cast aspersions for the work of judging is no easy task.

So what happened this year? The shortlist of six, just announced, includes two men, both of whom are heavy-hitters – Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan – so it might be hrd for one of the four women to carry it off this year.


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