I was power walking and angry listening. In my earphones was the voice of an award-winning Aussie writer, discussing his concerns about the literary prizes of the world, and how potentially harmful he thought them to be, considering the subjective nature of reading and writing. I could see his point, but overall I had to disagree; great work should be acknowledged.
A couple of years later, I entered a short story competition…and won. The announcement was electric. I clapped my hand over my mouth (you know it, just like in the movies) and flicked my head around to where my sister was smiling back at me. Someone had liked my story. Someone had loved it, in fact, and I couldn’t quite believe how wonderful that kind of validation felt. This was one of my babies—one that I had agonised over, questioned, written and re-written so many times I thought I was going nuts. And now I was seeing it light up the world outside of me, making a difference in other peoples lives. Gosh, I was proud.
Over the coming days, though, I started to consider the validity of my win. Did I really deserve it? Of course, I was proud of my story, and, using the skills I’d picked up along my writerly way, I was confident that my story had technical merit. But was it the best? What did the best really look like?
My biggest punch of reality was the story that came in second place. It was a good story. It was a really, really good story. Not only was it superbly written, but the final paragraph delivered a twist so satisfying that my mouth flew open and a great big, ‘Hah!’ came flying out. That had never happened to me before while reading. Ever. This was clearly an award-winning story. And yet…it hadn’t won. My mind went straight to the podcast, to the writer who’d questioned it all, and finally, I could see what he was talking about. Comparing two stories is a bit like comparing an apple and an orange. Who’s to say which is sweeter?
With that said, as I sat in the audience of this Sunday’s announcement of the Miles Franklin award—clapping wildly as Michelle De Kretser took out the 2018 prize for her novel, The Life to Come— I decided once and for all. Literary competitions are good. They will never be entirely black and white, or fair; an opinion is an opinion, after all. But perhaps we should try to see the good in literary competitions, look at them through those glasses I love so much: the rose-coloured ones.
Competitions like the Miles Franklin, The Stella Prize, The Man Booker (just to name a few) can provide a roadmap, a huge wavy flag that says, ‘Look here! This is one way to write, this is one way to live!’ My passion for reading and writing—and for being a good human, for that matter— naturally leads me to think of these competitions as a rich source of learning and growth.
And, as for the subjectivity that places a question mark over the heads of every award-winning book out there…the great news is this. We get to decide the true winner. Us. The voracious readers. The learner writers. We know which books and authors resonate with our own sensibilities. And if our own opinion just so happens to be the same as that of the judges, well. Hi-fives all ‘round, hey?
Congratulations, Michelle De Kretser. I read your words and I wish they were mine. xx