(Image: Artem Cherednik/Getty)

The Queensland Literary Awards have decided not to award the David Unaipon Prize this year, in a decision that highlights the tricky politics around literary prizes and the difficulties of making a living as a writer.

The prize, which is normally awarded each year, goes to the best unpublished manuscript by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer. Previous winners have included literary stars like Samuel Wagan Watson, Tara June Winch and Ellen van Neerven. The Queensland Literary Awards, now managed by the State Library of Queensland, say it wasn’t awarded this year because the judges’ panel didn’t think any of the entries were good enough.

“While each manuscript showed commendable writing effort and storytelling skill, the judges did not feel that any manuscript amongst this year’s entries were yet of publication standard,” the QLA announced. “The judges came to the decision to not compile a shortlist or select a winner.”

The QLA are now the second major awards round that have declined to pick a winner in recent times. The Vogel Literary Award also had no 2019 winner, with the committee declining to pick a successful manuscript for the famous first novel prize this year. The Vogel judges also argued that none of the entries were good enough, with Allen & Unwin publisher Annette Barlow telling Nine’s Broede Carmody that “I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.”

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The Vogel non-award drew plenty of ire from writers. Karen Wyld unleashed a stinging Twitter thread, pointedly asking judges to “stop making it harder for writers!” Alexandra Dane, writing in The Lifted Brow, called it “possibly the worst example of gatekeeping by cultural intermediaries that the Australian publishing industry has managed to produce since 2013, the last time the prize refused to name a winner”.

Decisions like this can seem bewildering in a literary ecosystem overwhelmed with product and teeming with emerging writers. Judging committees have only one job: to award a winner. It can’t be that hard, can it?

One insider Crikey spoke to told us that actually, yes, it is quite hard. Where a literary award includes the publication of the submitted manuscript as the prize, there can be real reservations from publishers about the quality and future sales of a given manuscript. The task of getting a manuscript ready for publication is time-consuming and expensive; in addition, some award categories can have surprisingly few entries.

“Some years you are lucky, and get a bumper crop and more than one title in the shortlist ends up getting picked up for publication,” the source told us. “But if there aren’t many entries, this can be harder.”

The proliferation of prizes may even encourage writers to send in work that just isn’t ready. “What gets submitted is often a first draft and just too early stage.”

Two non-awards in a year is hardly a trend. Most prizes are still handed out every year, and many winners are celebrated by their peers and the industry as worthy recipients. Last month Arts Minister Paul Fletcher unveiled a full slate of shortlistees for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, for instance, with Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip a hot favourite for the best novel gong.

In some respects, the trend is actually going the other way. The growth of literary prizes in recent years has coincided with big drops in funding for less glittery forms of literary activity, such as magazines and writing organisations. Individual grants for manuscript development and for fellowships to write are also on the wane.

The underlying problem, as with so many aspects of the arts sector, is that many writers are doing it tough. As a result, As Emmett Stinson argued in August, writers are locked into a winner-takes-all economy, where prizes are some of the only significant means of support. In a bleak irony, Stinson was writing in noted literary journal Overland, which has since been defunded by the Australia Council.

Given this broader context, maybe it’s time to ask whether the culture of literary prizes is the best way of supporting writers and publishers. Considering how unpredictable the publishing industry is, and given the uneven endurance of many prize-winning books, it’s also worth asking if literary prizes need a rule that forces judges to award a gong.

If the entries aren’t good enough, why not hand out the prize money to a group of also-rans? The (un)lucky writers could then use the funding to work on their manuscripts. If you can’t find a winner, at least give out the money.

Should the prizes cough up the cash? Send your thoughts to boss@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name.

Update October 30 2019: The State Library of Queensland has since pointed out that “even though there is no shortlist this year [in the David Unaipon Prize]; eligible entrants will receive author development activities through State Library including mentorship, editorial advice, and guidance on opportunities, pathways and artistic development”.