Prize Fight Essay, Research Paper
Prize fightTomorrow night, Peter Carey will take his seat at a table at the Guildhall in London to see if this year’s Booker prize judges agree with the bookmakers and bestow one of the literary world’s most coveted awards on his True History of the Kelly Gang. Nine thousand miles away, another Australian author will have cause to watch Carey’s reaction to the result particularly closely. Two weeks ago, Frank Moorhouse was the victim of a blunder dreaded by authors and literary-prize organisers. He was told that his latest novel, Dark Palace, had pipped Carey to win the fiction prize at the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The A$20,000 (£7,000) prize was a godsend to the impoverished Moorhouse, who began planning which of his debts to pay off. Two hours later, his tearful publisher told him that the award’s administrators, the state library of Victoria, had made a terrible mistake. The prize had actually gone to Carey, one of the richest – and most garlanded – Australian writers. The library apologised, the premier of Victoria even said sorry, and a war of words has raged between the two writers’ camps since. Moorhouse says he vomited when he heard about the mistake. “I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from,” he told the Australian media. “The psychological tension of just writing and publishing and having a book reviewed is enough, and then there’s the stress of prizes in the back of your mind. It’s a great thing if they happen – but to be told you have won and then haven’t is psychological stress of an order I have never experienced before.” A library publicist had mistakenly identified Moorhouse as the winner in an embargoed press release dispatched to journalists, who swiftly spread the word to publishers – and Moorhouse. “It wasn’t malicious,” says Cathrine Harboe-Ree, the state library’s director of collections. The chief judge of the prize, Joanne Lee Dow, says she gave the library her clear decision: Dark Palace was “enormously intelligent” but Carey’s “bravura performance”, imagining the emotional life of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century outlaw, won the day. “I feel huge compassion for Frank’s pain and shock,” says Lee Dow. “But I’m the bloody convener of the panel and I didn’t give him the prize, so there’s nothing I can do to ease that pain.” Moorhouse trawled through seven miles of dusty League of Nations files in Geneva researching Dark Palace, the second part of an epic story of a young female Australian diplomat. But his shock at having the prize snatched back was heightened by all kinds of dramatic ironies. In 1994, Moorhouse was at the heart of another literary award controversy. Grand Days, the first part of his League of Nations epic, was controversially disqualified from Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, for being “unAustralian”, although its heroine and author are Australian and the book was written in Australia. Then there is the irony that the state library, which wrongly told Moorhouse he had won, holds the original Jerilderie Letter, Ned Kelly’s famously vituperative “manifesto”, which inspired the distinctive voice Carey gives Kelly in True History. Perhaps most painfully of all for Moorhouse, two hours after he learned he was not the Victorian Premier’s winner, he had to give a speech at the very library that had botched the award. Moorhouse soldiered on through the speech he had long planned, entitled Civility and Urbanity: the Nature of Intellectual Dispute in Australian Life. According to Carey, Australia is the world leader in literary squabbles. “The literary squabble does seem as characteristic as the koala – a cute animal that shits on your head,” Carey muses in the wake of the awards mix-up. He points out that True History lost out to Dark Palace in this year’s Miles Franklin award. “Was I disappointed? I don’t speak about those things,” Carey says. “It does seem that literature is rarely an important subject in this country and maybe it can only become a really important subject if Frank doesn’t win something. There are so many more really important things in the world. This is really trivial. We all get disappointed. Frank was disappointed in a cruel way. It’s the world. It’s what happens.” Moorhouse’s publisher, Random House Australia and his agent, Rosemary Creswell, are less philosophical. They are exploring whether legal action can be taken against the library or whether Moorhouse could be financially compensated. “We can’t allow writers to be treated this way,” says Margaret Searle, managing director of Random House Australia. “If he had been a sports star, the response from the government would have been completely different. We’re disappointed by the cavalier fashion in which Frank has been treated. It’s embarrassing and it’s humiliating. Anyone would feel for what he is going through because it is so public as well.” But, say Moorhouse sympathisers, the one person who has offered no understanding of the author’s emotional distress is Carey, who in two decades has cleaned up the lion’s share of the country’s literary prizes. For True History alone, Carey has already won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Townsville Foundation for Australian Literary Studies Award. This week alone, Carey could pocket an astonishing four awards – the Booker and three in Australia – worth nearly £50,000. In contrast, Moorhouse’s major win before this year was a £100 award in the 60s, despite wide acclaim in Australia. “Peter Carey didn’t do himself a lot of good with the comments he made,” says Moorhouse’s agent, Rosemary Creswell. “I thought he sounded quite scratchy, I was rather surprised really, he could have been a bit more gracious.” For Laurie Mullery, Carey’s publisher at Queensland University Press, it is Moorhouse who should be more gracious in defeat. “To make it into a cause célèbre was an overreaction,” he says. “It has got nothing to do with Peter stealing something that should have been Frank’s, it was Frank venting some extreme disappointment in a pretty undignified way.” Despite all the recognition he has received in Australia, Carey, who has lived in New York since 1990, is far from blasé about literary awards, says Mullery, and is “self-effacingly pleased” every time he wins. Some suggest that Carey’s dismissive attitude towards the fuss surrounding Moorhouse’s distress is because it must seem trivial after Carey witnessed the attack on the World Trade Centre – his wife was in the first tower struck and survived. Others believe the criticism levelled at Carey betrays Australia’s residual resentment of self-exiled intellectuals, something Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes are acutely aware of. “People sometimes get the impression Carey just swans over to Australia to get another award,” says Jane Sullivan, literary critic for The Age newspaper, published in Melbourne, Victoria. She believes Carey is a victim of his own success. “When one of his books wins an award you sometimes get that sense of everybody saying, ‘Oh no, not again’.” That may not be much consolation for Moorhouse. But as Carey tries to complete a literary awards quadruple in one week, he cannot escape his old adversary. Hours before Carey’s True History is pitted against Ian McEwan and others at the Booker ceremony, it goes head-to-head with Dark Palace at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Frank Moorhouse is unlikely to attend.