The other night The Narrow Road to the Deep North was announced as a co-winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It was not a surprise to me. I’d have thought it an obvious winner, and very deserving of it. It’s the best Australian book I’ve ever read, magnificent, humane and beautiful.
I was surprised then to read today that Abbott had to intervene in the judging for it to share the award. Originally the judges had awarded it solely to the latest Steven Carroll book.
Now I’m not in favour of interference of that type, but fuck me dead if I don’t agree with it on this occasion. Fuck me dead twice that I happen to agree with something Abbott has done.
In actual fact I’m bewildered that Flanagan’s book was not judged best in the first place. It’s not just me who thinks it’s great, it seems the world does too. For God’s sake, it won the Booker Prize – which effectively proclaims it as the best book of the year internationally. How ironic that it could win that, but not be judged the best in the land?
Now I have to admit I haven’t read the Steven Carroll book, but I’m happy to go out on a limb and say it could not possibly be better than Richard Flanagan’s (excepting in the view of myopic and contrary literary awards panels). Carroll is a very fine writer – by chance I actually finished one of his books a couple of months ago – but a very different writer to Flanagan.
Carroll writes what I would call suburban books. They’re very close examinations of communities and the people in them. He’s a very worthy winner of awards all over the world. Flanagan in general writes ‘bigger’ books, more sweeping and ambitious. One is not necessarily better than the other, but the monumental theme of The Narrow Road to the Deep North pretty much dwarfs everything else on the local scene at least. A critic called it Australia’s War and Peace, and I see some merit in that.
I’m conflicted by what happened here – the judge’s ruling should not be over-ruled – but glad that it was. I’m not normally in agreement with Abbott, and though we’re on the same page in this instance it’s likely for different reasons. Ultimately I think some justice has prevailed, but it’s hard not to be scathing of the panel who chose not to do it in the first place. I love books, am a literary man, but think there’s a lot of precious bullshit in the industry.*
(* Let’s see if those words come back to haunt me.)