Martin Shaw reports from the Melbourne Prize ceremony and muses on the after-effects of this year’s fiery parallel importation debates.

It’s been a funny old week in the usually placid pond that is the Australian literary landscape. On Wednesday morning, the Rudd government – after the mobilisation of a substantial bureaucratic apparatus this last year or so in the investigation of an absurdity – decided to put the kibosh on the abolition of Australian territorial copyright. Hence lots of chipper faces to be seen at BMW Edge that evening amongst the contingent of small- and medium-sized publishers present for the announcement of Victoria’s richest literary prize, the triennial Melbourne Prize for Literature.

Murnane_thumbYet what symbolism that the author whose lifetime achievement was recognised that night, Gerald Murnane, has only a handful of works in print (out of a considerable opus), and that our media organisations all but ignored the story – buried deep in the next day’s Age (as was the copyright news too mind you), and not mentioned at all on the Victorian ABC news on Thursday night.

So anyone talking about a renaissance period in Australian publishing must admit there’s still a long way to go before the excellent stable of writers in this state (and Australia generally) get appropriate recognition …

First up in the awards ceremony though was the Best Writing Award, and this was a contest no one was keen to predict – surely Nam Le and Chloe Hooper were unbackable favourites? So maybe there would be a tie? But no – the prize jury (with the assistance of a bevy of young things as an advisory panel: Michael Williams, Louise Swinn, Stephen Armstrong, Sophie Cunningham) plumped for Le.

nam sedaris mwf

I was of course very happy at the outcome (as many people know I was an early champion of The Boat and took great delight in its astonishing success), but I did feel – if it had been me – that I would have had to give the award to Hooper. It strikes me she was risking the most with The Tall Man, and straddled that tightrope with the most breathtaking composure. Le for his part graciously related in his acceptance speech that with Chloe on the shortlist he had only rated himself a 3% chance – and it was nice to see that the prize announcement was a genuine surprise to him.

But it was Murnane’s night – and he won the hearts of the assembled crowd with a warm and witty speech, which described how he had declined to enter the prize in its inaugural incarnation in 2006 due to the stipulation that the winner must spend half the prize money ($30 000!) on overseas travel. Now that this requirement has apparently lapsed (it has become only a recommendation that an author uses some of the funds for travel – at home or abroad, one guesses), Murnane let himself be entered for the competition. So this man of the suburbs, who has never travelled by aeroplane I understand, finished up his speech with the enunciation of every street address in Melbourne where he has ever lived over the last 50 or so years, to the great mirth of all assembled!

It was a magical moment, and on the great day of ‘do nothing’ in the Oz publishing world, a reminder that this is the sort of reward our culture can extend to us if we nurture and reward our scribes. A vast amount of work remains to be done – they’re going to be busy folk at the new Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas (for instance) in reaching out to the masses! – but, slowly but surely, there’s a generation emerging of awesomely talented authors, editors, publishers and booksellers who are making Melbourne a really dynamic town for all those who care about good writing.

A shame then that the punters out there who – if they have picked up on anything at all from the kerfuffle about copyright that has periodically occupied our news and opinion pages in recent times – are probably now of the opinion that books are too expensive, publishers and booksellers are raking it in, and that an Amazon account and a Kindle are as de rigueur as Foxtel and a broadband connection …

Martin Shaw is books division manager at Readings and an editorial advisor to Kill Your Darlings