At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer Sam Twyford-Moore spoke in praise of Nic Low’s short story collection Arms Race.
This defence was written about half an hour before the event celebrating the shortlist of the Readings Prize. I have made few revisions, but want to preface this by noting that Nic Low was in the audience that night, and it was difficult not to speak directly to him, instead of the whole audience.
I hope that this version contains some of the same directness – as in, the sense of being addressed directly to Nic – while also transitioning to a wider readership.
I must begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today. It is especially significant to do so, given the brilliant author I am discussing.
It would be disingenuous of me to make my defence of Arms Race without mentioning that I judged the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists award earlier this year. Nic was in contention, but did not make it to finalist stage. Ellen van Neerven did.
That was, of course, a different prize, and I was one of several judges, not the defender of a single book. I made a case for Nic to the other members of the judging panel, but Ellen’s writing was more persuasive on the day.
I don’t want to go too far in coupling Nic and Ellen, but among the six authors shortlisted for the Readings Prize, they are both first nation writers – Ellen as an Indigenous Australian, and Nic as someone of Maori heritage. Nic can speak to Maori culture like no other writer I’ve met in Australia.
Given their heritage and its connectedness to land, it’s perhaps unsurprising that both Nic and Ellen’s books are strongly linked to landscape. They also document a present and future in which that land is threatened by climate change; both books hum with apocalyptic anxiety. A true terra nullius is imminent.
Nic, however, adds a digital edge to the mix. He is the first writer of our generation to document the unease in which we now must live with increasing access to technology. His stories show what good and what damage this liberating social tool can do to our souls.
I would suggest to the judges that you award the prize to Nic and Ellen jointly.
We have to question the purpose of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Is this a prize for a book? Or is this a prize for a writer? They are two very different things. A book is an artefact, and perhaps a bookstore is best placed to reward the artefact’s market value and salability. But Readings, more than any Australian bookseller, has become more than a commercial shopfront. The existence of this prize for debut and second book authors suggests that they are for writers and not just for sales.
Nic is my ideal winner, because Nic is my ideal conception of the writer. He is a literary citizen par excellence. His leadership and innovation in roles with the National Young Writers’ Festival and Asialink Arts is evidence of this – he has broken down barriers for countless new and emerging writers across the country and throughout Asia. Then, and only then, did he take the time to become one himself.
Beyond its artistic or intellectual merit – both of which are considerable – Arms Race represents the work of one of our most promising writers, someone whose career has legs. No prize should be a race, but Nic Low has lapped most other writers already. Regardless of the outcome, he’s a winner.