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Sweet word of youth

By Murray Waldren

CULTURAL doomsayers who pontificate that (a) the novel is defunct as an art form and (b) is irrelevant to a younger generation wired on electronica might have suffered prophetic indigestion this week. When 29-year-old Sydney University historian Hsu-Ming Teo took out the 1999 The Australian/Vogel award for a writer under 35 with her unpublished novel Love and Vertigo, she did so from a field of 255 entrants. That’s a record in the award’s 19-year history and a daunting pause for reflection: all around the country, 255 young writers beavered away at their keyboards with hope and aspirations for publication. Writing a book of an average 75,000 words is not as easy as filling in a lottery coupon – it requires isolation, determination, durability and no little desire.

In round terms, entries totaled nearly 20 million words, and were printed on enough foolscap pages to fill 32 sizeable cartons. That’s a lot of sustained creativity, and a hell of a lot of trees. Even more significantly, it demonstrates just how important The Australian/Vogels award has become in our cultural development – it is one of the few ways an emergent writer can shortcut what sometimes seems an often-impenetrable obstacle course to publication. Short-listing in a distinguished prize like this opens many doors – it means immediate recognition by publishers, agents and a books industry under siege from commercial difficulties and marketing imperatives.

And in case you think judging is a sinecure, consider this: each of us on the panel – critic/editor Ivor Indyk, novelists Margaret Symons and Garry Disher, and myself – had to deal with some six million words of manuscript. Then we had to think about each manuscript, assess it and write a report on it. By attrition, we found a long-list of about 30. After more reading and considerable discussion, this became a shortlist of five.

In the end, the decision was problematical, indicated by our awarding an unpredented two runners-up. Equally, we were satisfied we got it right – as you will be when you read these works further down the track. But it was not a foregone conclusion.

The judging process was humbling (for me), ultimately exhausting and yet curiously invigorating. Because the standard of invention and level of sophisticated insight was so high. Nevertheless, it was probably naïve of me to think it would be otherwise, if you look at what is happening in our literature. Despite the difficulties of breaking through, Australia still has a shelf-full of young writers clamouring for, and winning, reader and critical acceptance. As Penguin publisher Clare Foster puts it, "I have never seen more young Australian writers being published overseas or selling in translation. That in itself must be a strong indicator of the depth of talent around. I am optimistic about the future, impressed by the present."

Jane Palfreyman, publisher at Random House, also believes the pool of young talent is strong, and snowballing. "As more books by younger authors are published, it has a cumulative effect on what is seen as possible by those wanting to write. We recently published Innocence by 21-year-old Cathy Coote and it is written in a voice so assured it’s almost frightening." Compared to 10 years ago, she says, "there are legions of talented authors around, most tackling universal themes." She suspects the standard could be a reflection of more hands-on programs, like the Australian Society of Author’s mentoring program and the Blue Mountains-sited Varuna writing centre’s editor/author workshops. And a change of approach by creative writing schools. "Ten years ago they seemed to be leaning towards the impenetrable, literary style, or a post-modernistic mish-mash of styles. Now I am receiving MA theses which include detective fiction and popular fiction – the idea of what is acceptable creative writing seems to have broadened."

Less sanguine is Sophie Cunningham, trade publisher at Allen & Unwin, which publishes the winning entries. Apart from The Australian/Vogels award, she says, "I don’t think there has been as much focus on first novels in the past year or two as there was five years ago. Then several new publishers were actively commissioning new novelists’ work, but those writers are now established, some on their third books." She believes that the general squeeze on publishing lists means that not as many new writers are being taken on. "And it’s harder to place books for review in the mainstream press – literary editors are focusing on overseas publications and heavy-duty non-fiction, and that affects the decisions you make when you commission. If you can’t get exposure, books just whither on the vine." Nevertheless, "these days the standard is far more polished – first novelists are obviously doing more drafts before submitting, and are adjusting to a higher level of expectation and competition. The time is ripe now for another crop to come through. But for me, author age is not as important as publishers taking risks and being adventurous in their publishing."

Jose Borghino, executive director of the ASA, is unequivocal. "The potential is unlimited," he says. "My concern is more that the structures within publishing houses are not there to develop and nurture that talent adequately. In this country, there’s always going to be a crop of exciting young writers around – the question is whether they will decide to write books because the rewards from it are so minuscule."

Still, economics notwithstanding, plenty are taking the risk with conspicuous critical and readership reward. The most recent spotlight illuminated Sydney solicitor Julia Leigh, 29, the only Australian author mentioned in English critic Robert McCrum’s recent "21 writers to watch for the 21st century" listing in The Observer. Her first novel, The Hunter, a lyrical investigation of science, technology and human morality, has been sold into Europe, and hot UK literary agent David Godwin has signed her up.

At 25, Matthew Reilly already owns two degrees and two best-sellers. In the mega-rewarding popular fiction field, his recent novel Ice Station, a high-tech shoot-‘em-out in Antarctica adventure, has earned British and American acclaim and a significant film contract, and his third novel has just hit the shops. Then there’s Melbourne-based Christos Tsiolkis, 34, whose evocative novel Loaded became last year’s critically acclaimed movie Head On. His challenging The Jesus Man hit best-seller lists this year and he is being pursued by international interests. So too are Sydney author James Bradley, 32 - whose first novel Wrack won a swag of awards, and whose recent The Deep Field has deeply impressed critics – and the now Melbourne-based creative writing teacher, 32-year-old Delia Falconer. Her Blue Mountains historic-themed The Service of Clouds has been a sales sensation since its release two years ago.

Three Dollars, the first novel of Melbourne barrister Eliot Perlman, 35, has been published in the UK and the US, won local and international awards and is tipped for cinematic realisation. Another tipped for widespread recognition is Sydney-based Georgia Blain, 35. A sometime copyright lawyer and journalist, she earned critical plaudits for Closed For Winter, and this year has hit the big time with Candelo. And former Sydneysider now New York-based Suneeta Peres da Costa, 23, hit the headlines earlier this year when Bloomsbury signed up her then unpublished Homework for a six-figure sum and international drum-beating release. Tom Gilling, 38, was also a media moment when his debut The Sooterkin this year sold to both English and American publishers.

Brisbane author Nick Earls is at 35 already a multi-published, multi-media and multi-marketed author of increasing international repute. As is his fellow Brisbanite Andrew McGahan, whose first novel Praise won The Australian/Vogel award in 1991 (it became a movie this year). Last year he published his Praise "prequel", 1988, and his eagerly-anticipated third novel is now at the publishers.

Melbourne’s Sonya Hartnett is at 31 a veteran of the best-seller lists. She published Trouble All the Way at 15 and has since received several international children’s author awards and a Victorian Premier's Literary Award for her challenging Sleeping Dogs. And although Antonella Gambotto, 34, antagonised many local literati last year with her first novel, The Pure Weight of the Heart, she won considerable international acclaim and sales, and a contract for her just-completed second novel.

Successful second novels, which many judges see as the true measure of a writer’s potential and "stickability", were released this year by Sydney’s Gaby Naher, 32, and Mandy Sayer; Melbourne’s Fiona Capp, 36, and Andrew Masterson, 38; Nikki Gemmell, who is London-based and Adelaide school-banned; and Christopher Cyrill, 29, who is Melbourne-born but Sydney-based. And third novels were released by the award-winning Blue Mountains duo of Brenda Walker and Bernard Cohen, Aficionados should also jot down in their must-check-out lists authors such as Anthony Macris, Luke Davies, Tegan Bennett, Fotini Epanomitis, Melina Marchetta, Jennifer Kremmer, Rowena Ivers, Eva Sallis and Carolin Window. And all the authors shortlisted for this year’s The Australian/Vogel award. The rewards you can take as read.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999

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