Friday, April 6, 2012

Bound For Too Much Glory

QUITE APART from its literary merit, That Deadman Dance is a remarkable book for a number of reasons, the first being that it is likely to remain the last winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award ($75,000) for quite some years to come. The second is the sheer number of awards it took in other states. Western Australia ($75,000), New South Wales ($75,000) and Victoria ($75,000), all bestowed their highest and richest honours for fiction on Kim Scott’s tale of white settlement and black eviction in, around and off Albany. In addition, it also bagged the Miles Franklin ($50,000), the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Vance Palmer ($30,000), the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and a swag minor laurels.Tot them all up and Scott has done very nicely for himself.

None of this is to impugn Scott’s book. Taste is a subjective thing, and while some might recoil at yet another tale of black meets white on the frontier and everyone goes home dead or guilty, there is no doubt the man can write. If you have not read the book, here is a little excerpt to get an idea of his skill at turning a sentence and working an image, in this case the bristling, serrated strangeness of native flora to European eyes:
They found a path, rocky and scattered with fine pebbles that at one point wound through dense, low vegetation but mostly led them through what, Chaine said, seemed a gnarled and spiky forest. Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed, or were dry and wooden. Tiny flowers clung to trees by thin tendrils, and wound their way through the shrubbery, along clefts in rock. Bark hung in long strips. Flowering spears thrust upward from the centre of shimmering fountains of green which, on closer inspection, bristled with spikes.
It is a lovely piece of writing, at least by one Bunyip’s reckoning, and if some of Deadman’s characters and dialogue seem sometimes to have been ordered from the literary subsidiary of Central Casting, well put that down to taste and tolerance on the part of the awards’ judges.

But here’s the thing. These literary awards, they are supposed to help, encourage and support Australia’s struggling writers. Can it be said they achieve that purpose when one book corners so much of the spoils?

More to the point, Scott is a West Australian, where it is perfectly understandable that an appreciative Premier would wish to reward a local talent who has produced a local story. What of the other states? In bestowing their taxpayers’ largesse on a writer from elsewhere, what does their prize money do to encourage and support local writers?

Queensland’s Campbell Newman has answered this question by the simple expedient of doing away with his state’s awards altogether. But perhaps, if tempted to follow suite, the other premiers might want to consider keeping their prizes closer to home. Across Australia there might have been six authors encouraged to produce better work and pay their electricity bills while doing so.

It is just a thought and no slight to Kim Scott. But those prizes do represent a considerable piece of change and the competitions’ judges, luvvies almost every one, generally adhere to to the creed that allows for each according to his needs. Scott’s have been well met. Some other scribblers might enjoy a little piece too.

UPDATE: Mark Fletcher expands on a theme -- and makes some sort of history at the same time. Is his article the very first sensible thing to be published at New Matilda? Perhaps he deserves an award!


  1. The Wikipedia plot synopsis sounds an awful lot like Avatar.

    "As the new arrivals impose ever stricter rules and regulations in order to keep the peace, Bobby Wabalanginy's Elders decide they must respond. A friend to everyone, Bobby is forced to take sides: he must choose between the old world and the new, his ancestors and his settler friends."

    The main difference is that the central Sam Neil character is on the side of the natives in Kim's version.

    And we all know Avatar ripped off the Kevin Coster's wolves film. (and before that A Man Called Horse?)

    1. Yeah, which ripped off A Princess of Mars.

      They are all variations of the noble savage meme. Derivative hacks all.


    2. Stand corrected, Sam Worthington.

      If Avatar was Dances With Smurfs I suppose this will be Dances With Indigenous Australians & Torres Strait Islanders.

  2. That descriptive passage does not distinguish itself in any way, professor. You are being too kind. Or inebriated.

    1. Abu, we will have to disagree. I like the way he mines the sharp and prickly metaphors, and most of all I like its accuracy. He might be describing pockets of Wilson's Prom, where you find the spiky, mop-top grass trees so common in that part of WA, the ones earlier generations knew as "black boys". But perhaps personal experience has coloured appreciation. Some years ago I took an American visitor with a green thumb into the dirt-track country behind Dargo and what astonished her most was the native vegetation, the like of which was beyond her experience of what plants should do and look like. The quoted passage voices much the same reaction to WA's vegetation and i think it does it succinctly and very nicely.

      Then again, there is no explaining personal preference. Some people even refuse to eat black pudding!

    2. I found the passage evocative. But I might be prejudiced.

      The previous inhabitants of my home planted an extensive Australian garden. It is a spiky hell. Cycads might look ok from a distance, but up close they are as devious as a punji trap. Any gardening activity requires gauntlets and eyewear.

    3. Gravel and Banksia. He's described WA to a tee.


    4. Well it struck a nostalgic chord with you, clearly, and these things are subjective. But it didn't strike me as remarkable or a stretch beyond any other descriptive passage of place in any of hundreds of novels.

      But what sort of person doesn't eat black pudding in a fry up? In fact I'm in London today and will walk across Hyde Park to a caff I know that serves just that.

  3. The Old and Unimproved DaveApril 6, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    This lot are long on "for each according to his needs", and considerably shorter on "from each according to his ability".

  4. "But perhaps, if tempted to follow suite, ...."

    Bit pretentious there, Prof. Most literary authorities are more than happy with the plebeian, "suit"

    I'm glad too, that you pointed out that everyone's taste differs. I found Scott's prose rather too purple for my palate and thought that he would have done better to have heeded Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's advice to, "murder your darlings".
    Of course, had he done so he might not have won all of those delightfully parochial awards but, rather, produced a much more satisfying work. But, lucrum gaudium (sigh).

    1. Thank you for the correction. It was late.

      Lucrum gaudium? Rather, in your view, a profit without honour!

  5. A stupid decision by Newman that will make voters like me reflect on what Tony Abbott stands for and would do if in power. I can;t stand Julia Gillard and her incompetent rabble but that doesn't mean I will vote for Abbott. Up until this decision, though, I was actively considering it. No more.

    1. This script that GetUppians run... It isn't how real people talk. No one "considers" voting for "Abbott" the way socialist shills pretend to.

      People are OUTRAGED. They want to EXTERMINATE the SOCIALISTS.

      If the alternative were Lucifer, people would vote 1 Lucifer to rid the country of this illegitimate and indeed it seems criminal regime of rent seeking nomenklatura thugs.

    2. "I was actively considering it. No more."

      What? Because a few writers lost their little junket? What a laugh you are...Labor stooge.

    3. Actively considering it? Oh, we were all fooled by that bit of sophistry.

      I suppose you're not familiar with the term "Hi-Alanism"? If not, go and ask in the open thread at Catallaxy. We've got your number, laddie.

    4. "I was actively considering it. No more."

      Bob Katter's Australia Party or Family First?


  6. PhillipGeorge(c)2020April 6, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    "....when laurels of moral superiority come from faux self-effacement the morally superior remain the purest white...."

    ...when hypocrisy runs like knee deep treacle those competing in the long jump don't need a disabled category in which to distinguish themselves ...

    from Everbs [the digital equivalent of proverbs]

  7. It's tripe, and it's trite.
    Describe a few bits of flora along a path. Add the somewhat tired overtone of Colonial discovery in the antipodes. Result: *** yawn ***

    1. I must agree. Did nothing for me either. Let's hope there was more exciting chapters ahead. Professor my view is that cash prizes and trinkets only encourage mediocrity. There's enough of that already in Australia. I notice the disgruntled writers in Qld are organizing their own awards. Campbell has been proven correct to axe them.

  8. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.April 6, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Bunyip, from the short extract I think (for the little my untutored literary view is worth) that this man is a natural writer, although as the comments above show, descriptive writing alone is not enough to pull the crowd, unless it arouses emotional interest. "Where is it taking us?", we might ask. A novel full of technically beautiful description but lacking soul and going nowhere is easily consigned to my 'unread' stash. It requires a master hand, like Patrick White's, to to deftly lead through a genuinely evocative description to a realised epiphany. The two elements must engage along the way and eventually come together in consumation. Then sparks fly.

    It's so sad that many Australian writers limit themselves in their subject matter to the 'social and historical issues' mode of plot and character, or to pre-determined political tropes, something surely only enhanced by the current politicised culture of literary grants. I generally don't want to go where writers influenced in this way are taking us.

  9. Guantanamo: My Journey by David Hicks was last year in the short list to receive the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.
    If this was the style of competition, no wonder 'That Deadman Dance' took out the honours.

  10. The Old and Unimproved DaveApril 7, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    "Bound For Glory"

    In other words, how to achieve glory through constipation ?

    Sounds like a plan.....

  11. I have thought abut this, off and on, over the past few days and have come to this observation as to why the writing does not appeal to me.

    It is because the author is writing as an alien, a visitor in a (his) - percieved)harsh world. A world that seeks to repel him, to cast him aside, to defend itself from him with its barbs and hooks and pebbles and heat and hopelessness.

    That is not the world of we who live in it, or how we who wrest a living from it, see or feel it. Even at the height of the worst drought, the hardest dry season when dragging cows from bogs and shouting at carping crows is a daily occurence, we still find beauty, somewhere. The softness of the dawn, the track of a lizard or the shadow of a hawke upon the ground, the silkiness of a new born calf, the cleansing rush of wind through the hair at days end, somewhere, we find it.
    And that is the difference. For those of us who live or visit and re-visit, it is in our genes to love the land we live in and find beauty there. Else we would have fled, long before.

    The author is a tourist, and a grudging one at that.