Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.
To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.
As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.
At least that’s the message the Vogel Award - which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin - delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.
Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.
Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.
Annie Proulx - of Shipping News fame - was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.
Other late bloomers include Anthony Burgess, 39, for Time for a Tiger (A Clockwork Orange appeared when he was 45); William Burroughs, 39, for Junky; and Henry Miller, 44, for Tropic of Cancer. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51 years of age.
And so the list of great authors who would have been unable to satisfy the Vogel’s eligibility requirements (era and citizenship notwithstanding) goes on.
To be fair, a good number of Australia’s leading novelists did manage to meet the deadline and kick-start their career with a Vogel win: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Mandy Sayer, Andrew McGahan, to name just a few.
And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.
The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.
Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?
Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin - who has since turned 35 - could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.
The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.
(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)
But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.
The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?
There’s a famous anecdote - possibly apocryphal - that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.
“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”
Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.
But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel - and a good story can be told at any age.