The Flanagan effect: Tasmanian literature in the limelight

The “MONA effect” has set Tasmania’s arts scene on fire – will Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker win do the same for its literature? EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

The announcement last October that Richard Flanagan had won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North placed the Australian writer in an international spotlight; it also brought Tasmanian literature out of the shadows.

Flanagan, the author of five earlier novels, including Gould’s Book of Fish (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, 2002) and Wanting (winner of the Tasmanian Book Prize, 2011), is one of Australia’s leading novelists.

With its imprimatur from the Man Booker judges, his latest book, if entered, will surely be a hot favourite for the major prize in his home state’s Premier’s Literary Prizes at the end of 2015.

The announcement of the new-look Premier’s Literary Prizes – a rebadging of the biennial Tasmanian Literary Prizes, which have existed in various forms since 2001 – was aptly made at a reception held for Flanagan in Tasmania’s Parliament House on March 24. Aptly, because it recognises that while Flanagan may currently be the state’s flagship writer, there is an armada of talented Tasmanian writers sailing with him.

Indeed, with its renewed commitment to the literary prizes, the Tasmanian government is publicly recognising the strength of Tasmanian literature and looking to celebrate Tasmanian writers and writing.

New talent, established writers

The introduction of the new A$5,000 Tasmanian Young Writer’s Prize as one of the four prizes in the rebadged biennial suite of awards, is intended to encourage young writers to see themselves as an integral and important part of the Tasmanian writing community.

Validating young writers is critical in ensuring the development and nurturing of new talent. Similarly, the existing A$5,000 University of Tasmania Prize seeks to encourage writers in the early stages of their literary careers by recognising an unpublished manuscript and offering support for its development.

Together, these two prizes – one longstanding, one fresh – offer young and emerging writers a platform to showcase their work, raise their profiles, and take their careers to the next level. Combined with previously established Tasmania Book Prize and Margaret Scott Prize, this collection of four awards stimulate interest in Tasmanian writers and writing, widen markets and boost sales.

Importantly, these prizes paint a broader picture of Tasmanian literature than may otherwise exist beyond the state’s shores.

Sentinel Range, Tasmania. Bill Higham

Tasmanian style

Tasmanian literature may be unique in so far as it frequently draws inspiration from the island’s bounded geography or its troubled colonial history, but its scope is not limited by either. Tasmanian writers are Australian writers.

As Danielle Wood and I observed in our book, Deep South: Stories from Tasmania (2012):

The literature of Tasmania has made, and continues to make, a remarkable contribution to the literature of Australia.

In the 19th century, Tasmania was home to many literary firsts: the first Australian novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (1831); the first Australian novel by a woman, Mary Grimstone’s Woman’s Love (1832); the first novel to explore the migrant experience, Charles Rowcroft’s Tales of the Colonies (1843).

Poetry and short fiction, as well as drama and literary non-fiction, also flourished.

In the later decades of the 20th century, novelists Christopher Koch and Amanda Lohrey, writers of short fiction such as Barney Roberts and Geoffrey Dean, and a plethora of poets, including Gwen Harwood, Stephen Edgar and Sarah Day, kept Tasmania punching above its weight in the Australian literature ring.

This was recognised by Philip Mead, now Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Western Australia, who introduced the first discrete course on the Literature of Tasmania at the University of Tasmania more than a decade ago.

More recently, Danielle Wood has been fostering emerging talent in her creative writing course – Writing Tasmania – which encourages students to read and write Tasmanian stories.

More encouragement for emerging writers comes in the shape of the annual Erica Bell Foundation Literature Award, open to Tasmanian residents who are first-time authors of a literary work. In 2014 the inaugural award attracted a strong field, with the work of both the winner of the A$10,000 prize, Adam Ouston, and the second runner-up, Robbie Arnott, soon to be published.

Nationally, Tasmanian literature was showcased in The Apple Isle panel at the Perth Writers Festival in February, in which Favel Parrett and Rohan Wilson spoke about their Tasmanian fiction.

And there is sure to be a strong Tasmanian focus in the upcoming Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival in Hobart later this year and the Tamar Valley Writers Festival in Beaconsfield early next year.

As those of us who live in Tasmania know, the state’s tourism has been riding the wave of the “MONA effect”. Since the opening of David Walsh’s striking, dynamic museum in 2011, the global interest in the museum and Tasmania show no signs of waning.

It will be interesting to see if a “Flanagan effect” will do for Tasmanian literature what MONA has done for the state more widely.