Australia has enjoyed a range of literary happenings this week, with festivals, awards, and even the unmasking of a pseudonymous reviewer making headlines across mainstream and independent media. Here is the week in review.

Arts community pushes back

The Arts community rallied against last week’s unpopular federal budget on Monday 19 May, issuing an Open Letter to the Prime Minister, treasurer Joe Hockey, and Minister for the Arts, George Brandis. The letter , which was first published in the Guardian (Australia), then re-posted in a range of media, including the Sydney Review of Books, protests against health, education and welfare cuts, but draws specific attention to the proposed deep cuts to the Arts. Of specific concern are cuts to the Australia Council, Screen Australia, and the ABC and SBS. As the signatories note:

This decrease in federal support will be devastating to those who make art. The loss of funding indicated in the 2014 budget will devastate these smaller organisations and practitioners, robbing Australia of a whole generation of artists, writers, publishers, editors, theatre makers, actors, dancers and thinkers. Crucially, it will deprive people, particularly in rural and regional areas and in remote communities, of the opportunity to create, educate, learn and collaborate. These proposed funding cuts endanger us intellectually, artistically and severely damage our reputation internationally. Moreover, we fear the prospect of a world of culture and art that is unaffordable to the majority of Australians.

If you would like to offer your support, you can still sign the letter on the Meanjin website.

To debate or not to debate

It was an interesting week at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, too, after prominent Palestinian-Australian playwright, poet and activist, Samah Sabawi, was booted from a scheduled debate only to be reinstated 24 hours later – albeit in a revised event.

Sabawi was scheduled to appear in the 10 June contest-styled event, ‘A two-state solution will best serve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process’, but was asked to step down by the Centre on Tuesday 20 May amid claims that two fellow panelists had sought to have her removed. The Centre issued a statement  on its Facebook site, noting that the debate was under review and that after speaking to advertised panelists, it was ‘determined to reach a solution where different perspectives are heard and no voices are silenced’. By Wednesday, Sabawa was called back, and on Thursday the Centre announced  that the event would take the form of a broader panel discussion, rather than a debate. Interestingly, the line-up has not remained intact with three of the original speakers – Geoff Bloch, a barrister who has argued for the annexation of the West Bank, Dvir Abramovich, chair of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, and Izzat Abdulhadi, head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia – no longer listed. Mark Baker, director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and associate professor at Monash University, is a new addition with others still to be announced.


Sydneysiders, meanwhile, have been revelling in sunshine this week, and in the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which is in full swing. Even the city’s garbage trucks have turned literary: fourteen of the Sydney City Council‘s 29 trucks have been emblazoned with quotes and extracts from festival guest writers such as Vince Gilligan, David Malouf, Irvine Welsh, Richard Flanagan, Amy Tan, Alexis Wright and Christos Tsiolkas.

The opening night address by Andrew Solomon on Tuesday 20 May was compelling and intensely personal. While the focus was on his latest book Far From the Tree (2012), Solomon ranged across subjects that lead back to his earlier book on the subject of depression, The Noonday Demon (2000), and which also touched on human rights abuses and his own experience of discrimination as boy and a gay man.

Other highlights to date have included Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker’s session with musician Archie Roach, which left audiences and the twitterverse swooning. (Alice Walker fans might want to note she is appearing in another SWF event tonight, this time with Miles Franklin winner, Alexis Wright. The event  will be facilitated by writer Melissa Lucashenko whose  latest novel Mullumbimby (2013) has been reviewed in the SRB.) Other writers who have proven popular include Sandi Toksvig, Bob Carr, Sian Prior and David Malouf, who in addition to turning 80 this year has also released two new books: a volume of poetry, Earth Hour, and a collection of personal essays titled, A First Place.

Not to be outdone, Melbourne is preparing to take over where Sydney leaves off. Next Friday, 30 May, marks the beginning of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers’ Festival . The festival, held over three days, features over 80 writers including Alex Skovron, Maria Tumarkin, Julie Szego, Rafael Epstein, Kooshyar Karimi, and David Grossman.

The Emerging Writers’ Festival , which is fast becoming one of the more interesting festivals on the literary calendar, starts on Wednesday 27 May and continues until 6 June. The festival features masterclasses, panel discussions, author talks, installations and workshops. If you are in Melbourne and near the Wheeler Centre, check out The Readers’ Room . Last week’s mention, WordStorm: Top End Writers’ Festival  also begins next Thursday 29 May and continues until 1 June.

Awards – tis the season

It has been another big week on the literary awards calendar.  The Australian Bookseller of the Year Awards on 18 May brought the already highly-decorated  writer, Hannah Kent, the Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award for Burial Rites (2013, reviewed by Ben Etherington). At the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards  on 19 May, fellow multi-award-winning novelist Michelle de Kretser added three more awards to the collection amassed by Questions of Travel (2012, reviewed by Evelyn Juers), scooping Book of the Year, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and tying for first place for the Multicultural Award with Andrew Bovell’s play My Secret River (2012). Other successes included Ashley Hay, who won the People’s Choice Award for The Railwayman’s Wife  (2013, reviewed by Gretchen Shirm) and 2014 Miles Franklin short-listed novelist, Fiona McFarlane, who walked away with the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing for The Night Guest (2013, reviewed by Lucy Sussex)Fiona Hile took out the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for Novelties (2013).

Over at Text, David Burton, broke tradition with his unpublished manuscript, which has won this year’s $10 000 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. How to be Happy is the first memoir to win the prize since it was launched six years ago. It will be published mid-next year.

For the Sydney Review of Books, however, the most exciting news this week is that our Editor, James Ley, has won the Pascall Prize for the Australian Critic of the Year. The country’s only national prize for critical writing, the Pascall Prize is awarded annually to a critic or reviewer whose work ‘changes the perceptions of Australians, opens their eyes to a different perspective of their culture, develops a new interest in the subject and is both imaginative and creative’. James, who holds a PhD from the University of Western Sydney, has been a professional literary critic for seventeen years and his work has appeared in publications including Australian Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian. James will hold the title, ‘Australian Critic of the Year’ for 2014, replacing SRB contributor, Kerryn Goldsworthy, who won the prize in 2013. From all of us at the SRB we would like to congratulate James on his much-deserved win. Browse James’ SRB  essays.

Tonight, a slew of other prizes will be announced at the Australian Book Industry Awards. And while not officially an award, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Writers list will be published tomorrow following an announcement at this afternoon’s SWF.

An awards wrap-up would be incomplete this week without mentioning Australian novelist Shane Maloney, who appears to have outed himself  as one of the anonymous reviewers for The Saturday Paper. The book under review?  Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn – a satirical book that deals with the culture of literary prizes.

Other highlights – Jeanette Winterson

Fans of the ever-intriguing, always compelling Jeanette Winterson were thrilled to learn the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival  is featuring the British novelist in this year’s line-up. In addition to appearing at the festival, which runs from 1–-3 August, Winterson will also speak at the Brisbane Powerhouse on 7 August and the Sydney Opera House on 10 August. Winterson’s last Australian book tour was in 2012 for Why be happy when you can be normal?. Last month the Guardian (UK) named her as one of its ‘Top Ten Writers to See Live’. Full program details for the Byron Bay Festival will be available on the festival website from 6 June.

Rachel Morley