Whether funded by the state or corporate liberality, literary prizes can tend to produce their own public principles far beyond those we might be better to wrestle with in books. Awards do more than award and can often Make A Statement that is much easier to read and understand than, say, J.M. Coetzee himself. The Man Booker, it has been said, works in a cultural field to protect now-outdated parameters of the “literary”. More explicit in its aims, the Bad Sex prize works to make fun of the Man Booker. And last night, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards upchucked some very particular meanings. Some by accident and at least one, it would seem, by design.
When historian Professor Stuart Macintyre says, as he did to me by telephone this afternoon, he is not at all certain of the value of literary awards, you know it’s not just sour grapes. Himself the recipient of wide-ranging honours, he wonders what the creation of the “celebrity author” can bring the wider community.
“However,” he says, “if you’re going to award such things, you surely must do so with care.” Care, he thinks, was exercised in the award to Joan Beaumont’s WWI account, Broken Nation. Care, according to Mike Carlton in today’s Crikey, supplanted by ideology in the case of a prize to Hal G.P. Colebatch.
Macintyre, an academic who works within the margins of evidence, is far less inclined than Carlton, a journalist whose mood becomes freer with every tweet, to call the award for Australia’s Secret War a numb act of pure ideology. But, he does say, “It is a pity that changes in government see changes in composition of the panel”; a matter reported earlier this year in Daily Review. And he does say of Colebatch’s pieces in Quadrant—also the publisher for his prize-winning book—that the view that unions did their bit to ruin the war effort is not informed “by the methodology expected of historians”.
One does not need to be credentialed to write good history, says Macintyre, but one does need to consult the National Archive when making an argument that precious hours were lost to industrial action. “Based on my previous readings of Colebatch in Quadrant and my own research, the argument is moonshine.”
According to Macintyre, Colebatch’s assertion that Australian man-hours were needlessly haunted by the spectre of communism during World War II can be easily refuted by recourse to research. Industrial accidents were significantly more lethal to Australian wartime efforts than industrial action and there were “more hours lost in the US and the UK on a population basis” than that due to industrial action locally.
But good historiography was not the point last night. Reigniting the history wars seemed to be the statement made.
If you believe much of what Quadrant has to say, and Hal G.P. Colebatch clearly does, then you believe that much of the nation’s intellectual effort has been choked by “smelly little orthodoxies” of thought. Which is to say, and in his 1950s toastmasters-style acceptance speech Colebatch virtually did, that the stink of the Left has doomed history to speculative fiction.
Today, Right-thinking writers thank goodness for the perfume of reason and Tim Blair applauds the happy day that “marks the first time in global history that a major literature prize has gone to a conservative author writing from a conservative point of view”. Either Blair has the same revulsion for historical research that Colebatch seems to or he doesn’t think that Winston Churchill, recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature, is creditably “conservative”.
The latter is perhaps more likely.
Historical scholarship is a matter of debate, revision and argument; little of which has taken place in the research or the reception of Colebatch’s scarcely reviewed work that Macintyre assures me has made no impact on academics—those “Left wing” people obsessed with “facts”. But according to the newest conflagration in the History Wars we saw last night, the discipline of history is just a matter of Right and Left. Macintyre puts it smoothly when he says, “The Right thinks there is this absolute orthodoxy within universities and historical scholarship.” “And in a sense it projects its own expectation of how matters are decided”. Less kindly, the Right thinks everyone is as slapdash and simple in its thinking and method as it tends to be.
It is Macintyre’s view that the discipline of history will survive this latest critique and it is my view as a punter that Colebatch, looking like a florid disciple of Santamaria and raging about the death of Curtin due to Commies, will only convince a tiny portion of the electorate that the “Left”, a synonym for “people who check facts”, dominates all important discourse.
But, in the habit of literary awards, the PM’s party had a point to make and they made it: intellectuals are stupid and, like anyone who deals in revision, facts and debate, simply not to be trusted. Oh, and also that unions are evil. The celebration of this book at a particularly useful instant echoes the celebration of Quadrant’s own Keith Windschuttle, whose The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was perfectly timed—if not necessarily, according to some critics, researched in the most perfect traditions of historical method—to underscore Prime Minister John Howard’s critique of the “black armband view of history”.
The Coalition has made its point. But, two other authors last night made theirs.
Bob Graham handed his $10,000 prize directly over to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Richard Flanagan his $40,000 to The Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
This is touching. It’s also depressing. Our authors are led to do what our government now neglects.
Of course, where our government can’t be critiqued for its efforts, particularly last night, is in the production of ideology.