Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, National Library of Australia, Canberra
MON 23 JULY 2012
I was here in February, and since then you’ve had a real triumph with the exhibition to honour Patrick White’s centenary, which closed relatively recently on 8 July.
That was a vivid reminder that this building’s life-force is drawn from words – millions and millions of them.
Words that make you think; words that make you wonder; words that may even change your life; words by Australian authors, many now long gone.
But our cultural institutions are not just collectors of heritage. They are part of a living tradition of artistic excellence.
They are home to artists and writers who believe in their work and who believe in their nation and its creativity.
They believe that our nation’s very soul is our creativity.
In these awards – and in this the National Year of Reading – we’re celebrating excellence in writing.
Writing is perhaps the loneliest of art forms, and one of the hardest.
Indeed it was Patrick White who said: 'I am constantly meeting ladies who say, “how lovely it must be to write”, as though one sat down ... after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread and butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.'
So, writing a solitary and sometimes a frustrating pursuit.
We’ve all seen the films where the writer crumples up endless pages or faces a typewriter with a blank sheet sitting forlornly trying to get the words to come.
Today, that might be a computer screen or a tablet but the demands it imposes on the writer’s creative resources are the same.
Fortunately for us, there are many ‘a-ha’ moments and we are richer for it – that richness that comes from the intensity of the craft of writing.
It was John Keats who said, ‘the excellence of every Art is its intensity’.
For writers, that means drawing upon your experiences and your emotions – something that can often be painful and even physically draining.
It’s important for you to know how much we value what you do and how much we appreciate what your families go through as you do it.
The consolation lies in the fact that your words will still be here long after we are all gone.
They will have formed an indelible imprint capturing what mattered and what caught our collective imagination in the early 21stcentury.
Friends, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are now in their fifth year and I’d like to think they’ve already become a tradition that will be nurtured and respected by all who occupy this office.
This year, of course, we’ve introduced a range of reforms to make the awards even better.
We’ve introduced a poetry category that has received an amazing 56 entries in its first year – and that’s not surprising.
Because, a country that can produce the likes of Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray and Judith Wright certainly deserves a poetry prize and I’m very glad in these awards we now have one to celebrate Australian writing and Australian poetry – a very special addition.
This year too, at Minister Crean’s insistence, we’ve split the prizes so the short-listed nominees all get a sum of money as well, and that’s well deserved too.
We’ve also recognised Australia’s great historians as part of the Literary Awards.
And, moving with the times, we’ve opened up the Australian History Prize to formats other than books – things like multimedia and videos.
In this age of tablets and smartphones, it’s not the format that matters – it’s the words.
The words that speak to us, inspire, anger, inform and challenge us and perhaps even make us cry.
If you can do those things – and the writers in this room most certainly do – then we live in a very fortunate country indeed.
To the winners and nominees – my warmest congratulations, you make us rich in the things that count the most.
And now it’s on with the announcement of those winners.
Thank you very much.