I went along to the launch of the Meanjin Tournament of Books because I was curious about the concept of a literary competition which pits books against book to come up with ‘the great Australian novel’. (Or should that be, the Great Australian Novel?) By the end of the night, for reasons I have written about at Killings, I had decided I would read along with the Tournament.
I had a lot of books to read, and like all to-do list tacklings, I started with the smaller books (in size, I mean, certainly not in scope), knocking off Gilgamesh, Tirra Lirra by the River and Of a Boy in the first weekend. After the matches were published I read to try and finish each novel before the judgement was handed down, and in this regard was helped by Meanjin, who put the more lengthy tomes towards the end of round one. Still, I was not able to finish them all in time, and some remain unstarted — A Kindness Cup, which I have been unable to find a copy of; The Man Who Loved Children; which I have struggled to get into; and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, whose sheer volume put me off cracking open the cover. Luckily I have this time between rounds to catch up!
It has been an interesting experience to read following a list, putting myself in Meanjin’s hands and trusting that their literary choices will prove enjoyable. The list of contenders, as Zora described it , is indeed ‘eccentric and hardly authoritative’, but does include extremely worthy books that either don’t get much attention or have fallen out of the public consciousness. Indeed, there was much for me to discover.
By actively spectating the Tournament, I have read books that might otherwise have remained on my mental ‘one day’ pile, discovered authors that I had not heard of, and fallen passionately in love with certain storytellers. My future reading will be enriched by these discoveries: I want to read more of Hartnett, Grenville and Wright’s work, and plan on enjoying Carmody’s Obernewtyn series as my summer reading (telepathic animals, ‘nuff said).
It’s also curious reading books in competition, wondering, is this book better than its opponent — and why or why not? The match pairing have been helpful, pitting like against like where possible (Stead vs Carmody was a bit of a clanger!), so the adjudication feels more manageable (to me, at least.) In general I have agreed with the decisions handed down, and have loved reading each of the judge’s comments on the novels, not to mention enjoyed the LOLs of the match commentaries (Jess and Ben: I heart youse).
The match I was most concerned about was match four, in which my beloved Looking for Alibrandi came up against a book that I had just discovered and loved, the Harp in the South. It was with heart in mouth that I clicked open Jo Case’s review. Briefly glad that Alibrandi had made the grade — it really is ‘the perfect Australian novel for a teenage girl’ — I quickly assessed how it might hold up against My Brilliant Career in round 2; the pairing seems apt, and I sense it will be a close competition.
The only judge I would take to task is Tony Wilson, who had the admittedly unenviable task of choosing between Cate Kennedy and Alexis Wright in match 8. If the comments on that match are anything to go by, I am not the only person disappointed by the outcome.
Carpentaria is my treasured find so far in this tournament: an epic, eccentric, magical book. Where I had previously been a little frustrated by some of the character—rather than plot-driven novels of this tournament, namely, Harp in the South and The Man Who Loved Children, I took no such issue with Wright’s storytelling. Its brilliant characters, sense of timelessness and meandering narratives made me feel as though the story was swirling around me, carrying me along in its current. Though The World Beneath is touching and smart, Carpentaria is brilliant, challenging and truly original. I feel Wright was robbed in the final match of round one.
But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? There is an inherent ridiculousness in a literary competition, as personal taste is ultimately a key driver in the decision-making process of the judges, especially when the books are so diverse and published at such different historical points.
To be a little trite, I think that the real winner of the Meanjin Tournament of Books will not be the book that is deemed ‘the best’ at the end, but instead be me (and maybe you?), the reader.
Is anyone else reading along to the Tournament? I would love to hear your thoughts — here or on the twitter hashtag #meanjintob.