As delivered by Julie Koh
Mark Twain once declared that the sole function of a writer is to tell the truth. And yet many of the world’s noblest storytellers—the consciences of our nations—have sadly gone unrecognised in their own lifetimes. With this in mind, we have gathered here today to announce the winner of the inaugural Paradox Prize—an award recognising the best unrecognised book of the previous year. It is a pleasure to be here at the State Library of New South Wales on this fine December evening. Many thanks to Meanjin, which has generously sponsored this ceremony.
The Paradox Prize, and the prize money on offer, would not be possible without a generous bequest from the late, great Australian writer Arthur ruhtrA. As many of you are no doubt aware, ruhtrA founded the experimental literary group Kangaroulipo in 1970 after a falling out with Oulipo. Recently a new manifestation of this movement has come into being, in the form of the literary collective Kanganoulipo. I am a founding member of the new group, and we are honoured to be the administrators and judges of this award.
Before we announce the winner, and in the interests of transparency, I would first like to outline the judging process. Deliberations for this nationally significant award occurred in the Australian capital because we all happened to be passing through at the same time. We took temporary five-star lodgings at what we famously came to call the Mawson House, as it was a house located in the suburb of Mawson. To prepare for the judging process, we chained up our illustrator Jeff in the back shed with a bowl of water. We then donned velvet smoking jackets and indulged in a long weed-fuelled orgy against the express house rules of Airbnb owner Danielle. We padded out the bacchanalia with a number of tourists we had picked up on the way to Mawson, having encouraged them to roll down a random green hill—which we claimed to be the lawns of Parliament House—and into our waiting van.
We began with a field of 63 books. We held the entries, one by one, up to the light to check that they were indeed eligible for the prize. Recognising none of them, we carried on.
To select the longlist we ranked the covers, author bios and blurbs. Extra points were awarded to authors with a photogenic visage, relevant PhD, previous publication of any sort in the US or UK, or history of conspicuous servitude to the Australian literary community. Writers against whom we had vendettas were eliminated, and their books cast upon the back-yard bonfire. Also burned were books by lovers whom we discovered during deliberations were common to multiple judges. Cultural diversity was good for a longlisting but was likely to work against a win. Did the book put us to sleep? This was an indication of quality bedtime reading.
We narrowed the longlist down to a shortlist by putting the names of the longlisted authors into a hat and drawing out 19 of them.
When it came to deciding the winner, the judges were divided about which book on the shortlist had the strongest cover, in terms of paper stock, which in our view was the most important consideration as it is a key predictor of longevity. On that basis alone, however, we were unable to agree on a standout entry. We therefore compared how each of us had ranked the shortlisted entries overall. One book consistently came in at sixteenth or seventeenth. It was a book on which we were able to find common ground: we all agreed on its admirable inoffensiveness.
The author of that entirely deserving and not at all bloodless compromise of a pick is Ryan O’Neill, honorary chair of Kanganoulipo and now the winner of the 2017 Paradox Prize for Their Brilliant Careers. Congratulations, Ryan.
Unfortunately, Ryan is unable to be with us tonight as he has been banned from this venue.1 I will now read Ryan’s acceptance speech on his behalf.
Before I begin, I’d like to set a few things straight. First of all, I should make clear that when I moved to Australia, Scotland lost its punniest literary star. Yet my new homeland has consistently failed to appreciate its cultural gain. This country, so fearful of its tallest thistle, seeks to cut me down again and again, threatened by my unquestionable genius and gingerness. I’d especially like to respond to those who have accused me through the years of unbridled plagiarism, chief among them the widely panned critic William Yeoman. Unfortunately for Yeoman—who has built a laughable career upon these accusations—these charges remain unsubstantiated.
Let me also address the wild rumours that have been circulating concerning the authorship of Their Brilliant Careers. I blame the entire fiasco on my research assistant, Robert Skinner. When I was in the early stages of developing the book, Skinner attached himself to me like the isolated, lonely leech that he was—one sucker on the bush floor, the other searching for the next lovely leg. Out of pity I let him latch on, so that he could take succour from his proximity to my greatness.
Too tall for his personality, and unattractively sycophantic, Skinner would do anything for a bit of praise. I sent him on obscure research missions just to see if he would obey—requesting, for instance, that he visit the grave of each author referenced in Their Brilliant Careers in order to check the spelling of his or her name. He was to take extra care with the more difficult monikers: Robert Bush, Matilda Young and Donald Chapman. During his nationwide dash from cemetery to cemetery, the clumsy idiot was hit by lightning, savaged by a possum, then hit by lightning again. Driven to distraction, I lost a great deal of writing time to his attention-seeking escapades.
Contrary to popular understanding, the Australian box-office hit Red Dog was based not on the life of an above-average kelpie–cattle dog cross, but on the life of Robert Skinner. While the filmmakers did exaggerate his personal qualities, it certainly was Skinner whose patience in waiting for my return has become the stuff of cinematic legend. The true story is that, on a mystery research whim, I directed Skinner to hire a bus and drive me from Sydney to Dampier. As we neared the town, I jumped out and told him to stay while I visited my friend Anne Zoellner, who happened to be holidaying in a nearby caravan. I told Skinner I intended to visit her for a cup of tea, but I found her reclining so saucily in her temporary digs that I did not return for three years.
When I finally made it back to the bus, I found Skinner still waiting in the driver’s seat. He had been subsisting on a stash of rice crackers and had nearly starved to death, his face burnt a deep red from the rays of the desert sun piercing the windscreen. But to my relief the loyal hound had not wasted my time: in those three years he had compiled all of his research for Their Brilliant Careers in one document. All that was needed now were corrections from my editor. As to whether Skinner should take credit for having written the book, I think that would be a rather ambitious stretch.
Yeoman has accused me of plagiarism; others have accused me of not writing the book at all. How one could copy another person’s work in a book one has not written is a paradox worthy of its own prize.
I want to set the record straight on another thing—my success should in no way be attributed to Kanganoulipo. In particular, my winning this prize has nothing to do with my being on the judging panel of said group. I never shy away from a divisive hot take, and here is my hottest yet: though this is a prize of integrity, Kanganoulipo itself is a collective of first-rate mediocrity. This self-proclaimed ‘new wave of flim-flam’ should burn to the ground, rather than be emboldened by misguided editors such as Jonathan Green.
All happy writers are alike; each unhappy writer is unhappy in their own way. The cross I bear is my war of attrition with critics, editors and collectives. But of course, my most famous war is with my nemesis, Tim Winton.
Our great battle began with an altercation at the Pennington Prize for Nonfiction awards ceremony in Melbourne in October 2001, where I was shortlisted for my acclaimed provocative history of Australian short fiction, Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings. It became clear at that ceremony that Winton is undoubtedly the Hyde to my Jekyll.
‘O God!’ I screamed at the ceremony pre-drinks, and ‘O God!’ again and again; for there before my eyes—pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death—there stood Tim Winton propped up by his surfboard.
When Winton took out that restraining order against me, it was a media-baiting overreaction. All I did was pull his ponytail while he was trying to eat creme brûlée from a Chinese spoon. And really, which great writer doesn’t have an AVO out against them? Being an artiste inevitably means being stuck in a complex web of AVOs. If you ever see writers standing awkwardly in a circle, it’s because they’re trying to remember who should be a minimum of 100 metres from whom.
My battle with Winton is ongoing. I had always dreamed of lying with him among the melaleucas but he would not abide it. And so it must continue. After all, my fellow writers, ask not what the country can do for you, ask what the city can do for you also. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight on the beaches; we shall never surrender.
Some would claim that I am jealous of Winton’s career. This is a wild inaccuracy. The truth is, the man is obsessed with me. Every one of Winton’s characters who finally catches that mammoth wave right off the rocks where his best friend died that tragic night is a clumsy but unmistakeable portrait of none other than Ryan O’Neill. I can do nothing about it—one cannot curtail one’s all-encompassing charisma.
For just about every award I have been snubbed, beginning in Primary Two when Mrs O’Keeffe refused to give me a gold star for my epic poem ‘I Wouldnae Ride Her in Tae Battle’. I became a constant shortlistee—for the Pennington Prize, the Addison Tiller, the Christina Stead, the Miles Franklin. A man cannot eat haggis on shortlistings alone! Only the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP—Rhodes scholar, banker among men—fully appreciated my virtuosic literary prowess, sending his minister for the arts to present me last Friday with the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. That’s right, Tim Winton. Whose masculinity is damaged now?
I refuse, however, to rest on my laurels: it is time for me to begin to ask the hard questions. For instance, having won Australia’s top literary award, why not others? Like the Stella and the Vogel? Though 43, I am without a doubt more deserving of this year’s Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist award than joint winner Julie Koh—that murderous, gimmicky, social-climbing hussy who makes immigrants everywhere so difficult to love.
Now, as I notch up my eleventh Drambuie for the morning and scratch this speech in my own blood on my fifty-second stolen copy of Cloudstreet, I should point out that life is no definite thing with a beginning and an end, a growth and a climax; but a basket of fragments, passages that lead to nothing, curious incidents which look of importance at first, but which crumble and break into pieces, dropping into ruins. One of those fragments was my late wife Rachel Deverall, to whom I owe my own brilliant career.
It is difficult to speak of my darling Rachel without mentioning her psychiatric breakdown in late 2009, following the fire that destroyed her house. That was undeniably a difficult time, in which—due to enthusiastic assistance from Skinner—no-one was able to prove that I had splashed kerosene around the living room and set the place alight. Rachel—light of my life, fire of my loins—I only wish that you could rise again from the ashes, like my literary career.
Recently there has been a tradition of authors donating their prize money to worthy causes. I am going to keep every cent. I shall have financial security at last, and buy a car space in Parramatta where Anne and I will pitch our Napsacks. We will gloat over the rest of you from the heights of the Westfield food court. To live will be an awfully big adventure.
I have never stood on the shoulders of giants but will now happily stand on the heads of every petty little writer, critic, judge and reader who has ever tried to tear me down. If you want a picture of the future of Australian literature, imagine my boot stamping on the faces of the literati—forever.
Well, Robert, my trusty mongrel, we knocked the bastards off.
Congratulations again to Ryan O’Neill. At this point in the ceremony, I should mention that a key rule of the Paradox Prize is that if a writer wins, his book is no longer unrecognised, so he is immediately disqualified. We consequently retract our congratulations to Ryan, and because of his shameful disqualification, the ten dollars in prize money will go back into the Kanganoulipo kitty to add to next year’s jackpot.
That concludes the ceremony for this year. Help yourselves to the free-flowing tap water on the house and … hello, Robert, what are you doing with that flamethrower?
Julie Koh is the author of Capital Misfits and Portable Curiosities. She is currently recuperating from the Great State Library Fire. Read more about Kanganoulipo at <www.kanganoulipo.com>.
- ‘Witnesses at the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards ceremony said that drunken shortlistee Ryan O’Neill spent the evening pulling roses out of the floral displays, wrenching their heads off one by one and crushing them in his fists. He then attempted to co-opt Premier Gladys Berejiklian into re-enacting with him the bath scene from American Beauty. As the premier left the ceremony with her minders, O’Neill insisted that he be the one in the bath, and she the one admiring him. He tried to touch his Opal card to her face as payment, before being wrestled to the ground.’: ‘Kilted Celt Causes Chaos’, East Sydney Advertiser, 23 May 2017, p. 3.