Two months ago I went to an event at the Wheeler Centre and found myself taking part in both a feminist discussion and a social reading quest: the Meanjin Tournament of Books has been an excellent literary adventure.
First, the confession: I didn’t end up reading all the books competing in the Tournament. Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup proved difficult to get a hold of, and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children was too slow a narration for me to get through, despite following Genevieve Tucker‘s advice to approach it as I would a VCE text.
The act of reading the novels as a group, all at once, has been informative and, most importantly, enjoyable. I filled some gaps in my knowledge of Australian literature but, best of all, discovered some truly wonderful novels. Of course, there were other titles that I didn’t care for, and deciding in each round which novel I thought deserved to move forward in the competition was thought-provoking, if fraught.
In many ways, watching the tournament unfold was a bit like being a Masterchef fan: I got slightly too involved, and felt personally slighted when the adjudication didn’t go ‘my’ way. Watching Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria be dropped from the competition (twice!) and the march of Joan London’s Gilgamesh victorious through the rounds were my two main outrages of the competition; the former was a book that I love-love-loved, and the latter a book that didn’t move me at all. How did a book that first-match judge Anna Krien didn’t expect to move any further in the competition go on to defeat Garner’s The Children’s Bach and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River as well as Carpentaria? Even First Dog on the Moon’s lovely cartoon couldn’t soften the blow of the first crushing zombie round, as my favourite book left the competition for good.
But that’s what a tournament of books is all about, isn’t it? Unlike sport, where the first to cross the line is victorious, celebrating literary excellence is a more subjective caper. It’s a subject we return to again and again, whether pondering the idea of ‘portraying Australian life’ in the Miles Franklin, or questioning male-dominated longlists in prominent literary awards.
But the subjectivity of the tournament is where the real beauty of this competition emerges, because, (please forgive my earnestness!) it has created a space for discussion and reflection. Reading the judges’ eloquent book reviews each round has been a joy, even when I disagreed with the outcomes. The match commentary has been hilarious. The spectator chatter has also been enlightening and entertaining, and through it I’ve met some new like-minded literature boffins, which is fab. In short: talking about books FTW!
Of course, the fun is not over yet, and we are just weeks (days?) away from the end of the Tournament of Books. My finals favourites have all been dropped from the competition, but I’m still eagerly anticipating the grand final round.
Which title do you think will be crowned the inaugural Meanjin Tournament of Books Great Australian Novel?
Lisa Dempster is the Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and author of Neon Pilgrim.