Pascall’s Saviour?

Australia’s premier award for criticism, the Geraldine Pascall Prize, is now administered as one of two arts focused awards by the Walkley Foundation, responsible for the major awards in Australian journalism.

It brings to an end a stand alone prize that conferred recognition (and no small amount of cash) on some of Australia’s best and most highly regarded critics and reviewers. It also invites renewed discussion about the value given to arts and cultural criticism in Australia’s media.

A film, food and wine critic, every pen portrait of Geraldine Pascall seems to reference her flamboyance and enjoyment of life. Having worked for The Australian since 1970, she died following a stroke, aged 38, in 1983.

Some origin stories of the Prize in its early years had it that she died intestate, and that her friends and colleagues established the Foundation and Prize to use her estate to honour her.

However, it is clear from other records that her father, who died in 1988, was initially responsible for administering her Estate and entered into a Deed of Arrangement with the trustees of the Foundation in 1986. The core of the trustees would remain with the Foundation for the life of the stand alone prize in Pascall’s honour.

Her home in Woollahra was her principal asset and was said to have sold for around $250,000 in 1985 – around $771,000 in today’s money. (A salutary lesson in Sydney’s real estate values: the house would be sold again four years later in 1989, for $790,000 – $1.6 million today; and most recently sold for $3.7 million in 2016).

Initially the prize was to “recognise and reward an individual who has created an outstanding and original voice in Australian writing”, with an award to be made every two years to the value of $25,000. Defining creative writing broadly (allowing for theatre and film) and a system of open nominations reportedly made for an eclectic range of nominees for the first award including Patrick White, Paul Hogan and Derryn Hinch.

The first shortlist was made up of Helen Garner, David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Louis Nowra, and Eric Rolls, with the first award going to Malouf in May 1988.

Before a second award could be made in its original incarnation, the Pascall Foundation changed the criteria.

In April 1990, the trustees announced that the prize would be awarded annually, with the value of the prize lowered to $15,000.

However, to make the prize “more in keeping with the lifestyle, work and times” of Pascall, the prize would now be made to “critics of the arts and aspects of the culture” who wrote regularly for an Australian newspaper or periodical or broadcast regularly on television or radio.

It would not take long for this shift to be the subject of comment and disquiet.

Helen O’Neil, reporting in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1990, said that:

The decision has been widely criticised as ill-considered — because reviewing is secondary to creative writing and there are few full-time reviewers — and unfair to creative writers whose average income is S10,800 a year.

Geoffrey Dutton, the then chairman of the Australian Society of Authors, responded to the news with:

My God! There are all those deserving writers; why don’t they give it to them? Writers are so desperately badly off that a big prize like this would mean a lot to them, not only giving much- needed money for the writer but drawing attention to their books.

“Reviewers … aren’t the makers, the creators. It’s the sort of prize that goes to the hangers-on, as it were.

“If the reviewer is a comfortably-off academic, I think it will be a disgrace.

Inez Baranay, an author, offered that:

I don’t think any book reviewing is worth any prize or award, whereas the creation of original fiction is worth all the support and encouragement it can get.

Academic and reviewer, Andrew Riemer, who would win the Prize himself in 1999, was more encouraging about the change in direction, hoping that it might help book reviewing command the “respectability” it had in France and Britain. Similar encouragement was offered by academic and reviewer, Helen Daniels and author and reviewer, Margaret McCluskey, though the latter hoped the award might focus on criticism over reviewing and was not at all hopeful that there would be all that many contenders for the Prize.

With the new criteria in place, the first of the “criticism awards” was given in 1990 to Marion Halligan, an accomplished novelist and short story writer in her own right.

Over the years the prize would be awarded to Roger Covell, Andrew Ford, Bruce Elder and Robert Forster (music), Sandra Hall, Julie Rigg, Andrew Martin, Noel Purdon, Paul Byrnes and Evan Williams (film), Robert Nelson and Joanna Mendelssohn (art), Alison Croggon and John McCallum (theatre), Elizabeth Farrelly (built environment), Mark Mordue, James Bradley, Gerard Windsor, Geordie Williamson, Kerryn Goldsworthy, James Ley, Andrew Riemer and Peter Craven (books and literature) and the late Alan Saunders (gastronomy).

The prize winners make for a roll call of Australia’s most highly regarded critics and reviewers, or as The Australian’s Matthew Westwood put it, in a survey of arts journalism in 2011, “just about every serious cultural writer of a certain age in the country.”

In addition to their criticism, many of the prize winners brought their own significant creative achievements, underlining the value of experience and perspective in the best criticism. However, the limited publishing opportunities for criticism in Australia was evident. Film and book reviewing account for over half of the prizes given; reflecting their dominance in the diminishing acreage given over to criticism in Australia’s media.

Similarly, the practice of previous winners being involved in selection panels (sometimes for the following year’s award) has been accompanied by successive awards given in the same field – a shift away from the original vision that it would be rotated in a five year cycle through different fields. But there is no doubt that each of the winners were stand out figures in their fields of expertise and brought a substantial body of work with them.

In recent years, the Foundation’s fortunes were gradually dissipating. According to financial statements lodged with the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission, it had $139, 514 in assets as at 30 June 2014. In addition to the prize itself, the money was largely being spent on the awards night, management fees, website design and videotaping.

By 30 June 2016, the Foundation was down to $46, 823. It was clear that without a substantial injection of funds, the Foundation would not be able to make awards at the same level for much longer. The website, which had soaked up over $40,000 over three years, is no longer operative.

Earlier in 2016, the SMH’s then book pages editor, Susan Wyndham, reported a proposal to split the prize into three smaller awards of $2000 for various strands of “critical writing – via print, radio, television and the internet – about the arts, Australian society and/or culture, and “at the edge”, a loose term that could attract bloggers, cartoonists and experimental work.”

It was intended to cover work published between January 2015 and October 2016, with the prizes to be awarded at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival. But this seems to have come to naught.

Noting that the prize till then had been funded entirely from Pascall’s estate, Wyndham reported that donors and sponsors were being sought to fund the Prize.

Instead, now the prize has been picked up by the Walkley Foundation, and folded into its mid year Awards, alongside the Young Journalist of the Year, and awards recognising women’s leadership and freelance journalists. Instead of recognising a body of criticism, the newly badged Walkley-Pascall Award for Arts Criticism will be awarded on the basis of a single work.

Criticism is defined as “both reviews responding to the work itself, and deeper criticism placing work in the context of the artist’s oeuvre, specific genres and/or the current social/political/cultural landscape.”

An additional award, at the Walkley Foundation’s initiative, will be awarded for arts journalism, to recognise “a significant contribution in reporting, writing, news breaking and analysis of arts issues. This may include profiles of artists, features and investigations, reporting on the structures and personalities involved in the creation of contemporary culture, and examination of the creative arena.”

After many years of advocacy for arts journalism to be given appropriate recognition by Australia’s premier awards for journalism, the recognition is welcome. But they still sit awkwardly away from the major prizes, awarded later in the year, where specialist writing in such areas as business and sports is given recognition.

On 11 July, 2017, the Walkley Foundation announced the respective short lists for the Walkley-Pascall Award for Arts Criticism and the Arts Journalism Award. Those short listed for the Walkley-Pascall Award are Delia Falconer (for a 1700 word extended review of three books in the Weekend Australian – paywalled link) Kate Hennessy for a 1000 word theatre review in The Guardian) and Roslyn Jolly (for a near 4000 word extended review and essay in the Sydney Review of Books).

The challenge of assessing and judging a single piece of critical writing, written and edited in variously challenging circumstances (from the first night review to the long form cultural essay), is abundantly evident. Geraldine Pascall’s prize is set to stir more controversy as it enters a new phase of its long and provocative life.


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