Books

The Melbourne Prize for Literature: celebrating Australia’s literary epicentre

The Melbourne Prize for Literature is one of the richest prizes in Australia. So who’s won it, and where it did come from?

The Melbourne Prize for Literature is a major Australian literary prize that is granted by the Melbourne Prize Trust. Founded by Simon Warrender, a decorated British-Australian war hero, and businessman, the Trust celebrates writers, sculptors, and musicians whose bodies of work have made a significant impact in their respective fields, on Australian arts culture.

Established in 2004, The Melbourne Prize for Literature is open to “Australian citizens or Australian permanent residents and residents of the State of Victoria.” Since the prize is awarded on a three-year basis, there have been six winners, with the most recent being Christos Tsolkias, Victorian-Premier-Prize-winning author of Damascus. 

christos tsolkias the melbourne prize for literature
2021 Melbourne Prize for Literature winner, Christos Tsolkias (Photo: The Australian)

Having written a number of critically and commercially successful novels, Tsolkias was granted the prize for his “outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life,” according to the prize’s judges, which included Michael Williams, a director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and Australian writers Alice Pung and Declan Fry.

Previous winners of the literary award have been diverse in genre and form, including children’s/YA author Alison Lester, poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and writers Helen Garner, Gerald Murnane, and Alex Miller. Beyond the major literature prize which is decided by a panel of judges, the Melbourne Prize for Literature also encompasses a Civic Award (2021 winner, Maxine Beneba Clarke), with the winner voted on by the Victorian public.

In 2021, the Trust announced another literary offshoot entitled “Professional Development.” Established to support emerging Victorian writers, the inaugural prize was awarded to Evelyn Araluen, author of Dropbear.

The significance of Melbourne being designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, just a few years after Warrender’s establishment of the prize, suggests that these types of investments, among other state contributions (e.g. The Wheeler Centre and The Victorian Government’s City of Literature Initiative) have paid off.

According to the City of Melbourne, “Melbournians consume more books, magazines, and newspapers per capita than residents of any other city in Australia, and enjoy the highest concentration of community book clubs in the country,” and “one-third of all Victorians are library members and libraries receive 30 million visits per year. Victoria’s libraries run an extensive range of innovative events.”

Where Ireland has its Dubliners, or Lebanon has their Beruitis, — as much as it pains me to say this as a Sydneysider (NSW, do better!) — Australia has Melbournians: the writers, creatives, and beneficiaries like those of the Melbourne Prize Trust, who continually funnel their time, money and energy into creating a vital home for Australian literature.