2016 National Biography Award shortlist announced


The shortlist for Australia’s most prestigious biography prize was announced yesterday.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Battarbee and Namatjira, Martin Edmond (Giramondo)
  • Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s Beijing Envoy, Stephen FitzGerald (Melbourne University Publishing)
  • Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather, Karen Lamb (University of Queensland Press)
  • Mannix, Brenda Niall (Text Publishing)
  • Bearing Witness: The Remarkable Life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent, Peter Rees (Allen & Unwin)
  • Reckoning: A Memoir, Magda Szubanski (Text Publishing)

“If it can be said of biography that it’s mostly about dead white males well then, consider our shortlist – they’re not all dead, they’re not all white and they’re not all male,” said Chair of the judging panel, Dr Peter Cochrane.  Although, to be accurate, I think he should have made it clearer that the subjects are mostly dead, mostly white and mostly male. Oh well, half of the authors are women – that’s a step forward.

With the 2016 award attracting a record number of entries, Dr Cochrane also commented that the judges were “impressed and dazzled by the quality and range of entries, confirming that biography is alive and well in Australia and the genre is thriving.”

The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting interview with Dr Cochrane, which outlines the judging process:

As chairman of the judging panel for the National Biography Prize, Cochrane and his fellow judges, critic Rosemary Sorensen and historian Richard White, read 110 entries. They included 15 biographies of artists and writers, 11 of politicians, eight about migrants and refugees (three of them African), seven military subjects, and 15 he defined as “misery lit or inspirational memoir”.

And then goes on to discuss to discuss the merits of each book on the shortlist.

A total of $31,000 will be awarded with the winner of the Award receiving $25,000 and each shortlisted author receiving $1,000 in recognition of their achievement.

The winner will be announced on Monday 8 August at 11am at a special free event at the State Library of NSW.


11 responses »

  1. LOL ‘misery lit’ … sounds like the category I’ve described in my review policy as “weepy or sentimental memoirs and memoirs of motherhood or having horrible diseases”!


  2. Haven’t read Szubanski yet but I guess the prize givers find it too hard to separate memoir from autobiography. I see their point – where would you draw the line?


  3. I missed this news – thanks for posting! I think it’s a good shortlist, showing the spectrum of life writing in 2015. It’s missing my pick though – Kate Grenville’s One Life.


    • Haha, Michelle, I love your comment that “Although, to be accurate, I think he should have made it clearer that the subjects are mostly dead, mostly white and mostly male. Oh well, half of the authors are women – that’s a step forward.”

      I have researched this award before and its ambit is broad, it’s for “biographical or autobiographical writing” so memoirs fit in with that. They don’t even say “autobiography”.

      I wouldn’t have gone with One life, sorry Nathan. I’ve only read the Thea Astley in this group and I think it’s excellent – more interesting, more readable than last year’s winner, albeit was well researched.


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