Literature & Australian-ness

Portrait of Miles Franklin via WikiCommons

Portrait of Miles Franklin via WikiCommons

A warm congratulations to Chris Womersley, Kim Scott and Roger McDonald for yesterday’s announcement that they have been shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. Three wonderful writers who deserve recognition and celebration of their work. Congratulations too, to the other six authors who were earlier included on the award’s longlist for this year.

Literary awards always attract debate and disquiet. Discerning readers will profess their outrage that Proust never won a Nobel, or that they couldn’t understand how Vernon God Little won a Booker. That’s the point. A good literary award is one that gets readers arguing and thinking, engaging with the books on offer and being introduced to authors they may not have read. Controversy, you might reasonably think, is the friend of the literary award. But not always. Hot on the heels of this year’s shortlist announcement, Australia’s highest profile literary award appears doomed to be mired in a fresh brouhaha.

The terms of Franklin’s bequest state that the prize shall go to the work of the highest literary merit that “reflects Australian life in any of its phases”. Many of the arguments surrounding the award in the past have concerned the parameters of these terms, including instances of judges admitting to counting pages set on Australian soil to determine ‘Australianness’. Famously, Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously were both deemed ‘insufficiently Australian’ for consideration, despite Australian protagonists and sensibilities.

In 1973, only half a dozen books were entered for the award and not one was of sufficient quality for the judges to deem it Miles Franklin-worthy. For the first time since its inception, there was no award given. The same thing happened ten years later in 1983. Kate Ahearne, in Australian Book Review, argued that the decision “cast more serious doubts on the value of the award itself than on the quality of the novels being produced by Australian writers”. The Miles Franklin Award is a phenomenal cultural asset but in just over half a century of shifting fortunes, stoushes and scandals, perhaps the biggest controversy to dog the award is its failure to gain the recognition and relevance it deserves.

And this year, the judges have elected to nominate a shortlist of only three titles, half the conventional list. In and of itself, this should be unremarkable. Surely it is the judges’ prerogative to declare as many books worthy of consideration as they see fit. But it seems to me the problem here springs from an internal inconsistency. If nine titles were stand-out enough to be included as a longlist of viable candidates, how is it that six of them then fail to make the cut through to the next stage? Suddenly the arbitrary nature of literary awards seems cruel rather than useful.

The truncated shortlist is only part of what has attracted outcry in response to this year’s selection. All three shortlisted authors are men (just as they were two years ago). In the 53 years that the Award has been given, only 9 different women have received the prize (with both Thea Astley and Jessica Anderson clocking up multiple wins). There are definitely questions to be asked about gender and the Miles Franklin Award, and many will rightly be asking them (such as here and here). But a look at previous winners suggests that the prize’s overwhelming masculine tendencies are a symptom of something broader.

The definition of ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo. If our notion of a ‘sufficiently Australian’ novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories. The readers of Miles Franklin Award-winning titles predominantly live in Australia’s cities (in the present day, no less!). Statistics would suggest they’re overwhelmingly women too. Shame they have so rarely seen winners telling stories that feel like their own.

So where does that leave us? If awards are inevitably tainted by subjectivity and should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism, why pay any attention to them? Why should we on the one hand congratulate the shortlisted, and on the other bemoan the choices we disagree with? The shortlist is the point. In the shortlist, an award has its opportunity to highlight the breadth of talent and imagination on offer from our extraordinary writers. Those books, and their writers, are out there.

Michael Williams is head of programming at the Wheeler Centre. Many years ago, he did his honours thesis on the Miles Franklin Award. His opinions are his own. The Miles Franklin Award winner will be announced at the State Library of Victoria on June 22.

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