Australian Book Review and the Miles Franklin Award

A couple of weeks back I linked to an article in "The Age" written by Jane Sullivan in which she discussed the Miles Franklin Award, in particular the entry conditions. Basically she didn't like the current requirement that the works entered had to present Australian life "in any of its phases". These conditions were written into the will of Miles Franklin, the legacy of which was used to set up the award in the first place, and hence into the rules governing the award.

Sullivan used two recent novels by Australians - March by Geraldine Brooks and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer - as examples of critically acclaimed novels by Australians that have been excluded from consideration for the award. It seemed like a reasonable argument to me, and I argued, not very well as it happens, for a change to be considered to the award conditions which would allow such works to be entered. Some readers didn't agree, indicating that Franklin had set up the award with specific conditions and that's the way it should stay. I guess this implies that if the entry requirements were to change then the award really won't be the "Miles Franklin" award any more, and continuing to use the original name would be an error, in judgement and in law. Well, I'm not going to argue the legal case one way or the other as I reckon I'd find myself on a very slippery slope very quickly. But on the judgement side I reckon a slight change to the entry rules along with a slight change to the award name - minor only - might suffice.

Now, the editorial staff of Australian Book Review have weighed into the discussion (May 2006 edition, Advances column), referencing Sullivan's original argument and attempting to counter each point she made. It's good to see magazines such as this discussing these subjects, they need a good airing. Unfortunately, the ABR comes across as being not only opposed to Sullivan's views, but also rather prickly about it. Their first point of contention is that Sullivan used Brooks's recent Pulitzer Prize win as a justification for her inclusion on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin, as if the Pulitzer were the only justification required. I didn't read Sullivan's piece like that. March was roundly praised by all and sundry when it was published last year with critics saying it was of the highest literary achievement and merit.

In March, a month before the Pulitzer winner was announced, I put together a prediction of works that might be considered for the award's longlist. Brooks's novel was mentioned as probably being worthy of inclusion on merit, but wouldn't be because of its subject matter. Sullivan was using it merely as a highly visible excluded novel. The timing of the Pulitzer was co-incidental, fortuitous or not. So for the ABR to say that Sullivan "provided another example of an old phenomenon in Australian journalism: when an artist does well overseas, especially in London or New York, we should promptly reward her in this country", comes across as harsh and just plain wrong. Surely we've moved beyond this "cultural cringe" line of thinking by now. Let's just agree that Brooks's novel has literary merit and leave it at that. Miles Frankin set up the award that carries her name about 50 years ago. Times have changed since then. A number of Australian writers are living and working overseas, and writing about subjects that do not feature Australia or the Australian way of life in any manner. With over a million of our citizens living in other nations this is hardly surprising. Denying the fact isn't going to change it. The ABR states that "It was Miles Franklin's money, and she knew what she was doing", and they are correct in both clauses. The additional point that needs to be made is that she knew what she was doing as it related to Australia in the 1950s. I don't think any of us suspect she foresaw the way the Australian literary landscape would have changed since that time. Maybe she wouldn't have been "jumping up and down in her grave" about the current exclusions, as Sullivan suggests, but she might well have been somewhat less gruntled than others might think.

Over the past few years the Miles Franklin Award has gradually started to impove its recognition value amongst the Australian reading public. And yet I wonder what percentage of those aware of the award are also aware of the entry requirements. I doubt the proportion would be very high. Most would just assume it is an Australian literary award for Australians. It's time to move on. Whether any new or amended award conditions state that works under consideration have to be written by Australians, or pertain to the Australian way or life, or a combination of the two is a matter for discussion. The first point is to agree on the fact that the award needs to change. And discussing the points in a logical and unemotional manner is the best way forward.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 5, 2006 9:06 AM.

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