Miles Franklin Award Commentary

Peter Craven is the critic of choice this year for "The Age" to continue questioning the Miles Franklin Award and its entry criteria - last year it was Jane Sullivan on this topic. Craven's piece, on the op-ed pages of the paper, carries the title "Reward the best novel, not the most Australian one", which pretty much sums up the arguments he raises. The trouble is that is not what the prize is for. But more of that later.

Craven is one of Australia's best literary critics around and does have some interesting points to make, not that I agree with all of them. First, and foremost among them, is his statement that "The Miles Franklin has always been a bit of a litmus test for our impulse as a nation towards cultural insecurity of one form or another." The "cultural cringe" in other words. Didn't this go out with flared jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts? I'm not sure this sense of insecurity or inferiority exists much outside mainstream media these days. A similar assertion could be levelled at this weblog - the "culture insecurity" part anyway. Just because you wish to publicise one aspect of literature does not mean that you aim to diminish any other parts. It's just a means of saying "hey, look at this, you might enjoy it". It should not imply anything else. A few weeks back I quoted Neal Stephenson when he said: "Lack of critical respect means nothing to sci-fi's creators and fans. They made peace with their own dorkiness long ago." Thirty years back Ursula Le Guin called for sf to drag itself up out of the ghetto and embrace the world. She implied that by doing so it would gain the level of critical acceptance that it deserved. It took maybe ten to fifteen years for that to occur, though whether or not it gained a level of "respectability" it may also have desired is another question altogether. I, for one, tend to think it didn't. But, you know what? I also think the sf community doesn't care any more.

The same should be true of Australian literature. Each year I find that the bulk of the Miles Franklin Award shortlist could replace the novels selected for the Man Booker Prize and you wouldn't see much of a drop in quality. It's not a question of "respectability" or "critical acceptance" any more. It's now a problem with promotion and publicity. How do we get the best of Australian fiction out there in front of the world's readers? Especially when we are so far from literature's English-language hotspots of London and New York. By extolling the virtues of awards such as the Miles Franklin might be a good place to start.

Contrary to Craven's earlier statement implying that the award praises the most Australian work on the shortlist, the conditions talk of a work of literature which reflects Australians or the Australian way of life. It doesn't have to be Crocodile Dundee or Chips Rafferty, it can quite easily be Gail Jones's writer living in Paris, or Peter Carey's painter stuck in northern New South Wales attempting to paint. It's the quality that counts.

Craven concludes: "The imagination cannot be tethered by nationalism, even though the fruits of the literary imagination -- the aching, erotic nostalgia of David Malouf's Queensland, the sensuous slap of the sun on Carlton streets in Helen Garner -- may have a peculiar poignancy to us because we live in this place. It doesn't make them better, it simply makes them ours." It does not make them better, but it also doesn't make them worse either.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 23, 2007 2:41 PM.

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