The power of prizeFEATURE Jutne 16 - 17, 20h07 e
The winner of the Miles Franklin award will be announced on Thursday but does such recognition always signal lasting literary success? Rosemary Sorensen reports on the stayers and one- hit wonders
THE faraway stars shine silently, deep in a moonless sky, brilliant this evening.’’ For such as this, French poet Sully Prudhomme was awarded the first Nobel prize for literature in 1901, although admittedly it did sound a lot better in French. It was a contentious decision, and it set a precedent for literary prizes that seem, occasionally, to pluck the mediocre from a field of good books.
What the literary award is awarding and who benefits most — the writer, the reader or posterity — can only be judged long after the cheque is handed over and spent. We discover only years later whether the book that was feted as the best of the year or the most promising for the future career of the writer turns out to be worth more than a passing glance.
Prudhomme is now all but forgotten, except by students of 19th- century French poetry, for whom he is a classic Parnassian, a lover of the ideal. It was for his idealism that he won the world’s richest literary award. Observers believed his win was a misapplication of Alfred Nobel’s desire for the prize, which he had said should be for those who had conferred the greatest benefit on humankind. Remind you of anything? In 1994, there was a heated public discussion about what it means to be an Australian writer following the announcement of the short list for the Miles Franklin award. Arguably our most important and also contentious literary prize, it was set up, according to its guidelines, to celebrate a novel or play of ‘‘ highest literary merit’’ that presented ‘‘ aspects of Australian life’’. Three books were admired by the judges but decreed ineligible: Elizabeth Jolley’s The George’s Wife , Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days and Maurilia Meehan’s Fury, because they were set, for the most part, in other climes.
The following year, Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith suffered the same fate, but even if Carey’s exclusion was less sensa- tional, the award organisers had learned that a little controversy is not necessarily a bad thing.
If you can upset someone as eloquently badtempered as Moorhouse, you can get the wider media to take momentary notice.
As a consequence of the controversy surrounding the winner of the 1995 award, the fake ethnic Helen Demidenko- Darville, the name of the author of the competent but disturbing The Hand That Signed the Paper is probably almost as well known as multiple Miles Franklin winners such as Tim Winton, Alex Miller and Thea Astley.
The first Miles Franklin winner, in 1957, was Patrick White, for Voss . White is also Australia’s only Nobel laureate for literature, and he will, it’s safe to say, outlast Demidenko- Darville in the celebrity stakes, but these two very different writers will forever share the award as one claim to fame.
The Hand That Signed the Paper qualifies its author as a one- hit wonder; a derogatory term that nevertheless applies to some very fine writers ( such as Harper Lee, to name perhaps the most acclaimed and admired).
But the Miles, like the Nobel, operates as the literary equivalent of a hall of fame, so it’s unusual for it to single out a writer who has not established a strong reputation, although the number of first or second- book authors on the short list has increased in the past decade.
The only other writer in the 50- year history of the award who may qualify as a one- hit wonder is the 1960 winner, Elizabeth O’Conner, for her novel, The Irishman .
Try finding the book in your local library. Even though O’Conner, whose real name was Barbara McNamara, nee Lowe, was house mistress at a Brisbane girls’ school, and even though she wrote a swag of books under the pen- name O’Conner, and even though she won a Miles Franklin award, the year before White won a second time for Riders in the Chariot , The Irishman is all but extinct. James Cook University academic Cheryl Taylor published a piece on O’Conner’s writing in 2003, in the journal Australian Literary Studies , but that’s about it.
I could not find The Irishman in any Brisbane City Council public library, although the Queensland State Library can rustle up a copy from its stacks, along with, if you’re really keen, a videotaped copy of a 1978 feature film based on the book with a cast that included Robyn Nevin and Bryan Brown. Another of O’Conner’s books Steak for Breakfast , apparently popular around the time of her Miles win, has also disappeared.
While writers such as David Malouf and academics such as Elizabeth Webby have given us good reasons to worry about the lack of respect for, and conservation of, our literary heritage, maybe, in this instance, the judges picked a book that was not going to last. Or maybe 1960 was not such a strong year for novels.
We do not know what The Irishman was up against: when the Miles started, the competitive nature of such prizes was less exploited so no short list was announced although a spokeswoman for the award said this was as much to do with the fact that relatively few Australian novels were published in any one year, making a short list unnecessary.
Unlike The Australian / Vogel literary award and more recent emerging writers prizes, such as those offered by the Queensland and Victorian premier’s awards, the Miles has the advantage of picking winners from among, in the modest terms of OzLit publishing, established winners. Astley, whose immense and immensely popular output earned her four Miles Franklins ( two of them shared, the only times the award was split), was always a chance in the year following publication of a book. White won it three times, as have David Ireland, Carey and Winton.
Winton is also one of the three writers to have won the Miles and The Australian / Vogel award. The other two are Demidenko- Darville and Andrew McGahan. Demidenko- Darville is the only one, however, to have won both prizes with the same book. The controversy about that book made 1995 a watershed year for the Miles: its decision to risk the first- time writer made it seem less predictable, but when the truth emerged it undermined the award’s credibility.
It’s a tougher assignment picking a winner from among inexperienced writers and you would expect the one- hit wonder to be a more common phenomenon among the winners’ lists of emerging writers prizes. The Australian / Vogel Award had a stunningly controversial beginning, with the first year’s prize going to Paul Radley for Jack Rivers and Me, which turned out to have been written by the lad’s much older uncle ( you had to be under 30 when the prize first began, later moved to 35). The ruse didn’t emerge until that fateful year, 1995, by which time there had been a few more interesting decisions made.
Winton burst on to the scene in 1981 with An Open Swimmer , sharing the prize with Christopher Matthews for Al Jazzar , a book that can probably qualify as a one- hit wonder, given that its writer, a South Australian watercolour painter, did not go on to become a career author. Nor did West Australian Fotini Epanomitis, whose startlingly unusual The Mule’s Foal won in 1992. Jim Sakkas, 1987 winner for his novel Ilias , has a simple explanation for why the very visible leg- up afforded by winning a new writer’s prize might not lead to the expected career: writing is his hobby, not his profession.
Sakkas did write a second novel but he didn’t enjoy the pressure that winning the prize had put on him, although he says it was he, not the publisher Allen & Unwin, who turned the screws more than he cared for.
‘‘ They got the vibe, I think, that I wasn’t keen,’’ Sakkas tells Review from his home in the sleepy, beautiful Victorian coastal town of Malacoota. ‘‘ I thought, stuff it, this doesn’t pay the bills, so while it did cross my mind that I could become a writer full time, life experiences got in the way.’’
Sakkas taught English as a second language,
and it was swapping stories with fellow teacher Meehan ( who turned up earlier in this story as one of the outcasts from the Miles Franklin’s Australiana club) that started him on the path to entering his manuscript in The Australian / Vogel prize ( this year’s winner will be announced in September). The runner- up that year was Liam Davison’s The Velodrome , which Sakkas amiably suggests was the more likely literary winner.
He thinks he might have won because it was the beginning of interest in more diverse novels, the era of multiculturalism that led to the mistaken enthusiasm for The Hand That Signed the Paper .
But in 1987, Demidenko was but a naughty gleam in a young woman’s clever eye, and Sakkas’s storytelling, gleaned from oral traditions and a family friend, suited the moment.
He dabbles in writing now, and admits to a couple of manuscripts in his bottom drawer but, while the prize changed his life, enabling him and his wife to pay off a mortgage and have ‘‘ the freedom of choice’’ for the next phase of their lives, it also put pressure on him to be a ‘‘ real writer’’, not just a dabbler.
‘‘ I think of myself as a writer, but not full- time, although I can’t resign myself to being retired,’’ Sakkas says. ‘‘ I did think about giving myself some freedom from the expectation of being a prize- winner and writing under a nom de Queensland Premier’s prize. Her book, The Anatomy of Wings , will be published later this year. She’s 36 ( there is no age limit for entry to this prize, setting it apart from The Australian / Vogel), and she has never written before. Foxlee works as a registered nurse but she’d like to be able to give up nursing and write full time, on the impetus of this first book.
‘‘ I do love the writing but it’s hard, although I feel so much more confident now,’’ Foxlee says, having just emerged from an editing process so plume.’’ Sakkas says he likes to write, but sometimes, he ‘‘ hates it with a passion’’.
In the wake of Sakkas and Epanomitis and Demidenko — in fact, behind the whole successful history of The Australian / Vogel prize — several emerging writers prizes have picked up the eminently sensible formula of awarding not just cash but also publication for a raw manuscript. The Victorian Premier’s awards added such a prize in 2004, following the lead of the Queensland Premier’s awards, which has included an emerging writer category since its inception in 1999.
Karen Foxlee is
the rigorous that it first astounded, then comforted her. Like Sakkas, she feels something of an impostor in the literary world. ‘‘ I went to the writers festival in Brisbane for the first time last year and it terrified me. People expect and think that writers say important things and I don’t think I have important things to say.
‘‘ I’m trying not to think too much about the second novel, and if people read this one and like it, that may be enough, but I would like to have another go. I just have the feeling I’ll get better,’’ Foxlee says.
Michael Heywood, publisher with Text in Melbourne, supports the first- book prize win- ners’ suspicion that there’s a weight of expectation, which he calls a poison chalice, when you’re singled out by an award. But it’s very rare, Heywood says, for a prize to have a ‘‘ dud winner’’. On the other hand, it’s important for there to be controversy of some sort, because prizes thrive on that.
Text was bitterly disappointed last year when Kate Grenville missed out on joining the elite band of writers who have won The Australian / Vogel and the Miles Franklin, although her The Secret River has won a half- dozen other awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
‘‘ A jury is mercurial,’’ Heywood says, ‘‘ and the same group could come to a different decision on a different day. But a lot of people depend on prizes in order not to become demoralised in the bookstore and if you know a jury of skilled readers have endorsed a book, it encourages you to buy.’’
Heywood makes a case for more book prizes, though there’s already a crowded calendar of national and state prizes all jostling to applaud the best books and their writers.
‘‘ There are more good books published than ever before,’’ Heywood says.
‘‘ So that’s an argument for more prizes. There’s no national nonfiction prize, no fiction prize for the best book without any limitations, for example. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a prize for the best book with a female bias, not necessarily by a woman ( which the Kibble award stipulates)?’’
Heywood hints that his publishing house is, in fact, in the final stages of announcing just such a prize.
Winners: From far left, Fotini Epanomitis, Karen Foxlee, David Ireland, Alex Miller, Paul and Jack Radley, Barbara McNamara, Jim Sakkas and Helen Demidenko- Darville