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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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