EYES ON THE PRIZE
The Miles Franklin’s claim to cultural authority is open to debate, argues Geordie Williamson
AHALF century ago, on the way to accept the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award for his 1957 novel Voss , Patrick White stopped off at his doctor’s surgery. Daunted at the prospect of the ceremony, he asked for an injection of something to get him through the proceedings. So it was that Australia’s preeminent author went on to accept the nation’s newest and richest literary prize in a state best described as comfortably numb.
The event took place in the green- tiled Rural Bank Building that once dominated Sydney’s Martin Place, before an assortment of academics, publishers, journalists, writers and critics. In The Most Glittering Prize , a brief history of the Miles Franklin award, former judge Harry Heseltine sketched the afternoon’s events in terms redolent of Dame Edna: drinks and finger food, followed by speeches from the permanent trustees of the prize and its judges, after which White was handed a cheque for £ 500 by prime minister Robert Menzies.
When a member of the press asked the future Nobel laureate how his winnings would be spent, White replied, ‘‘ I am going to buy a hi- fi set,’’ then, after a pause, ‘‘ and a kitchen stove.’’
There is something poignant in Heseltine’s account, with its mixture of formality and inadvertent laughs. Like photographs of Papuan highlanders hearing their first gramophone recording, the participants are captured at the moment of first contact with a new world of media publicity and prizemoney: a state of innocent astonishment, before self- consciousness set in and literature, borrowing the attitudes and appearance of the colonists, changed in unprecedented ways.
If nothing else, the 50th anniversary of the Miles Franklin should recall us to this earlier time when the project to create a distinct Australian literature — an oxymoron to many — was being undertaken with purpose by a host of disparate voices. Aside from the occasional photograph, authors remained largely disembodied figures; it was their words on paper that counted for a reading ( as opposed to watching) public. They had not yet evolved into performance- savvy fixtures of the festival circuit, combinations, as British literary editor Robert McCrum wrote recently, of commercial traveller, rock musician and jobbing preacher.
Although he likened the ceremony to having a tin of treacle poured over him, White was initially gratified by the fuss. Yet something about the emerging prize culture led him to withdraw. In 1961, when he won the Miles Franklin for the second time with Riders in the Chariot , the author pleaded illness and sent a proxy to accept the award. By the time The Solid Mandala was entered by his publishers without his knowledge in 1967, White was adamant that the work be removed from competition. Nor did he allow any subsequent works to be considered for the prize.
None of this mattered much. When White died in 1990, the Miles Franklin held, according to Heseltine, ‘‘ unchallenged status as the premier literary award in the nation’’. As White’s reputation began its long downward slide, the award’s value rose to $ 15,000. Winning it guaranteed an author extensive publicity, healthy sales and a measure of creative kudos.
Heseltine’s boast of the Miles Franklin’s supremacy is under challenge. The prize kitty now stands at $ 42,000, more than most premiers awards but less than the $ 50,000 The Australian / Vogel is offering writers under 35 for its 2008 award.
Recent developments are more ominous still. At $ 100,000, the new Prime Minister’s Literary Award dwarfs the older prize, as does the West Australian Premier’s Australia- Asia Literary Award, which has a pot of $ 110,000.
While its financial clout has weakened, the real strength of the Miles Franklin has lain in the wedding of monetary reward to larger cultural validation. Central to this latter virtue is the life of the award’s creator, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. Born in 1879 and reared in rural NSW ( an upbringing immortalised by Gillian Arm- strong in her adaptation of My Brilliant Career ), Franklin lived and worked in the US, Europe and Britain before returning to Sydney, where she vigorously pursued her writing and political activism until her death in 1954.
While the artist in Franklin never stopped responding to her early experience of the Australian bush, her inner activist was shaped by the ardent nationalism of the 1890s, exemplified by The Bulletin under J. F. Archibald’s editorship.
Her dream was of a prize that would allow future compatriots to raise themselves up by her posthumous bootstraps: ‘‘ half a dozen writers of fiction indubitably Australian yet first class by world standards’’, in Franklin’s breathless formula. And she sacrificed a great deal to realise it. Franklin lived beneath her means for years to ensure the modest fortune she inherited would grow into an amount large enough to endow the award in perpetuity.
That Franklin’s career should culminate in this prize gives it an unusual potency. It is a narrative that twins love of country with a desire to be accepted on equal terms by older and more powerful cultural centres, a combination unavailable to even the wealthiest new awards.
Beyond these original merits, much of the Miles Franklin’s success has been due to the critical acumen of its judges. These, for the most part, have been intelligent and thoughtful men and women, drawn from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, who have managed the difficult task of being adventurous in their decisions while respecting the ambiguous restriction made in Franklin’s will: that the winning novel ‘‘ must present Australian life in all its phases’’.
Those eight words, which have been taken to suggest that only fiction based in Australia is eligible for consideration, have caused contention since 1979, when Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously was excluded because of its Indonesian setting. Although they have been less strictly applied in recent years — Shirley Hazzard’s 2004 winner, The Great Fire , shared an Asian wartime milieu — the idea of restricting entrants in this literal- minded manner seems sillier every year.
It is worth asking the hypothetical question: should a rediscovered novel by Miles Franklin, drawing on her experiences as a nurse at the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Ostrovo in Macedonia during the Serbian campaigns of 1917- 18, be ineligible for the prize?
The rest of the award’s reputation is down to literary merit. Winners such as Hazzard, David Malouf, Thomas Keneally, Tim Winton and Peter Carey — to name the more obvious few — form an illustrious troupe whose work is celebrated throughout the Anglosphere in terms of excellence enriched by, but not reliant on, their nationality. Nonetheless, their depictions of Australian life ‘‘ in all its phases’’ remain some of the best evidence the rest of us can muster of a distinct antipodean culture.
In this sense, our national literature really does come of age with the Miles Franklin. From its inception, the prize discovered a public eager to embrace national self- definition, at once critical and celebratory, through the written word. And it furnished them with writers ambitious and talented enough to provide it.
The Miles Franklin marks the moment in which Australia’s literary culture — aided by the emerging mass media ( Australian television began transmission in late 1956) — entered the nation’s collective consciousness.
And yet despite its evident success through five decades, as well as its confident claims to cultural authority, the advertised virtues and real influence of the Miles Franklin are open to doubt. The problem lies in the Faustian bargain the literary community makes with the prize.
In return for a generous cheque, extra sales of about 2000 copies ( to compare, Anne Enright’s publishers printed an extra 30,000 copies of The Gathering after it took last year’s Man Booker prize), along with a brief adulatory blast from the media, the writer submits to a process that is more likely to burnish the prize’s credentials rather than the book’s. Tap the Miles
Franklin back list and you will hear a hollow ring.
What about the enormous popular and commercial success of Carey, Winton and Keneally? These authors enjoy healthy, even spectacular sales. But each of them has won ( twice in Carey’s case) or been short- listed for ( twice for Winton) Britain’s internationally anticipated Booker prize. And each has established a worldwide reputation that reverberates back through our domestic media, not only for their books but for the translation of those works into film and other media. They are international literary figures, global brands. More telling are those whose Miles Franklin success hasn’t been replicated offshore.
David Ireland first won the Miles Franklin in 1971 with The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and went on to win again with The Glass Canoe in 1976 and A Woman of the Future in 1979. At the time, his reputation for challenging, experimental fiction and prose that sang and stomped was high. Ireland inspired hundreds of newspaper column centimetres, two full- length monographs and a place on university syllabuses. All three titles are now out of print.
By the time of her death in 2004, Queenslandbased novelist Thea Astley had won the Miles Franklin four times — The Well- Dressed Explorer ( 1962), The Slow Natives ( 1965), The Acolyte ( 1972) and Drylands ( 1999) — the largest prize pool of any author. She was an immense talent and a much- admired figure across the nation. Of her winning novels only Drylands , published early in 2000, remains available outside of second- hand bookshops.
Even when — as in dual winner Patrick White’s case — the residual weight of an author’s reputation makes keeping their books in print a necessity, sales don’t reflect the supposed power of the Miles Franklin imprimatur. As David Marr noted in a recent essay for The Monthly , sales of White’s books, all 13 of them, amounted to 2728 copies last year ( on average, that means just more than 200 copies of Voss , the book Keneally recently described as ‘‘ one of finest works of the modernist era and of the past century’’).
None of this should be cause for surprise: the reality of contemporary prize culture is its embrace of what Saul Bellow called ‘‘ event glamour’’. All attention is devoted to generating publicity for the book at the heart of the present moment. Shunted from the spotlight, yesterday’s works fall into the remainder bin of literary history. The final effect is one in which even a thoughtfully administered prize such as the Miles Franklin becomes complicit in forgetting the back list it helped to create.
No doubt it was the decades spent labouring in semi- rural obscurity that made White wary of instant success of the sort promised by awards such as the Miles Franklin. And perhaps his sexuality made him more sympathetic to outsiders and secret toilers, those whose work sits uneasily in the present but gains power as the rest of the world catches up. Whatever the case, there is an implicit rebuke to the mainstream prize culture in White’s own award: established, using his Nobel earnings, for ‘‘ a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition’’.
Its first recipient, in 1974, was Christina Stead, a writer whose omission from the list of Miles Franklin winners remains one of the true scandals of its first half- century.
The Patrick White Award stands at the antipodes to today’s prize culture. It lets time ( the only true critic, according to George Orwell) do some of the sifting. It rewards perseverance. It finds gold in mid- list authors who are threatened with extinction by a contemporary publishing scene obsessed with bestsellers. It recognises the unfashionable and out of date and recalls past excellence from obscurity. Its effect is to provide a necessary ballast to prizes whose short- term excitements are inimical to the long, slow gestation required for sustained literary excellence.
When this year’s winner is chosen, the Miles Franklin’s administrators, judges and authors will be justified in indulging in some serious backpatting for their decades of good work. But despite the adherence to her wishes and its assistance in recognising those half- dozen ‘‘ indubitably Australian yet world- class’’ novelists, a portion of Franklin’s dream remains unrealised. A nation’s literature does not exist in temporal isolation any more than in geographic isolation. And a culture that fails to acknowledge the its treasures, in Franklin’s words, ‘‘ neither preserved nor developed, but only defaced’’.
A modest proposal, then: reissue a half- dozen of the best Miles Franklin winners, with new introductions by critics or older, wiser authors, in time for the prize’s 51st year. The winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2008 will be announced on Thursday.
Ephemeral glory: The five titles on the short list for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award