The Miles Franklin’s claim to cul­tural author­ity is open to de­bate, ar­gues Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion of Miles Franklin: Jock Alexan­der

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