‘Everyone recognises it’:
The life-changing impact of a Miles Franklin nod
By Jason Steger, The Booklist, Sydney Morning Herald, July 14, 2022
When Patrick White was presented with the first Miles Franklin Literary Award on the afternoon of April 2, 1958, he was pretty ambivalent about it. In fact, he had to visit a doctor and receive an injection to enable him to get through the proceedings. Nevertheless, receiving £500 for his novel Voss was not to be sneezed at and, according to David Marr’s biography, he told a journalist he was going to buy a hi-fi and a new stove for his kitchen.
Miles Franklin saved for years to fund the award that carries her name.
He wrote to friends that he “felt as though a slow tin of treacle was being poured over me … it was all very pleasant, and gratifying, and strange, and tiring.”
Of course, White didn’t know what the award meant, other than that the author of My Brilliant Career had spent decades scrimping and saving to establish, as her will puts it, an award “for the advancement improvement and betterment of Australian Literature”.
In fact, it meant a lot. It may not be the oldest literary award in the country, but since 1958 it has established a pre-eminent position, albeit one that has been buffeted by several controversies.
Helen Demidenko won in 1995 for The Hand that Signed the Paper, a novel about war crimes in Ukraine during World War II. But she was swiftly accused of anti-Semitism, plagiarism and masquerading as Ukrainian when she was in fact a second-generation English migrant.
Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was excluded because it was deemed not to meet Franklin’s condition that books must “present Australian Life in any of its phases”; judges have resigned after falling out with the administrators; a couple of all-male shortlists heightened perceptions of gender bias, leading to the establishment of the Stella Prize for women writers, and this year a longlisted book was withdrawn after accusations of plagiarism.
The winner of 2022’s Miles Franklin was announced on 20 July 2022, but what sort of impact does the prize have, and what does it mean to the people who have been touched by it?
When Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin for her novel Carpentaria in 2007, she was the second Indigenous writer, and the first Indigenous woman to win. She had celebrated both her longlisting and shortlisting with her husband “because I didn’t expect it”, so when she won, it “was just unbelievable”.
“I do not think many countries were very interested in publishing Aboriginal writers from Australia back in 2007, but the award made a difference to having Carpentaria published soon after winning the prize in the UK, US, New Zealand, France, Italy, India and China, Poland.”
The Wannyi writer from North West Queensland is a very private person, both in her life and her work: “What I do is virtually a question between myself and the page.” And so finishing a book, especially one of a sort of Indigenous magic realism that is as textured and complex as Carpentaria, is “like a miracle”.
She was heartbroken, however, to finish it. “It was a big journey and I really loved the characters and I felt like I was living side by side with them as I was writing it. They were people I want to know. I would want those people by my side because they were so brave and so able.”
Wright is by herself a lot of the time with her writing, but while she is not a public person, that hasn’t stopped her making her views known when she has something to say about such things as then-prime minister John Howard’s Northern Territory intervention of 2007.
She was reluctant to go to Sydney from her Melbourne home for the announcement just on the off chance that she had won, and her publisher, Ivor Indyk at Giramondo, had made that clear to organisers. So they let her know in advance that she had won. “That day I had to do a 7.30 Report interview with Kerry O’Brien. That was a really big deal, a major coup for the Miles Award people.”
The win had a major impact on how the book was received, she says. “It’s an award that everybody recognises in this country and also overseas. Within a year I’d been to India, China, followed on to Europe, the UK and other places as well.” There were other places she didn’t go “because I just couldn’t keep up with it all. A storm of interest.”
Booksellers confirm that the Miles winner always gets a significant boost in sales, and Carpentaria was no exception. And the international interest in the book continues to this day. Carpentaria has been selected, along with Shakespeare’s Henry V and Henry James’ The Wings of a Dove, by the French education ministry for its “agregation” examinations for university academics.
For Wright, the less-tangible benefit of winning the award was greater confidence in her work and renewed determination to go on with her next book, The Swan Book, when she decided that she could no longer chase Carpentaria round the world.
“I felt you can ask these questions that you’re asking yourself. Yes, you can write a novel … and talk about this country in a really deep way and explore voices of this country and ideas and imagine this country in a really big way, the idea of ‘all times’, and pack that into the work,” she says.
“I did my best because as an Indigenous person you feel you have to do your best and take the opportunities that come your way and make the best of them. I tried to do that, but I felt I had to continue writing my next work. There were important questions I wanted to ask in The Swan Book and also Tracker (which won the Stella Prize) and also Praiseworthy, which is coming.”
Terri-ann White says when Josephine Wilson won the Miles Franklin in 2017 it was joyous. As the then-publisher at UWA Publishing, she had previously had “a few blows” from the Miles when books she considered at least longlist worthy did not get the nod, so it felt like “the most extraordinary opening up and of recognition for the first time”.
The win had a massive impact on sales. Before, UWAP had sold only 900 copies of the book; after, it quickly added another 25,000. And White remembers going back to her hotel from the ceremony to find more than 50 emails waiting: “They were from agents and publishers from around the world who were just ready to go. I sent out the PDF (of the book) that night and within a couple of weeks we had US and UK sales organised.”
As a publisher based in Perth, the win also added an unfamiliar sense of being taken seriously: “From WA we always – with a few exceptions – feel as though we’re so far away from all you people (in the east) that we are absolutely on the outer.”
White reckons the Miles Franklin is still the most significant literary prize in the country, although she acknowledges the good work of the Stella. “But the Miles is still the one that is internationally recognised, and in sales terms and in bookseller terms it’s absolutely recognised.”
She had another blow in the context of the Miles this year. Her new publishing venture, Upswell, had with The Dogs by John Hughes its first longlisting for the Miles Franklin. But an investigation by The Guardian Australia noted disturbing similarities between passages in the novel and the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, and the novel was dumped from the list. Examples of plagiarism from other works within the novel were also later unearthed.
White, who also published at UWAP Hughes’ previous novel, No One, which was shortlisted in 2020, said the experience “was hugely disappointing because I think the book had a very good chance this year in the shortlist”.
Peter Rose is a poet, novelist and editor of Australian Book Review and has form with the Miles: he was a judge from 1997 to 2001 – “after the Demidenko debacle” – and in 2006 his first novel, A Case of Knives, was longlisted.
He says it remains “incontestably” the most prestigious Australian fiction award going. He puts that down to its longevity, its roll call of winners and its quirkiness, “that eccentric requirement about depicting Australian life in any of its aspects or phases”. Its colourful history and controversies have added to its renown.
Nevetheless, Rose thinks the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are gaining on the Miles in terms of prestige (helped no doubt by the $80,000 tax-free prize for the winner of each of their six categories). And while ackowledging the controversy of the all-male shortlists, Rose sees the benefits in that it seeded the Stella, “a lucrative new prize that has been brilliantly promoted and marketed”.
Rose finds the criteria of the award quaint.
“I think it is somewhat unfortunate that our principle prize has this restriction. With every year there are some terrific novels that can’t be considered and that’s unfortunate. I know that it (the terms) can’t be changed, not easily.”
But he says you have to respect Franklin’s determination to save money and live in straitened circumstances to provide for a very particular prize. “You would hope that it is interpreted now extremely liberally.”
When Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s first novel, The Lebs, the first in his auto-fiction trilogy, was shortlisted for the Miles in 2019, he found himself talking to one of the judges after the announcement and asked whether they knew who had won. Yes, he was told, but I’m not going to tell you. He queried that reluctance only to be told that if books had made the shortlist, then the judges loved them all. Any of the six could be the winner.
Until the Miles acknowledged The Lebs, Ahmad says it had been snubbed by every award in the country other than the NSW multicultural award. “That award is specifically designed to appreciate a particular type of writing that the dominant cultural groups in Australia can’t really appreciate all the time.” When he was growing up in western Sydney, the nickname for the Miles was the White Males Franklin award “because it had such a tradition of being pale, male and stale”.
That he was the first Muslim Australian to be longlisted brought feelings of responsibility and honour. And the fact that no Muslim writer had been shortlisted before 2019 (The Other Half of You) was “a horrifying feeling, but also a very humbling one. I get the honour of being the first one to have broken this ground. I know eventually a Muslim is going to win this award, it could be me this time, but if not, then someone else. But I feel proud of having been one of the people to pave the way.”
Given what he used to call the Miles, does he think it has reformed? No debate, he says, it has changed tremendously. In terms of diversity he reckons it’s doing better than the Stella: “In the last five years only women have won it and the majority of them have been First Nations or people of colour. Progress has been made.”
Ahmad likes that the Miles gives the shortlisted authors a prize of $5000 – “no winner-takes-all dichotomy” – and that shortlisting also gives a fillip to sales. “The Miles really changed the conversation around The Lebs. It made people who thought this book may not be worth reading rethink that. It made them give it a shot. And it made certain people who thought it wasn’t very good the first time question themselves and revisit it.”
What makes him really proud with this year’s shortlisting is that he, along with Alice Pung and Michelle de Kretser, has been part of a group collectively making history in the first shortlist in which the majority of authors are people of colour. “That’s an incredible honour.”
Cheryl Jakab, who lives close to the Victorian border with South Australia, says she likes to read different things and give them a “genuine go”. So she uses the Miles as a way of sampling Australian writing, and she has bought all the books on this year’s shortlist. “I know what I like to read but I also like to try different things. I like good writing and I like to explore what good writing might be.”
She uses different awards at different times, but says she likes to support Australian authors.
She was for many years a science-education lecturer and wrote books for teachers and children. She loves non-fiction and science, but says she doesn’t keep up enough with literature. And that’s where the shortlists come in. “It’s a good way for me to keep a finger on what’s there and what interests people.”
Does she try to identify the winner? “I pick what I think is the best one for me. Sometimes I don’t like a book, but mostly I can find something interesting enough and well-written to get me to the end.”
And she won’t be deflected by the announcement of the winner; she’ll still tackle the shortlist. “There’s so much that comes out and that can be difficult. I find to use the expertise of other people a good way to go about it.”
Jon Page has been in the book trade for 28 years, ran Pages & Pages in Mosman, and is now general manager of Dymocks’ flagship shop in George Street, Sydney, “the biggest bookshop in Australia”.
He says in the week of the announcement, the winner of the Miles is likely to be the shop’s number-one bestseller. But he believes the shortlist doesn’t have as much influence as it should.
“When they decided to make the longlist public a few years ago, I didn’t think it was a wise move as I thought the shortlist needed a bit more publicity. I’ve never had the sense of the Booker shortlist with the Miles, that great recognition, that sense people want to read it.” But he always expects the winner to sell, as it always piques interest.
Page sees the Miles’ state as a slightly precarious because “the Stella is giving it a run for its money, and rightly so because it’s called out the problem with the prize. When Melissa (Lucashenko) came around only eight winners out of 56 were female writers, and for an award that’s based on a female writer that was pretty significant. Stella did a great job of highlighting that.”
Yet he laments the more liberal interpretation of the “aspects of Australian life” clause.
“I’d like to see that embraced a bit more because that’s what makes the Miles stand out from other prizes, and I think they need to embrace their uniqueness as well as their history and pedigree.”
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger.
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SEE ALSO https://www.perpetual.com.au/milesfranklin