Miles Franklin Literary Award: the shortlist

I posted my personal shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award here a couple of days ago (see earlier post), which consisted of:

Lily Brett Lola Bensky

Brian Castro Street to Street

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

The official list came out yesterday and it’s rather different to mine (one out of three ain’t bad):

Romy Ash Floundering

Annah Faulkner  The Beloved

Michelle de Kretser Questions of Travel

Drusilla Modjeska The Mountain

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

All the talk yesterday was about the all-female list (the first time this has happened) and what it all means in the context of the new Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing. The Stella Prize may well have concentrated the minds of the Miles Franklin judges and administrators — and if so, that’s terrific and a win for both prizes. Certainly, the Miles Franklin people are making the most of having an all-female shortlist. But I’m wary of drawing conclusions based on one year’s results: a single shortlist cannot change the past nor predict the future. My wariness stands even if, as I think is extremely likely, Carrie Tiffany wins both the Stella and the MIles Franklin for Mateship of Birds: to me, it’s a novel that stands out from the crowd and it deserves to win the Miles Franklin. It hardly sets a precedent that we won’t be able to tell the two prizes apart in years to come, especially since the Miles Franklin must observe the ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ dictum (eg, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, set in 19C Iceland, will be eligible for the Stella but not for the Miles Franklin) and because the Stella isn’t confined to novels only as the Miles Franklin is (technically, plays if no novels measure up).

In predicting that Carrie Tiffany will win the Miles Franklin, I don’t mean to dismiss the other novels. But this is what makes prizes interesting: that different readers will favour different books, will have their favourites. In his article in today’s The Australian (see here), Stephen Romei quotes Richard Neville, one of the judges, as saying, ‘We were aware of the gender debate of course, and in a sense we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t, but in the end the literature chose itself.’ I understand what Neville’s getting at – that they went with their choices based on merit, irrespective of the politics of the moment, and fair enough too – but books don’t choose themselves: readers choose them and, in this instance, judges choose them. If ‘literature chose itself’, we wouldn’t need judges or awards. I don’t think that the judges ‘got it wrong’ (in the sense of there only being one way to, say, change a tyre) because their shortlist didn’t include Lily Brett and Brian Castro. I think we have different tastes and that we saw different qualities in each of the books: we chose differently. That’s a good thing, and those arguments about the competing merits of books and stories are worth having.

While the Miles Franklin Literary Award does seem to be in the midst of a carefully constructed makeover — it’s a work in progress about which I’ll write more another day — I’m wary of the inference that, because of the Stella Prize, the judges might be ‘in’ on some PR ploy or even that they are using the shortlist to overtly respond to pressure, real or perceived (which is I guess what Neville was responding to with his ‘the literature chose itself’ comment so it’s really only the way he said it that I don’t like). I’m pretty sure, for example, that the fine literary scholar Susan Sheridan — now one of the Miles Franklin judges — needs no help to understand the rich and storied but under-recognised contribution that Australian women writers have made to our cultural landscape — including the Miles Franklin Award’s serious under-recognition of women novelists over the decades.

Incidentally, Susan Sheridan’s recent book Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark (UQP) is well worth reading. Brenda Walker reviewed it in Australian Book Review, (February 2011, here).

The Miles Franklin Literary Award winner will be announced on June 19 in Canberra.


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