Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2009

The Miles Franklin Award Shortlist 2009

wanting2Now that I’ve read all five of the novels on the Miles Franklin shortlist, I should take the plunge and pick a winner, eh?  It’s not so easy…

It would help if I had a set of criteria at the ready, as they do on the ABC New Inventors – though I’ve noticed many a time that they jettison them when it suits!  Still, I shall have a go at defining what merits this award.

First of all, as I wrote elsewhere on this blog, the award is supposed to be for a published work portraying Australian life in any of its phases.  I’ll quote the MF Trust website again:

The Miles Franklin Literary Award, our first and most prestigious literary award, was established in 1954 with a bequest from the author Miles Franklin. She was concerned to see Australian literature flourish and knew first hand the struggles most authors have in Australia.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

ice1So criteria no 1 is that it should be unequivocally Australian.  Characters can wander overseas for a while, they can be born elsewhere, they can speak languages other than English or they can operate in the global world as we all do these days, but there should be no doubt in any reader’s mind that the work is Australian.  Every one of the shortlisted titles meets that criteria – in ways that some of the longlisted titles, in my opinion did not.   Hobart Town in Wanting, Sydney old and new in Ice, contemporary Melbourne in The Slap, outback NSW in The Pages,  and small town coastal Australia in Breath, all evoke this land we live in as only our finest writers can.

breath Criteria no 2 is that the work should be of the highest literary merit. This is trickier, but I’ll have a go at defining what I think that means…

The work should be memorable.  It should linger in the mind long after reading is finished; it should tease the reader with issues and ideas that merit discussion with other booklovers.  Without being clever for the sake of it, it should be complex enough to warrant divergent opinions.  Tentative conclusions, ambiguity, and enigmatic characters are more interesting than straightforward narrative.  These days we expect our major authors to play around a bit with structure too, and to reinvent themselves a bit.  I think this last point enables me to eliminate one title, because although I know that there are plenty who will disagree with me, in my opinion, Tim Winton has done nothing much that’s new or inventive with Breath.

the-pages2To continue with criteria 2, the writing should be memorable too.  The fad for lyricism-laid-on-with-a-trowel  seems to have abated a bit (thank goodness) but there should be arresting images, striking metaphor, dialogue without cliché.  Time shifts should be credible and evocative; plots should be enticing.  Nowra’s imagery stands out, and Bail has a brilliant way with words and images, but Flanagan’s portrait of Mahinna is unforgettable, and tugs at the heart strings too.  For sheer audacity, Ice takes the prize, but it’s not easy for a general reader to work out what’s going on in the latter parts of the novel.

And so to my next critera: the winner should also be accessible to the well-read, intelligent general reader.  If readers toss it aside because they mistake a crazed interior monologue for bad writing (as I nearly did with Ice) the opportunity to promote Australian literature is lost – and that was one of Miles Franklin’s motives in setting up this prize.  Ulysses is a brilliant book – I’ve struggled through it three times and each time I discover something new and worthwhile – but accessible it’s definitely not and I would rule it ineligible for a similar sort of prize.  (It didn’t need prizes anyway; being banned was the best publicity Joyce could have got!)  I see from my blog stats that my posts about The Slap have made more hits than any other – is this because it’s accessible to general readers?  The interest might be confined to my blog; or it might just be because it’s the first one I blogged and it’s had more time to garner hits.   Perhaps it’s because it’s generating the most publicity – I hear this book is being advertised on the side of a bus!   Can such publicity overcome the hesitation readers feel about passing the book on to friends, colleagues and relatives?  Because of its provocative language and drug use, I can’t see it getting one of those Women’s Weekly Good Reads stickers any time soon…. the-slap1

Which brings me to my next point: popularity and immediate relevance is not enough.  A winner of the Miles Franklin award should stand the test of time.  I haven’t yet got all previous Miles Franklin winners on my bookshelf, but I have most of them.   Of those I’ve read, (which is most of them) all are as readable now as they were when first published; their themes are timeless.  I think The Slap may be a best seller and a major talking point, but I don’t think it be relevant 25 years from now.

What’s left? The Pages and Wanting. They are both such very good books.  I loved them, and I can’t think of a criteria to decide between them.  So I will do what I think the judges do on the New Inventors: jettison the criteria and follow my heart…

I can’t get Mathinna out of my head.  She was only 14.  She had a life so tragic I cannot bear to think about it, but she was never bowed down by victimhood and I never lost sight of her spirit.  She was a beautiful human soul and I want everyone to know about her.  For that entirely irrational reason, I nominate Wanting as the 2009 winner of the Miles Franklin.

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