Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2010

Mea culpa…

Kevin from Canada has quite rightly taken me to task about the unhelpful brevity of my post about this year’s winner of the Miles Franklin Award – hence this mea culpa.

Even though I had felt dubious about the judging panel from the outset, I was so thunderstruck by their decision I couldn’t think of anything to say!   I shouldn’t have been surprised: they had included in their long list a novel by Peter Carey which by all accounts did not comply with the criteria that the book be about ‘Australian life in all its phases’, and three of the six finalists were genre fiction.  (See the shortlist, with links to my reviews).  I had no confidence in their decision-making processes anyway and was concerned about their expressed intent that they wanted more publicity for the prize…

Still, I was flabbergasted.   A crime novel winning our most prestigious prize, a piece of genre fiction of so little consequence that I skimmed through a library copy, and sent it back without blogging it because I couldn’t be bothered investing any more time in it. I now can’t remember anything about it except its formulaic characterisation: the world-weary cop, the tough gritty guy who speaks in brief staccato sentences that abbreviate his thought processes, a guy with personal pain.  What a cliché!  If I watched enough US TV crime shows to know for sure, I’d say he was a package straight out of the stock characters they feature.  This utterly forgettable book supplanted beautiful writing by Alex Miller,  brave innovative writing by Brian Castro, and an exciting new voice in Deborah Forster’s novel to take out our most important award, the only one of its kind in Australia.

Well, the judges briefly got what they wanted.  It made the front page of one of our broadsheet papers, and The UK Guardian had a piece about it in which someone suggested that the idea of a crime novel winning the Booker was analogous to ‘running a donkey in the Grand National’.   The book blogosphere here was briefly excited about the winner using a swear word in his acceptance speech, as if this in some way brings our literature into the modern world. I use the term ‘book blogosphere’ deliberately – much of popular book blogging here, as elsewhere I suppose, is publicity circuit orientated: it’s about genre fiction and bestsellers, laced with plenty of gossip, author interviews and tales from book launches.  Not much reading going on, and certainly not much reading of literary fiction other than, every now and again, a token piece which clearly betrays the lack of depth and breadth in the reading experience of the blogger.

One of the judges, Morag Fraser, was asked if she had encountered any criticism of the panel’s decision.  She said not.  (She also said that she reads crime novels every week, often more which betrays an extraordinary paucity of reading matter for a judge of a literary award.)

There are two reasons for this silence, in my opinion.

The initial silence was because everyone else who cares about the integrity of this award is dumbstruck too, like me, not wishing to appear churlish but very concerned indeed about this decision which appears to have been driven more by a wish to achieve publicity than to reward a work of the highest literary merit in our country.

The Miles Franklin award is funded by a bequest from a writer of very limited means who beggared herself in her old age so that there could be an award that rewards Australian writers for writing about Australian life. She knew the value of Australians being able to see and hear ourselves in our own unique literature.  When she set up the bequest she wanted to nurture Australian writing as distinctive, no longer a curious offshoot of British writing;  these days the award stands against the tide of globalisation, which means Americanisation.   An award for writing of  ‘the highest literary merit, about Australian life in any of its phases.’

Miles Franklin would be angry and distressed, if she could see the abrogation of her wishes this year but who will stand up for what she so passionately cared about?  The trust that administers the award wants more publicity, and they want to widen the scope of the award.  When they use trust money to go to court to have the terms of her Will set aside, who will defend the integrity of the award and Miles Franklin’s wishes? There are so few of us who care about literature in this country, and we are accused of literary snobbery, labelled as cultural elites, and dismissed as irrelevant.  The award has had its scandals in the past but dumbing it down is new.  It’s a death knell, I think, because the award will cease to have international prestige.

But, Kevin, there is another reason for the brevity of my post.  The next night when I was still trying to respond to the MF news without seeming churlish, (an ambition which you can now see I have abandoned) there was another thunderbolt on Twitter: our Prime Minister was being challenged for his position.  Having been stratospherically popular for the best part of two years, he had been under siege in the media for a couple of months,  and with an election imminent the polls were bad.  An ambitious rival was waiting for the right moment to challenge, and there was to be a leadership spill the next day.  I abandoned all thoughts of the MF Award and watched the breaking news on TV till late into the night.

History was made the next morning when Julia Gillard became our first female prime minister and the first to displace a popularly elected PM in his first term.  The Miles Franklin Award is well and truly off the front pages now!


Responses

  1. Lisa, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think the judges were derelict in the extreme and have really let the prize down, all for the sake of fleeting publicity. They have also created a huge problem for future judges who may now feel obliged to invest time in accepting and reading genre pieces. Here’s hoping it is a one-off, and normal service is resumed in future years. The D!

  2. Thanks, John, I would so love it if other voices came out to challenge the decision too.
    Janine at http://residentjudge.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/truth-by-peter-temple/ is one of the few.
    The only thing that mitigates against talking about it, is that making a talking point of it feeds them the publicity they wanted…

  3. I’ll have to disagree Lisa, I don’t think you can assume Peter Temple won the award merely for publicity as having read all of the short list save The Bath Fugues it would have been my pick! I don’t think literary fiction is a genre as such, rather I think it’s a judgement re quality and so a crime novel can be literary and worthy of the Miles as I believe Truth is. It’s not an either or choice of write in a genre or write well- Truth is a literary crime novel, Lovesong a literary romance and The Book of Emmett a literary family saga.

    World-weary cops may be so common in crime fiction because this is true to life, for me Villani was a distinct and very Australian voice. I thought Truth was well structured, well written and had a lot to say about Australian life so was an ideal winner. You obviously didn’t like it and I’m not sure if reading it completely would have changed this but I don’t think we can assume that Miles would have been angry and distressed by its being awarded.

  4. To learn more about Miles Franklin and her passion for Australian literature, you can do no better than to read Jill Roe’s brilliant biography, see https://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/stella-miles-franklin-a-biography-by-jill-roe/

  5. Wow, passionate response Lisa. I was surprised I must admit, but I’m reserving judgement until I read it. I don’t read crime fiction as a matter of course. As I said, I think, on my own post (or in the comments) on the win the number of crime fiction books I have read in my life I can probably count on one hand. However, I was rather impressed by Temple’s The Broken Shore which I read because of all the rave reviews. Its exploration of country town life, racism and bigotry etc was really well done (as I recollect).

    Can we say that a crime novel can’t represent Australian life? As for “In all its phases”, that is a really ambiguous phrase – no one book can do that, really, can it?

    So I guess there are two issues: one is the issue of any crime novel winning this award, and the other is whether this particular one is worthy. I find it hard, despite my own literary preferences, to make hard and fast rules re the former, but as for the latter, I haven’t read it yet so can’t comment other than that I was surprised!

  6. I read The Broken Shore too, Sue – because it won some award and was said to be different somehow to the usual run of crime novels – and I found it to be no different at all. It may well be a good example of its genre, but it complied with all the conventions of crime fiction, which IMO limit any possibility of innovation on the novel form, and for me, makes the genre boring. (Readers of crime fiction wouldn’t read a crime novel that didn’t conform to their expectations about plot, character, narrative structure and writing style; the book wouldn’t sell).
    Each to his own, I say, and good luck to the legions of fans of crime fiction if that’s what they like. But Peter Temple himself said that he was surprised to have been short-listed.
    City of Tongues comments on the problematic nature of this award too. See http://cityoftongues.com/2010/06/23/peter-temple-wins-miles-franklin-award/ and the illuminating comments which follow.

  7. LOL, SNAP or something! I’ve just posted a follow up post on this win and I referred to this blog (which also referred me on to the Meanjin discussion). Some interesting stuff in both. I was wondering, when I wrote my first brief post (or was responding to kimbofo in fact) about the limitations of the genre conventions. I decided not to mention it because there are inherent limitation in the novel form anyhow. Perhaps you can explore the edges more broadly in non-genre material – and that’s partly why I tend not to read genre books – but, really, how many books we read and love break the novel conventions in a major way? There are some standouts, of course, but the majority? Oh well, I’ll have to read Truth to see what I think. Lovesong was beautiful, and was clever in the narrative games it played although I did think he sold out a little at the end. Unfortunately I haven’t read the Forster.

  8. Sorry, Sue, it should be Australian life in *any* of its phases, not *all*.

  9. I thought it was great something different won the prize I have to be honest.

  10. Oops, I should have checked for myself. I’ve read it before of course but I should have checked again. These mistakes are easy to make aren’t they?

  11. Wow. That is certainly a comprehensive response to a very short question on my part. While I have nothing against crime fiction (Raymond Chandler and Richard Price are good examples, as is Patricia Highsmith), your comments lead me to the conclusion that I won’t be reading Peter Temple’s book — unless of course it also makes the Man Booker longlist, since his UK publisher says it has been submitted. Thanks for taking the time to articulate your thoughts — I agree with the sentiment that juries should be looking for a truly good book, rather than viewing their mandate as “popularizing” the prize.

  12. Kevin, I’ve read Chandler and Price and would put Temple in their class so hope you’ll reconsider. As I mentioned above, I think the jury looked for a truly good book and so awarded Truth and weren’t simply out to popularize the prize. It’s worth noting Morag Fraser has been a prize judge for the past six years and so awarded books of the calibre of The Great Fire, Carpenteria and Breath- her comments as reported by The Guardian are worth a read.

  13. Re. … much of popular book blogging here, as elsewhere I suppose, is publicity circuit orientated …

    So, question, can anyone recommend some Australian book blogs that are not like that? I’m thinking of something similar to Isola di Rifuiti (something like this: http://isola-di-rifiuti.blogspot.com/2010/06/zambra-nabokov.html) or I’ve Been Reading Lately (something like that: http://ivebeenreadinglately.blogspot.com/2010/06/celebrating-birthdays-with-thoreau.html), blogs that wander through books rather than reviewing them.

    • I think there are lots of blogs that are not captive to machine publicity, Deane! All of those you find in my blog roll are written by independents who blog about the books they read, as distinct from blogs which focus on publicity for books and writers (interviews, book launches and festival gossip). A key indicator for me is that the blog will to-and-fro between books on current release (which may or may not have been sent to the blogger by a publisher) and books that have been around for a while, have been languishing on a TBR, are on a backlist or are classics including obscure ones. I interpret this variety as a sign that the blogger is in control of their reading and not reading at the beck and call of a publicist.
      I do like blogs which survey an author’s oeuvre or mull across themes/periods/country of origin/writing styles or whatever, but I do wish they’d tag & categorise properly because often it’s hard to find them using search engines & search boxes. Sometimes even when I know that a blogger has written about a particular book I can’t find the post on their blog because they don’t attend to this.

  14. But it’s a wandering quality I’m looking for — that quality of instinct, almost, the writer being drawn from one book to another without giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, or feeling any kind of urge to tell you what the story is about or what the main character is like, or anything reviewerish — the blogger being tugged or blown, instead, by ideas that carry from one book to another. In that Isola post Latta starts by quoting Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, then it sparks an idea in him, and he’s off into Nabokov. Something like that.

    Rose Franklin writing about W.G. Sebald.

    *

    Sebald liked to compare his “haphazard” method of literary investigation with the meanderings of a dog through a field. “If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose,” he said in a 2001 interview, “he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for.”

    *

    Something like that. I’m not saying this to bag on Reading Matters or WG or Tony’s, or anyone else in your blogroll, because I read them too — but something else — something that roams.

  15. Yes, I see what you are saying DKS – it’s a bit like your own blog. I have seen a few others like this in my travels but can’t quite recollect their names and I don’t think they’re Australian. It’s a different approach to writing/thinking about reading – more organic – and I rather like it but I can’t quite make it work for myself. When I was at uni and fully immersed in literature day in and day out I’d do a bit of roaming like that but I don’t seem to do it anymore. I am a librarian after all and I tend to compartmentalise a bit too much sometimes! LOL.

    • I’ve been thinking about this all evening, Sue! I think what Deane is suggesting (and certainly does on her own blog) is a very elegant form of blogging, and one which requires a deeper level of thinking, not to mention a more sophisticated knowledge of literature than I have. A pleasure to read (if you’re familiar with the references and allusions) and very hard to write! My style is more structured… Lisa

  16. Yes, that’s how I understand her too. But, like you, I’m the more structured type – different brains I think.

  17. It’s something I’d like to be able to do, but I can’t, yet. I’m scratching around for examples. By the way, I think the Times Literary Supplement is going to cover With Stendhal next week. I was looking at their page on Sunday, and in the Coming up in the next issue of the TLS box, one of the headings was: “Julian Barnes: a wish list from Stendhal.” (Lisa: I’m about to send your book back.)

    • Wow, TLS, that’s prime publicity! No need to send it back, Deane, either keep it or pass it on to someone who would like it. Lisa:)

  18. Deane raises an interesting point about bloggers “wandering through books” rather than just reviewing them. I do try to do “essays” that try to do that (including my one on similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction) occasionally and would like to do more — but admit that they require enough reading and thought that producing one a month would be a stretch, which hardly sustains a blog.

    Having said that, I am contemplating one now and would like to ask for help from my Antipodean friends. My thoughts were set off by reading The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna, a novel set in an unnamed African country (I’m only a third of the way through). It has occured to me that one feature of it is that as writing it draws heavily on the oral story-telling tradition — each chapter or section centres on a minor event or observation which is then explored in depth. What lies behind the event is more important than the incident itself — just as storytellers extended their “tales” for weeks and even months. I have a couple of examples from First Nations writers in Canada (most notably Joseph Boyden in Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce). And I think Carpentaria qualifies as an Australian example — but that’s the only one that I can come up with at first blush. Any suggestions?

  19. Hi Kevin – lately I’ve been reading a bit about the nature of the book: citizen journalism and developments in book blogging etc and I think your essays might represent a shift in locus for this kind of writing from broadsheet newspapers. As you say, there’s a time issue, but it’s also a qualitatively different kind of writing from book reviewing, which (whatever the level of sophistication brought to it) is basically the reviewer’s reflections on a book read fairly recently. I like the idea that the web might bring us more and more extended pieces about literature as time goes by and more writing shifts online. (Though never The Book, I hope!)

    Your query about story-telling genres and indigenouos writing in particular has made me realise that apart from the Aboriginal myths and legends which I read to the children at school, I’ve read very little of it. This is partly because it doesn’t get much shelf-space in bookshops or media publicity, and I’m not qualified to comment about what the reasons for that might be.

    What I know of indigenous writing is mostly memoir, mostly recently written and mostly dealing with dispossession and the Stolen Generations. One of the earliest examples which I’ve read of this genre was My Place by Sally Morgan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Place_(book) but note the Aboriginal critique of it by Jackie Huggins and Marcia Langton which suggests that if Aboriginal writing about Aboriginality (the sort of story-telling that you mean, I guess) is ‘accessible’ to non-indigenous people then it’s ‘white-washing’.

    I’ve also read Benang http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benang – a Miles Franklin winner and a semi-autobiographical novel by Kim Scott – it doeesn’t seem to have attracted the same kind of controversy.

    But a quick look at the website of Mudrooroo (once said to be the ‘father of indigenous writing) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudrooroo will show you how muddy the issue is here. Bobbi Sykes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberta_Sykes is another Black Australian who on the basis of her skin colour and the racism she experienced grew up thinking she was indigenous.

    The upshot, Kevin, is that I’m not much able to help. This is an area where my blog – purporting to be about Australian literature – is silent. This is not because I have a separatist view that Aboriginal writing is not ‘Australian’. By undeliberate omission I haven’t read anything by an Aboriginal author in the two years I’ve been blogging – I don’t read memoirs much and I’m not aware of any recent literary fiction apart from Carpentaria which I read before I started the blog. Mainstream sources for a non-academic to find out what’s available are wanting, I’m afraid, and again, I’m not going to speculate about why that might be.

    Maybe someone else more knowledgeable than me can contribute by adding a comment?

    PS There is a marvellous film called Ten Canoes http://www.tencanoes.com.au/tencanoes/ which is exactly what you want as you will see if you watch the trailer – but not in the form of a book!

    PPS I’m getting side-tracked from other things I should be doing (my tax!) by searching the PEN Anthology for you LOL, but suggest you check out this site http://www.austlit.edu.au/specialistDatasets/BlackWords/BlackWordsExtraNotesCh3.xml

  20. Are you looking for literature that has obvious and recent roots in oral storytelling, as Carpentaria does, or literature in which “each chapter or section centres on a minor event or observation which is then explored in depth”? Christina Stead writes like that, and so does Proust (and Marquez, and you could toss Tristram Shandy in as well, and a heap of other things — Finnegans Wake –), but it doesn’t sound as if they’re what you want.

    Too late for me to keep the Stendhal. It’s already gone into the mail. Thanks, though.

  21. Lisa: Thanks for the leads and go back to your tax. I will try to check them out in the next day or two.
    DKS: I am thinking about restricting it to recent works — with a nod of the head to examples like those that you mention, since the tradition does extend back centuries. I was thinking (and I am only just thinking — this post might never get written) of modern fiction writers who have roots in cultures that have not had a long history of written story-telling. I do think Carpentaria is an excellent example of what I was thinking about.

  22. Kevin, fascinating idea. There is an award here called the David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queensland_Premier%27s_Literary_Awards#Unpublished_Indigenous_Writer_-_The_David_Unaipon_Award). It might be a good source for what you are looking for.

    I’ve got 2 on my tbr, though have only dipped into them. One is the 2008 winner, Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara – it’s more like short stories and very much reads as almost a direct translation of the “oral” tradition, the love of story-telling that is clearly a part of indigenous culture. The other (2004 winner) is quite different, with a more poetic style. It’s Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air. She won many awards with this one. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tara_June_Winch) I have been meaning to properly read and review this one for a while as this sounds really interesting and one (to me).


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