Soon after the announcement of the shortlist of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award (‘the Miles’), bookmaker Tom Waterhouse installed Anna Funder’s All That I Am (2011) as favourite. Fair enough, too: it’s an astute and absorbing Australian novel about, among other things, Nazism’s long shadow. But Waterhouse favoured Funder – oddly – because her non-fiction book Stasiland (2003) won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004. He asserted – debatably, even if it proves correct in 2012 – ‘a strong positive correlation’ between the Miles and the Australian Book Industry Awards. Most interestingly, he noted that the administrators of the Miles, The Trust Company, have now authorised the judges to extend their interpretation of Australianness beyond geography.
An intriguing revelation accompanied the 2012 shortlist. John Atkin, The Trust Company’s CEO, stated that ‘we have been looking at the ambiguity around “Australian life in any of its phases”. It has been much cause for debate and there has been a traditionally conservative interpretation of the quote. I wrote to the judges authorising them to use their discretions to modernise the interpretation of “Australianess” (sic) beyond geographical boundaries to include mindset, language, history and values, as is in keeping with the current Australian literary landscape.’
For over fifty years, the Miles has rewarded fine, if occasionally dodgy or pedestrian, Oz Lit, but it has also provoked discord over what Franklin’s phrase ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ should or shouldn’t mean. In part, then, Atkin’s statement is commendable and overdue, although it’s worth remembering that Franklin herself never dictated a conservative outlook. But if 2012 marks the beginning of a sleek new era for the Miles, Atkin’s comment also recognises that judging panels have already – for years – been broadening their collective interpretation of Australianness.
One historically mysterious element of the Miles is how a judging panel weighs ‘Australian life’ against the stipulation that the winner should also be ‘of the highest literary merit’. For example, was Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America Australian enough to make the 2010 longlist but insufficiently Australian to make the shortlist or to win? Hopefully not: what’s the point in being slightly eligible?
Three cheers, then, if the new directive gives Funder’s All That I Am an equal chance of winning. Still, given the gritty tone of her novel’s Sydney scenes, in which the character Ruth confronts old age and recalls her earlier life of political dissent, the novel’s Australianness speaks for itself. If Funder wins (she deserves to, but so do Gillian Mears and Frank Moorhouse), it will represent less of a landmark moment than, say, when Peter Carey won in 1998 for Jack Maggs, set in Dickensian London.
On eligibility itself, the new directive is sensible and laudable, but also mysterious. Try getting a fix on what the words ‘mindset, language, history and values’ might – or might not – mean. For example, ‘language’ presumably doesn’t mean languages other than English, although foreigners can enter. Does it mean a story written in an Australian way? If so, what does that mean? Nicholas Jose raises the example of Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare (2003), first published anonymously: ‘set in London, [it] always struck me as Australian in its association of sun and freedom, though the author is Anonymous, hiding identity and national origin.’
The fluid quality of ‘mindset, language, history and values’ appears to give the judges the freedom – or the burden – to be intellectually creative. But it is the increased subtlety of the judges’ decision-making, added to the Miles’s historical reputation for conservatism, that has fuelled some of the recent debate about eligibility and non-eligibility. That is one reason why official lists of ineligible titles and entered works (past and present) should be in the public domain – to promote and celebrate, not avoid, productive disagreement. Last year, a Trust Company representative told me this was not possible because ‘The Trust Company and the judges wish to maintain the focus of the Miles Franklin Literary Award on successful novelists. As trustee, The Trust Company respects the independence of the judges and maintaining general confidentiality around the award reflects its faith in both the calibre of the panel and rigour of its judging process.’ The first reason has merit, but the second reason demonstrates not faith but a lack of faith in judging panels. It underrates the magnificent – if weirdly shaped – cultural monument the Miles has become. And despite positive developments such as the annual oration, it suggests a lingering official reticence around having the Miles fulfil its untapped potential, presumably out of a desire to avoid seemingly negative debate.
Too few people read Australian literature. The Miles is wonderfully placed to drive discussion about literature’s role in defining who we were, are, and will be – and to help put desperately needed bums on seats.