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The Miles Franklin Literary Award

The annual Miles Franklin Literary Award is one of the most illustrious events on the Australian literary calendar.  It was established in 1957 for works of fiction.  The winning works and those on the short lists offer a fascinating insight into the Australian novels written since then and what they portray about Australian life and sensibilities.

Alec T. Bolton (1926-1996), Portrait of Frank Moorhouse, Balmain, 1985. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an14469309-1.

The award, now worth $50,000, was bequeathed by the will of Australian novelist, Miles Franklin for a 'published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases'.  All entries for the award must have been published in the previous calendar year.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award not only rewards Australian authors but, as Frank Moorhouse said in his winner's acceptance speech on 5 June 2001, it also 'honours the great art of story telling.'

About Miles Franklin

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born near Tumut in New South Wales in 1879.  Her early years were spent at the family home station (Brindabella) in the Monaro region of NSW.

After My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 and was an instant international sensation, Franklin became well known in Australian literary and social circles, meeting and befriending writers such as AB ('Banjo') Paterson (1864–1941) and Joseph Furphy (1843–1912).  Around this time she became involved in the early Australian feminist movement through her friendships with Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein.

Franklin – whose career never lacked range – next tried her hand as a nurse, and then as a housemaid.  Under the pseudonyms 'An Old Bachelor' and 'Vernacular', she wrote as a freelance journalist for The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald. 

Henrietta Drake-Brockman (1901-1968), Miles Franklin. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24432289.

Franklin travelled to the USA in 1906 and worked in a secretarial and editorial capacity with Alice Henry until 1916 in the National Women's Trade Union League.  From 1919 to 1926 Franklin moved to England and again established herself in a labour and feminist network, working for the National Housing and Town Planning Association in London.  During the First World War she served as a nurse in Macedonia.

In 1933 Franklin returned to Australia permanently.  Though her literary output was steady, it was not until All That Swagger (1936) won the SH Prior prize and was widely acclaimed that the promise of her first novel came to fruition. 

Miles produced 19 books, including My Career Goes Bung, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, Back to Bool Bool (these two under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin), and a biography of Joseph Furphy, as well as plays and essays.  Her biographer Jill Roe described Franklin as ‘nationalist, feminist, novelist’.

The award – recognition for literature

Creating the award

In 1948, around six years before her death, Miles Franklin established a bequest in her will, which has become known as the Miles Franklin Literary Award.  The income generated from the bequest is used to finance prizes to Australian authors for the advancement, improvement and betterment of Australian Literature.

Miles Franklin was never wealthy and at times it was difficult for her to make ends meet.  The legacy she secretly created must have required her to scrimp and save over many years.  It is a generous gift and she wanted it to ease the financial burden of other writers.

Patrick White – the first winner

Alec T. Bolton (1926-1996), Portrait of Patrick White, Centennial Park, 1983. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an14600815-1.

The prize was first won by future Nobel Prize winner Patrick White in 1957 for his novel Voss.  White's prize back then was £500.  Since then the award has achieved prominence around the world.

It has been argued that the Miles Franklin Literary Award has promoted fiction as significant in Australian life. The resilience of the award has shown that it has ‘woven itself into the fabric of the way Australians try to understand ourselves – our inner worlds as well as our cities, the country, and our place in the world’. (Patrick Allington)

White transformed the possibilities for the Australian novel by demonstrating that it was a place to test ideas against complex spiritual, psychological and emotional experience, not only an avenue for national storytelling.
Susan Lever, The challenge of the novel: Australian fiction since 1950, in The Cambridge History of Australian Literature edited by Peter Pierce, 2009

Patrick White’s win and his series of novels helped shifted recognition of the novel as a form for intellectual debate about contemporary Australian life and its place in the world.

Eminent winner – Thea Astley

Thea Astley, 1985, image by Jozef Vissel, National Portrait Gallery

Thea Astley won the award four times; the first time, in 1962, was for The Well-Dressed Explorer. She won it again in 1965 for The Slow Natives, and in 1972 for The Acolyte.  Her novel Drylands won in 2000. Drylands was described by the judges as:

… written with Thea Astley's trademark concision, bite, and linguistic verve, and brilliantly transcends the darkness at the heart of this novel. It is a powerful achievement by one of our most eminent writers

Astley shared her 1962 win with George Turner for his work The Cupboard under the Stairs, and her 2000 win with Kim Scott for his novel Benang.

Eminent winner –Tim Winton

In 2009, with his novel Breath, Tim Winton became the first person, with Thea Astley, to win the award four times, having first won for Shallows (1984) and again for Cloudstreet (1992) and Dirt Music (2002). Breath (2009) was described as his greatest love letter yet to the sea, especially the coast of Western Australia.  Breath was described by judges as

a searing piece of literature, a very disturbing book … a searing document about masculinity, about risk, and about young people’s desire to push the limits.

Breath follows the life story of Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike, who as a young boy learns to surf with his friend.

‘How strange it was to see men do something beautiful,’ says Pikelet, who narrates the book … But their mentor Sando urges Pikelet and friend on to ever-bigger, more dangerous waves, until Pikelet is too frightened to go on, and is abandoned by his friends.

At the time of the announcement, Breath had sold over 100,000 copies.

Recognition for writers

Multiple winner ... Thea Astley, photograph by Michael Clayton-Jones

Literary awards provide writers with much needed financial and artistic recognition.  If they happen to win the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, the benefits can be particularly rewarding.  The kudos associated with awards is certainly handy to both writers and publishers.  An award will bring publicity, and greatly assist in the task of selling books alongside the growing industry of Writers' festivals.

Michael Heyward, Head of Text Publishing, says that readers generally are looking for novels by writers they know and trust. 'This is a market in which you can publish an outstanding novel and sell only 1000 copies.'

Nikki Christer, publisher at Picador, which published the short-listed novels by Winton, Flanagan and London, says sales figures for fiction are down and fewer first novelists are being published….She will publish only six new novels this year.
Jason Steger, The truth of publishing is stranger than fiction, The Age, 13 June 2002

In the case of David Foster, winning the 1997 Miles Franklin Award with The Glade Within The Grove gave him the impetus – and the financial means – to continue writing books.  He worked as a crewman on prawn trawlers to support his career and family and believed the $27,000 prize allowed him to continue his literary career.  His win also helped the award regain some of its credibility after the 1995 Helen Demidenko-Darville fiasco.

In 2012, Heyward expressed concern that 20 of the Miles Franklin award winning novels were then out of print.  This raised issues about how Australia valued its literary history and the cultural contribution of its finest writers as many of the works were not prescribed texts in Australian literature courses.  

In 2013 the Miles Franklin Literary Award, entered a partnership with the English Teachers’ Association NSW to promote and encourage the study of Australian literature in classrooms.  Free teaching modules and other resources are provided to the Copyright Agency’s new website, Reading Australia, which encourages the purchase of Australian books from publishers.

Tim Winton in the video of his acceptance speech June, 2009

Tim Winton's third Miles Franklin Literary Award (2002), for his novel Dirt Music, meant $28,000 and a certain increase in book sales.  The award, says Jason Steger of The Sunday Age newspaper, is also

'an indication of tradition, achievement and, most important, literary worth: the Miles Franklin embodies all three, and Tim Winton is a worthy recipient'

Kate Jennings, who was short listed for the 2003 Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the 2003 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for her novel Moral Hazard, says that the best novels don't always win literary awards but acknowledges their importance to the writer. 'They are important because they bring recognition.' (Bookmunch interview, 27 March 2002.)

Controversy over the criteria ‘Australian life’

Christopher Koch, 1970s, photograph by Jerry Bauer for Viking

The essential 'Australian life' required by the award has caused controversy. Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously was excluded in 1979 as it was set in Indonesia although the major characters include Australians.  However Koch won the award, 17 years later in 1996 for Highways to a War. The story of Australian war photographer, Mike Langford and his moral and ethical dilemmas is set against the long and bitter saga of the Vietnam War and the subsequent Cambodian conflict.  The judges described this scenario as ‘an important component of the social and political landscape of Australian in the latter part of this century’.

In 1994 the judges disqualified Frank Moorhouse from consideration of the prize for his novel Grand Days. It was seen as 'unAustralian' by the judges with its backdrop of Europe in the 1920s and the early days of the League of Nations. Elizabeth Jolley’s The Georges’ Wife, and Maurilia Meehan’s Fury were disqualified also that year. Moorhouse was eventually victorious when he won the award for his novel Dark Palace in 2001, when his protagonist Edith returns to Australia. (Patrick Allington)

This is different from the requirements of other Australian literary awards who might require, like the PM’s Literary Awards, that entrants are residents of Australia.

A wide range of works – ‘portraying Australian life in any of its phases'

Cover of All That I Am by Anna Funder Miles Franklin Award winner 2012

Whilst the winners and the short-listed works might be all structurally and imaginatively quite different; they also offer ‘curious individual cross-comparisons’ about Australia. The novels explore how one acquires knowledge one’s self and about Australia across the bush, the desert, the beach, its islands, the weather including the tropics, its wild rivers, the sea and maritime history, urban renewal and the cities.

Since 1994 the judges’ interpretation of ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ has clearly broadened – and become more sophisticated, although those works considered ineligible are now no longer announced.  Judging panels can be different every year; they necessarily assess and reflect upon Australian literature in a changed world and as a changing place from different viewpoints every year.  The winning books and shortlists provide a fascinating exploration of Australian fiction since 1957. (Patrick Allington)

The ‘knowledge’ of Australia

Commenting on Murray Bail’s winning novel, Eucalyptus in 1999, the Judging Panel wrote:

You could say that in terms of the characteristic landscape of Australian writing, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus is about ‘the knowledge'. That is its amusing working conceit; but much more seriously it is about how one acquires the knowledge. In his characteristically elegant and deceptively sparse manner, Bail demonstrates the importance of narratives, of storytelling, as a way of acquiring and learning about one's self and one's place.

‘Australian life in any of its phases’ – colonial and post-colonial

Alexis Wright, an Aboriginal writer, set the 2007 Award winner, Carpentaria in her home country of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in north-western Queensland.

Xavier Herbert with Kylie Tennant riding a BSA motorcycle in 1964, courtesy of the National Library of Australia

In part, it is a response to Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia. Like his later work the Miles Franklin Award winning Poor Fellow My Country (1975), it provides a fictional account of life in 'Capricornia', a place clearly modelled specifically on Australia's Northern Territory, and to a lesser degree on tropical Australia in general, exploring politics as much as the lives of his characters. Capricornia is seen as ‘a defining work in the search for what it is, or was, to be Australian.' (Australian Book Review at Harper Collins)

Capricornia opens:

Although that northern part of the Continent of Australia which is called Capricornia was pioneered long after the southern parts, its unofficial early history was even more bloody than that of the others. One probable reason for this is that the pioneers had already had experience of subduing Aborigines in the South and hence were impatient of wasting time with people who they knew were determined to take no immigrants.

One of Xavier Herbert’s notable characters in Capricornia is Norman (‘Nawnim’ or ‘no-name’) Shillingsworth, who belatedly learns of his Aboriginal heritage.  Heroes are few, or non-existent.

Acts of bravado usually tempt swift retribution from forces outside the control of the characters, force which is wielded with such offhand irony by the author that one eventually becomes inured to their pain, and able to predict to some extent when one has gotten above himself and about to fall. But it is this spite in the face of the inevitable, strength of conviction, courage, and blindness to consequence that Herbert apparently admires most.
Capricornia, novel

Wesley Enoch, directed an Indigenous version of this book as a play, for Company B, Belvoir Street in 2006 having said ‘Norman is Australia’.

2007 Winner – Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright, winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2007

Alexis Wright’s main protagonists in Carpentaria (2007) are Norm Phantom, an old man of the sea and custodian of Indigenous culture, his wife Angel Day, and their son Will, who are involved in a deadly fight for land rights.

At one level, the novel is a gripping account of that campaign and the mining company’s violent and illegal attempts to protect its interests in the Gulf. At another level, it is a stunning evocation – some will want to call it magic realism or postcolonial allegory – of a sublime and often overwhelming tropical world that is still inhabited by traditional spirits.
2007 Winner – Carpentaria

Herbert gives his characters equal respect to weave a complex pattern of relations.  Wright does this weaving of characters and in the storytelling also, the multi-layering and structure of the book being one of the reasons for its win.  Not unlike Herbert’s operatic vista, Wright’s is ‘operatic and surreal: a blend of myth and scripture, politics and farce’.  While both the worlds created are overwhelming, Wright’s world is also sublime, suggesting a path to understanding the post-colonial world.

Award winner 2011 – Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott, 2011 Winner for That Deadman Dance, published by Picador

Another post-colonial view is offered by the 2011 winner Kim Scott, whose ancestral Noongar country is in south-western Australia, from the Wirlomin clan.  Scott took out the award for That Deadman Dance.

A powerful and innovative fiction that shifts our sense of what an historical novel can achieve. ... That Deadman's Dance tells the story of the rapid destruction of Noongar people and their traditions. At the same time, there is the enchanting possibility of the birth of a new world in the strange song, dance, ceremony and language that are produced by these encounters of very different peoples.
Judging Panel, 2011 Miles Franklin Award

‘An Australian sensibility and Australian interests’

David Malouf, who won the award in 1991 for The Great World and nominated in1997 for The Conversations at Curlow Creek, wrote about the criteria for ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Malouf said this phrase could be described as works that express ‘an Australian sensibility and Australian interests’.  However Australian sensibility and the desire to investigate this path have generated comments that this sometimes means dark stories.

Award winner 2010 Peter Temple's Truth is seen in this category of ‘dark stories’. Truth is set around the time of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria and become the first crime genre novel to be nominated and to win the award.  The Miles Franklin judges described Truth as ‘a stunning novel about contemporary Australian life, written with all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature’.  A review in the Observer wrote:

…by the end of Peter Temple's new novel the title feels almost elegiac. The book's major theme is corruption, personal and political. Temple puts old-fashioned abstract values into conflict with a bleak vision of modern reality, and the result is consistently arresting…. The darkness that pervades the novel would be a good deal more effective if it had a little more light to dispel.
Edmund Gordon, Truth by Peter Temple, The Observer, 10 January 2010)

Award winner 2013 - Questions of travel, essential to Australian life?

Cover of Questions of travel by Michelle de Kretser Miles Franklin Award winner 2013

The 2013 winner was Michelle de Kretser's novel, Questions of Travel. This was obviously a timely and topical subject given the controversy in the past about the travel of key protagonists and the debate about how essential travel can be to the Australian character and Miles Franklin herself.

Speaking for the 2013 judging panel, Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian, State Library of NSW said:

...within this double narrative, de Kretser explores questions of home and away, travel and tourism, refugees and migrants, as well as 'questions of travel' in the virtual world, charting the rapid changes in electronic communication that mark our lives today.

She brings these large questions close-up and personal with her witty and poignant observations and her vivid language. Her novel is about keeping balance in a speeding, spinning world.

The other nominees shortlisted in 2013 were Romy Ash for Floundering; Annah Faulkner for The Beloved; Drusilla Modjeska for The Mountain; and Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

Engagement with literature and life

Whatever the result, the Miles Franklin Literary Award provides the opportunity for those involved with Australian literature to interact and engage.

Whether this is reviewing the novels, identifying with and debating the themes presented, or reflecting on this in teaching, criticism, writing or publication – the award stimulates discussion about Australian life, language and literature and what it all means.

This involves recognising how diverse Australian literature has become and how the Australian novel is interwoven with a sense of a changing Australian life.

Useful links

Previous winners

Previous winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award include:

Look, listen and play

Education Kits and resources

  • Miles Franklin Literary Award, the English Teachers’ Association NSW  and the Copyright Agency, Reading Australia

Miles Franklin Literary Award

Miles Franklin – the author

My Brilliant Career – the film

References

Last updated: March 2014
Creators: Kathryn Wells.

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