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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.

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), and feminists such as Rose Scott (1847–1925) and Vida Goldstein (1869–1941). 

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. Around this time she became involved in the early Australian feminist movement through her friendships with Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein.

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.

The creation of 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.

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

First won by future Nobel Prize winner Patrick White in 1957 for his novel Voss, the award has achieved prominence around the world, recognising excellence in Australian Literature. White's prize back then was £500.

It is the essential 'Australianness' of the award that caused such a controversy when 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.

Moorhouse was eventually victorious when he won the award for his novel Dark Palace in 2001.

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. 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.

Recognition for writers and literature

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. Text publisher Michael Heyward 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.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2003)

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.

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.

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.)

Award winner 2013

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel cover. Image courtesy of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The 2013 winner is Michelle de Kretser's novel, Questions of Travel. 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.

Born in Sri Lanka and emigrating to Australia when she was 14, de Kretser is also the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog. The Lost Dog, aside from winning the 2008 NSW Premier's Book of the Year Award, was also longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction.

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.

Previous winners

Previous winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award include:

Useful links

Look, listen and play

Miles Franklin Literary Award

Miles Franklin – the author

My Brilliant Career – the film

References

G Davison, J Hirst and S Macintyre eds, The Oxford Companion to Australian Letters, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001. 

Last updated: 6 November 2013
Creators: ACME, Kathryn Wells
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