The judges of Australia’s premier literary award have given this year’s prize to Truth, a crime novel by Peter Temple. We know Truth is crime because it shares characters with its not-quite-prequel, The Broken Shore, winner in 2007 of the world’s top crime writing award, the Gold Dagger.
And now we know Truth is also officially “literary.”
Big L Literature
Let me say right off that I’m a great fan of Temple’s books … but it’s very interesting to hear what kinds of sounds squeak from under this great golden moment that has dropped on the book world. The front page of the Age declares that “…the first crime novel to win Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award — defies convention.”
Then: “Truth avoids the stereotypes of traditional crime fiction.”
Then: “The judges said Truth was ‘a stunning novel about contemporary Australian life, written with all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature.’ “
It looks like crime, and sounds like crime, and sells like crime, but — it’s Literature! The author was considerably less precious. “It’s unusual for a crime writer to receive such a prestigious award, so cop it sweet,” Temple told AAP upon receiving the award.
The Australian’s Literary Review editor Stephen Romei was at the awards dinner and had great fun tweeting:
@PairRaggedClaws Temple is here, and at my table!
@PairRaggedClaws Keynote speaker George Negus just asked what he has in common with Miles Franklin. But he’s a good bloke.
@PairRaggedClaws Temple checking his watch. This could get interesting.
@PairRaggedClaws Alex Miller looks like a volcano about to burst. Negus still going.
@PairRaggedClaws And the winner is: Peter Temple!
@PairRaggedClaws He looks genuinely stunned.
@PairRaggedClaws Shocked he says, opening word of his speech.
@PairRaggedClaws PT just dropped the f word in his acceptance speech. Love it!
@PairRaggedClaws He also just said he’d like to thank people – but he wrote the book himself. Love it more!
A Genre-busting Thriller
I can’t quite imagine — you try it — Peter Temple performing Billie Jean or Thriller or Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’ but, like the late great Jackson, Temple may also have crossed a line, crossed over, as they say. (Another image: the big white elephant in the room.) I suspect there are crime writers dying of envy and “literary” authors drinking in dismay.
Recently, lit bloggers have been questioning the validity of genres — bookshop categories — and the privileging of some over others (Spike’s Jessica Au, James Bradley, et al). As ex-academic and author Kerryn Goldsworthy remarks: “‘genre’ in much contemporary popular usage seems to have morphed into an adjective meaning ‘not literary fiction’.”
(Literarily, Bryce Courtenay has sprayed Peter Carey at Crikey and crime bestseller Lee Child has blasted literary pretensions on the ABC. See Tony Martin’s chip-spittingly funny takedown of Child.)
So, to address this twisty — as in don’t and knickers and knot — notion, I spoke to Michael Williams, Head of Programming at the Wheeler Centre (for Books, Writing and Ideas).
Mulcher: Michael, your graduate thesis was on the Miles Franklin Literary Award. This “literary” club is quite exclusive … though, I think of “literary” as the genre of historical and contemporary realism, as that’s where the prizes are usually awarded. But now they’ve admitted Truth, an unabashed piece of crime writing. Is that Temple or the club? What’s happening and are things changing?
MW: As crime fans know, Temple is not your standard crime novelist. The first part of Truth is is complicated, quite hard to follow. But when the judges cite Truth as having “all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature”… well, [something is being avoided]. Better to say it is the very best example of crime writing. The best book of the year should be able to come from any “genre.” Crime is popular and accessible but crime has a chance at these awards, unlike science fiction or horror, and I think it’s because of — realism. But no, I don’t think they’ll award it again to a crime novel next year or for a long while.
Literary awards tend toward the historical. [Putting quality judgments aside] for instance, last year [Chistos Tsolkas’] The Slap, about contemporary urban life, doesn’t win the award, which goes to [Tim Winton’s] Breath — set in the sixties in a small coastal town in WA. It’s only in genre that we feel comfortable with a body drowned in the moat outside the [National Victorian] Gallery. Or set in a town with Crown Casino in it. The reason why Truth deserves to win the award and be on the front page is that it makes you see Melbourne differently.