Are there too many literary awards in Australia, and is our oldest one “slipping away”? If an Australian literary award was provided increased funding and focus, would the Miles Franklin be the most relevant?

Every year the Miles Franklin Literary Award attracts some debate and controversy, but the award’s prestige is waning, noted Alex Miller — a two-time winner and shortlisted author in this year’s awards — at the shortlisting ceremony yesterday. Miller, as reported in The Australian, said Prime Minister “Rudd the Dud” and arts minister Peter Garrett should have invested in the nation’s oldest literary award, instead of creating the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008 (worth $100,000, to the MF’s $42,000), which he said “gets no publicity and will probably disappear when someone else becomes prime minister”.

Miller’s main point is that there are too many literary awards, and so it’s inevitable that there will be less focus on each. Besides the Prime Minister’s awards, there are various state Premier’s awards, and many other trust, media, festival, company and privately funded awards. Many are relevant for their individual fields and genres (such as the CBCA awards for children’s and young adult literature) but dispersing funding around for fiction awards when one solid, prestigious and attention-focused literary award could be developed, is a good point. Would the public pay more attention?

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If this was put into effect, though, is the Miles Franklin really the award for the job? Sure, it was established in 1957, and has been won by culturally important, and stimulating, authors and books. Patrick White’s Voss was the recipient of the first award, as Miller noted. But the Miles Franklin’s criteria is stricter than awards established since: “It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. This is what Miles Franklin included with her bequest. What “Australian life in any of its phases” means, exactly, is something that comes up often in discussion of the shortlisted books.

As ALR editor Stephen Romei points out on his blog A Pair of Ragged Claws, what kind of controversy would have ensued this year if Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America made it from the longlist to the shortlist — a novel set almost entirely outside of Australia and populated by non-Australian characters’? So if Miller’s advice was taken and other awards were encapsulated into the Miles Franklin, would other, worthy books miss out on shortlists and winnings, due to the criteria?

Perhaps an indication of the criteria’s disablement is the fact that a mere 50 books were entered for the Miles Franklin this year. Or perhaps this is due to Miller’s point, and the award’s increasing invisibility is causing authors and publishers to forget about entering their books.

Finally, there is always controversy on why certain books are chosen, and certain ones omitted. Last year, as I wrote about on LiteraryMinded, the shortlist was made up entirely of male authors. Debate raged in the blogosphere on why the final books were chosen over some of those by women writers from the longlist. If the Miles Franklin was expanded and enhanced, I’d suggest the judging panel and process should be reexamined and modernised with a mix of backgrounds, ages and experiences (a mix of academic, bookseller, book reviewer, author and younger reader might work).

The process behind, and promotion of, the UK’s Booker Prize might make a good model and comparison on all these fronts. The Booker is promoted and covered in mainstream media, it maintains an unashamedly prestigious image and the shortlisted and winning novels are assured increases in sales (which also suggests strong bookseller support), and not only that — the judges and their decision-making process are not hidden away, unlike the rather secretive judging process in Australia, as Sam Cooney has written about on Meanjin’s blog, Spike.

The books shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award are Lovesong (Alex Miller), The Bath Fugues (Brian Castro), The Book of Emmett (Deborah Forster), Butterfly (Sonya Hartnett), Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey) and Truth (Peter Temple). The winner will be announced on June 22. You can read my thoughts on last year’s winner, Tim Winton’s Breath here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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