Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the second decade (1968-1977)

Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Three weeks ago, I published a post on the first decade of the Miles Franklin Award. That seemed to interest some of my readers, so I’m back again with the next decade. I hope it’s equally interesting.

Again, I won’t be describing all the decade’s winners. You can check the Award’s official site to see a complete list of winners. Rather, I’ll be sharing some interesting snippets, inspired by my roving around Trove.

Money, money, money

Money, how authors support themselves, comes up in a few articles from this decade. Colin Simpson, Vice-President of the Australian Society of Authors, wrote a letter to the editor of the Canberra Times in December 1971, asking readers to buy Australian books as Christmas gifts. He probably wrote to other newspapers too. He comments that many people read Australian books, but via free libraries. Libraries are “great”, he says, but reading this way is “at the expense of authors, publishers and book sellers”. He continues:

The novelist’s position has become particularly sub-economic. As an example, the novel that won this year’s Miles Franklin Award has sold in Australia, in 12 months, less than 1,000 copies. This would earn its author, in royalties, under $400. Such books are read by tens of thousands of people who never go into a bookshop to buy books, but get them from the local library.

He looks to the future implementation of Public Lending Right (which happened in Australia in 1975) but in the meantime

If all those families of avid borrowers would make just one of their Christmas gifts a book, it would help keep booksellers in business. If the book they bought was an Australian one it would help to keep our authors writing books …

Some six months later in May 1972, The Canberra Times literary contributor, Maurice Dunlevy, wrote an article headed “No millions for our novelists”. His aim was to correct ideas that novelists are well-remunerated. Not everyone, he writes, is an Arthur Hailey or Harold Robbins. He calculates the likely royalty for the average Australian author, and says that, for a reasonably successful book, he (always a “he”) might earn $1,500. This means that such a novelist

would have to write at least five successful novels a year to make as much as a middle-ranking public servant — a prospect which might daunt even the most dedicated novelist.

Not surprisingly most authors, he says, write in their spare time. He then refers to the 1972 Miles Franklin Award Winner, David Ireland (for The unknown industrial prisoner). Ireland had a cultural grant from the New South Wales government (their first such grant) and the publisher, Angus and Robertson, received assistance from the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF) for publication. Ireland’s prize was $1,250. Dunlevy continues:

Now $1,250 doesn’t buy much time for anyone these days and even though it might seem a big sum to a novelist who has been earning his living tending a golf course, Ireland probably welcomed his 1972 CLF fellowship even more than the prize.

After discussing the huge differential in payments for authors in the US (appearances, articles) compared with Australia, he suggests that readers

think about the ordinary Australian writer who more than likely is knocking out his novel at night on the kitchen table, knowing that he will make no more than a few hundred dollars from it and that he will be lucky to get it published anyway, as fewer than three dozen are published in Australia in any one year.

Fewer than three dozen Australian books published a year? I think the rate of publishing, per capita, is higher now. But, I’m not sure that remuneration for the “ordinary Australian writer” (that is, not bestselling ones like the late Bryce Courtenay or Di Morrissey) has improved much?

A couple of characters

For this decade, I found a couple of articles in The Australian Women’s Weekly. They are very different in style to those in the major newspapers – chattier and focusing more on the personality and lives of the authors.

Dal Stivens

One of the Miles Franklin Award winning writers featured by the Weekly was Dal Stivens, who won the 1970 award with A horse for air (see Lisa of ANZLitLovers’ review).

The Weekly tells us little about Stivens’ literary life, focusing instead on his “obsessions” – his love of azaleas and natural history, for example, and his taking up painting at the age of 59, around the time he won his award, in fact. The Weekly’s Lorraine Hickman writes that

Mrs. Stivens will get a nice surprise when she arrives back home from London and discovers Dal’s abstracts throughout the house. Her home does not wear an art image. It is a cosy old timber place, minding its own business in a silent street of shrub-shrouded houses doing the same.

“Her” home, eh?

Hickman does tell us that he was the foundation President of the Australian Society of Authors, but not that he was one of the authors involved in the creation of the above-mentioned Public Lending Right.

StivensHorseStivens’ award-winning book sounds interesting. He says it is about who the hero, Harry Craddock, is and what he is “really after when he takes this expedition off to Central Australia in quest of the rare night parrot”. His next book is different again, he says. He’s interested in “the story that makes the reader do a good deal of the work.”

The article returns to one more of his interests, boomerang-throwing. He took it up to please himself:

It’s the same with writing – a compulsion. You should never write for the market or the publisher.

Thea Astley

Four-time Miles Franklin Award winning writer, Thea Astley, was also featured by the Weekly, though the article I read, “The top writer who won’t go popular” by Jacqueline Smith, was not about any of these wins. It was inspired by the publication of her collection of short stories, A boat load of home folk, and starts by reporting that Astley didn’t want the Weekly’s photographer to come, because she’d already provided a publicity shot. Responding to a request for a photograph of her at work, she says:

What do you mean at work? My typewriter isn’t here, and, anyway, I always write in a blue-ruled exercise book sitting up in bed. In a negligee!

It’s pure, quirky Astley – the Astley so beautifully conveyed by Karen Lamb in the biography I reviewed last year. If you are interested in Astley do read the article at the link I’ve provided, because it presents the same paradoxical, funny, self-deprecating but sometimes also self-pitying writer Lamb presents.

For example, she says that her books don’t sell:

I write mainly for myself . . . selfish to the end … Only when one writes consciously for a public — like Morris West — will the books sell … All my books are about misfits and generally unhappy people.

And here is the perfect place to segue to a 1973 article in The Canberra Times that is about her winning the award, her third, for The acolyte (which Lisa has reviewed!). The writer, Maurice Dunlevy again, doesn’t much like Astley, titling the article, “Award winner is a cynical novelist”. Oh dear, one of those who would have upset Astley, no doubt.

He gives a brief biography and then, for some reason, describes her first novel, A girl with a monkey. He praises it:

It contained the essential Astley: a fast-paced narrative, highly concentrated scenes, sharply observed details, a telescoped time span and a professional touch with flash-backs. She told her story by assembling a mosaic of recollections and telescoping them into a very short space and time – a technique she was to use more effectively in later books. Perhaps the most distinctive thing in the book was her sensitivity to landscape.

That’s one paragraph. He then spends several paragraphs describing her faults. There’s “overstraining for effect in the prose” and her “cynical detachment”, but the real kicker is that “all of her books lack a substantial theme, or unifying vision of the world.”

Perhaps Dunlevy should have read The Women’s Weekly, where she explains that misfits are her subject. Her overall theme is society’s treatment of outsiders – the poor, the indigenous, the women, the sick. Anyhow, Dunlevy continues, quoting Astley’s statement that:

I’ve always been staggered when critics charge my novels with cruelty … I swear it must come out wrong, for in books like The slow natives and A boatload of home folk I was trying to wring those trachyte-reviewing hearts with my sympathy for misfits.

Dunlevy is unrepentant, stating that his heart “was one of the many that remained unwrung”. He describes The acolyte as “a tough detached book”. He admits that

it is a very readable book, full of technical brilliance, but again you look in vain for the broad view, the wide perspective and the old question crops up: So what?

Hmmm … I think Dunlevy is not the reader for Astley! His prerogative, of course, but I wonder whether he let his reaction to her self-defensive “cynical self-disparagement” affect his assessment of her work.

No award

And my last point is that in March 1974, The Canberra Times reported in a brief article that no award was to be made for 1973 “because the judges said none of the six entries was good enough”. Novels published in 1973 included Patrick White’s The eye of the storm and Barbara Harrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (My review). Not good enough?

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the second decade (1968-1977)

  1. Sitting in a Double Bay-like coffee shop in the Garden District of New Orleans awaiting the start of a walking tour. Lovely bright day…

    Your post on Australian books and supporting our writers as ever movingly assembled. I edited a couple of text/anthologies for OUP in 1990 – Australian Literature/OZ.LIT – of course. One of my students -then at Nelson Bay HS – was keen to alert me to the Public Lending Rights scheme – his father then a Civil servant in the administration of the scheme – which certainly assisted me later in the making of payments to quite a number of the authors whose works I was high-lighting – though some of the more important such as John Pilger, Tom Keneally and Phillip Adams made their essays available gratis.

    References to Dal Stivens and Thea Astley always move me. Thanks.

    • Hope you had a great walk, Jim. I have fond memories of New Orleans. PLR is a good scheme. Doesn’t enable authors to give up their day jobs but better than nothing! I guess those authors who gave their work gratis were those in the best position to do so, but still generous of them.

  2. Thanks Sue, It gets more interesting as the years go on. Dunvley seems to me a very stubborn man, how he could not find any themes in Thea Astley’s novels is unbelievable. I was so glad you mentioned Barbara Harrahan. I loved all her novels; and as soon as I see the words The Scent of Eucalyptus I can smell the Australian bush.

    • Me too, re Hanrahan’s book, Meg. And yes, I think Dunlevy had his critics for his strong opinions. I guess it never hurts to have an opinionated literary editor or critic!

  3. I checked for 1972 and there were more than 100 Australian books published, only about 30 of them novels. Very few novels in 73, I would have struggled to make up a shortlist of 6, the only one I have from that year is Rappaport’s Revenge, Morris Lurie.
    And I googled David Ireland, one of my favourite authors, he was almost in his 50s before he was published then put out that great string of novels, Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Flesheaters, Glass Canoe etc

    • Yes, Bill, I looked up several authors writing at that time in Wikipedia and many – including Astley for example – had a book in the year before or the year after 1973. Still, White and that Hanrahan book. Surely deserving?

  4. Thanks for this and the earlier post, Sue. If one of the afflictions of Australian literary culture has been persistent forgetfulness, you are definitely part of the cure, and not at all hard to swallow as medicine is supposed to be

    • Haha, thanks a bunch Jonathan … I’m glad if my impact is to help us remember. And if I can do it with a spoonful of sugar – or at least, not all lemon – all the better.

  5. Hi Sue, I loved this post!
    (BTW in expectation thereof, I began Poor Fellow My Country (1975), and am pleased to report that I passed the half way mark this morning at page 720.)
    I’m not sure and am happy to be corrected, but I think Patrick White decided after he won the Nobel Prize in 1973, not to enter the Miles Franklin to give younger writers a go. (The MF, like many other prizes, requires the book to be entered, and that’s usually done by the publisher. There is an entry fee, which deters small publishers from entering which is why some terrific books appear to have been overlooked but it’s because it wasn’t entered.)

    • Good for you Lisa – I admire your commitment! Yes, of course, I think you’re right about White, and since the 1973 MF Award was to be announced in 1974 then his book probably wasn’t offered. And yes, good point about having to be entered – I have heard an author or two being unhappy about a book not being entered. It sounds like they had 6 books. I wonder what they were. They didn’t seem to do the long and shortlisting back then, probably because they had fewer books to start with, but hopefully Perpetual Trustees do have the information in their archives somewhere.

        • Lisa, call me Bill! WordPress took wadholloway from my email address and I never changed it (William Andrew David if you’re wondering).
          Annals of Australian Lit., Hooton & Hesseltine (I think)

        • Ah, so an old fashioned book! Hooton is one of the editors of the Oxford (the Oxford or one of them anyhow!) Companion to Australian Lit too I think, but it doesn’t do an annual listing. I don’t know the Annals!

          As for WAD, I guessed the W must be William and the rest were your middle names! Love knowing the rest!

        • I’m not sure where he found it. I looked at Wikipedia under 1973 in Australian literature but it listed novels published in Australia, most of which weren’t Australian, and I looked in Wikipedia under many individual authors for their bibliographies. You can do a search in Trove, narrowing to Books, Australian content, and published 1973, but you get about 30,000 hits. You can’t narrow it further to fiction as far as I can tell. So, I too, would be interested to know where Bill searched.

    • A fascinating series. Interesting (if in hindsight a little absurd) problem the prize had in getting a shortlist in 1973. About that time I think the Booker also had a year with just a handful of contenders which suggests that fiction publishing might actually be in a far healthier state these days though obviously quantity isn’t everything.

      • Yes, that’s what I was thinking too Ian, with the same proviso re quantity. You can’t help thinking that quantity suggests a healthy industry that is perhaps more likely to generate quality , though I suppose that isn’t exag logical.

        • Encouraging because like a lot of bookish people I perhaps have a rather too pessimistic outlook about the future of reading fiction – maybe I’m wrong!

        • I hope you are, Ian. The older I get, the more I think “plus ça change” in that we keep worrying about the same thing but in fact it doesn’t quite happen that way. Wasn’t TV going to be the end of movies, and the end of reading?

  6. Can I scold Mr Simpson regarding his comment on libraries? If fewer than 1,000 copies of the winner that year were sold, then how were tens of thousands of library patrons able to read the book? They all must either read really fast or you have some miraculous program in Australia where libraries don’t have to pay for books!

  7. I’ve just been catching up on these posts, and as I read about Thea Astley, I remembered Margaret Throsby’s interview with her that was replayed on Classic FM last year. I can’t remember much from it, except that it was really good and worth a listen. Interestingly, the spiel for the podcast mentions just about everything else from her life, except that she won the Miles Franklin Award four times!

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