Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the third decade (1978-1987)

Miles Franklin

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

Today’s post is the third in my little sub-series of posts looking at the Miles Franklin Award by decade.

As before, I don’t plan to list all the decade’s winners, as you can find them on the Award’s official site. Instead, I’ll share some interesting snippets, inspired by my Trove meanders.

Women writers on the rise?

The late 1970s and 1980s saw, I believe, a flowering of Australian women writers, similar to that we saw in the 1920s-1940s with the likes of Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard/Flora Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, and Christina Stead, not to mention Miles Franklin herself. This flowering is partly evidenced by the fact that while just five awards were made for books by women in the first two decades, another four were made to women in this third decade. These were Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river (1978) and her The impersonators (1980), Elizabeth Jolley’s The well (1986), and Glenda Adams’ Dancing on coral (1987).

In 1979, The Australian Women’s Weekly announced Jessica Anderson’s win under the headline “Women take honours in literature, fashion”. It seems the awards were handled differently then, with the winner being advised before the presentation. The Weekly describes Anderson’s reaction:

“I was thrilled,” she said. “Like all Australian writers, I think we owe a tremendous debt to our predecessors. The award does encourage writers. You feel someone out of the past has spoken to you.”

One of the Award judges, the well-known and successful publisher-editor, Beatrice Davis, said of Anderson’s book that “It has an unpretentious elegance, an individual quality so different from the realistic documentary that still dominates the field in Australian novels.” But Jessica Anderson told The Weekly that, the book’s content annoyed a lot of people, particularly men:

“I didn’t mean it to be a liberationist gesture,” she said. “Men recorded their experiences for hundreds of years and women read them with admiration.”

Hmmm … this is fascinating, and an issue that we still confront, I believe. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read Tirra Lirra by the river, add it to your list. It’s a great read. I read it before blogging, but Lisa has posted her thoughts on her blog.

Incomprehensible or outstanding?

David Ireland won the award in 1980 for the third time with A woman of the future. Ireland said at the time that it had been initially rejected by Macmillan because it was “too incomprehensible”. The judges called it “outstanding”. Well, four of them felt it was. The fifth, Colin Roderick, called it “literary sewage”, The Canberra Times reported.

A few months after it won, a long article giving “a feminist perspective” appeared in Woroni, the ANU’s student paper. The writer, Andrea Mitchell, starts by discussing Ireland’s previous novels in which women appear as “domestic or sexual adjuncts”. Ireland, she argues, does not dissociate himself in these novels from his male characters’ poor treatment of women, but, she writes

A Woman of the Future offers a different and more rewarding perspective on women in society. A complete turnabout, Ireland presents a woman’s life and experience in the first person.

It’s an in-depth analysis, but I’ll just share her assessment of what she thinks he is doing, because I love it:

I would suggest that Ireland is not only satirizing sexism, but levelling criticism at a certain style of feminism epitomized by German Greer’s A Female Eunuch: That is, that in order to change the subservient position of women, women must become as ruthlessly self-oriented and competitive as men have traditionally been. Ireland reasonably sees the same danger for women as for men who pursue social power: a less than full human existence, and alienation in their personal lives.

Here come the men!

Peter Carey, BlissIf this decade saw a flowering of Australia’s women writers, it was also when some of the men who are now among Australia’s top male writers won their first awards. I’m talking Peter Carey, who won the first of his three Miles Franklin Awards with his debut novel Bliss, and Tim Winton who won the first of his four awards with his second novel Shallows.

The Canberra Times reported judge Beatrice Davis as saying that

Carey was an “effortless stylist” who “gives a sense of immediacy to every vivid scene and compels belief in every character no matter how bizarre”.

While I haven’t loved every Carey I’ve read, I do love the fact that you never know what form or “style” he’s going to produce next. He is exciting to read.

Tim Winton won the 1984 award with his novel Shallows. The award was not made for 1983 (see below) so I was intrigued to read the following statement by the judges quoted in The Canberra Times report:

The merit of Winton’s novel is reflected by the high quality of the 29 books considered this year for the $5,000 award … Among the other books entered were David Malouf’s Harland’s half acre, Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and honey, Thomas Shapcott’s The white stag of exile, Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bellarmine jug (The Age Book of the Year), David Ireland’s Archimedes and the seagle, Alan Gould’s The man who stayed below and Olga Masters’s Loving daughters.


Now, I’m a Winton fan but when I read Shallows not long after it came out I clearly remember feeling it overdid the imagery a bit, that it was a little “overwritten” (which is something I’ve just read Helen Garner felt about his first novel). Still, the judges saw “ample proof of a developing talent” and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that. The judges also said:

The merits of this novel are perhaps most evident in the strength of the characterisation — these characters stand on their own — and in Winton’s ability to bring the early history of whaling into an intelligible relationship with present-day attitudes to the whaling industry.

Fair enough. Winton is great at writing character, and setting. He, like, Carey, is always exciting to read.

Another interesting winner this decade was Rodney Hall, with his wonderful Just relations, but I just don’t have time to share everything I found.

No award (again)

As happened in the second decade, there was a year in this third decade, 1983, in which no award was made. The Canberra Times reported that most of judges for the 1983 Miles Franklin Literary Award “felt the standard too poor to justify presenting it”. The report continued that “if no novel of sufficient quality is available, the author of a play for stage. radio, television ‘or such other medium as may develop’ can be the recipient but few scripts are received”.

In 1983, novels were published by people like Brian Castro, Sara Dowse, Elizabeth Jolley, and Peter Kocan. Interestingly Peter Kocan’s The cure won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr Scobie’s riddle won The Age Book of the Year Award. There were also short story collections – but these, unlike plays and scripts, are not eligible it seems – by Carmel Bird, Robert Drewe, Beverley Farmer, amongst others. I’m not saying any of these should have won, but in the light of what the judges said the following year – including highlighting The Age Book of the Year as indicative of quality – it does make me wonder.

Past posts in the series

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the third decade (1978-1987)

  1. I agree that men and women writers were perceived pretty equally in this period. My pick for best writer of the 80s would be Jolley, but Carey too was very good when he was young (he didn’t age well!).

  2. An interesting insight into a.prize development over years I look back at thsee years of booker as my favourite time for books in prize list the mid.80s to mid 90s

    • An interesting Stu. I’ll go back and look at the Booker prize list for then. I suspect I might feel the same. I read every one for a couple of decades, but haven’t done that in the last though I’ve read some.

  3. Very interesting! And just so you know, I put Tirra Lirra by the river on my virtual library shelf. When it might actually make it to my reading table is another matter we won’t discuss right now 🙂

  4. These were golden years for Australian writing, IMO. I retain a great fondness for the writers who came into my life in this period.
    Interesting about Ireland. I’ve read two of his, and apropos the comment about sewage, I have a residual distaste after reading The Glass Canoe. But I have A Woman of the Future of the TBR and find myself mildly encouraged by Andrea Mitchell’s comment…
    BTW I am all in favour of withdrawing this award if books aren’t up to standard. It’s supposed to be for books of the “highest literary merit”. That only means something if every winner displays that characteristic IMO!

    • Thanks Lisa. If you haven’t read Mitchell you may like to at the link I’ve provided.

      Re award, yes, I agree though “highest literary merit” is clearly subjective! As far as I can tell two Jolley novels were published in 1983 so would have been eligible for the award and one won another award, so I wonder about this particular year. Maybe the books weren’t put forward, of course. Dowse’s West Block is an interesting novel and, I think, would have been a worthy winner. Also, among the short stories, Robert Drewe’s The body surfers is an excellent collection of interconnected short stories but probably not eligible, though I don’t know why not!! (Why plays and scripts but not short story collections?) Tim Winton’s The turning was probably similarly not considered though it won a swag of literary awards.

  5. Tirra Lirra sounds great! I hadn’t heard of that one. I suppose the 1980s was the decade that Australian fiction became well known for writers other than Patrick White. Keneally and Peter Carey would be the most famous names over here and Elizabeth Jolley also known enough to make paperback. I think there might have been one year when there was no prize awarded for the Booker (or perhaps there were only 2 entries)….I kind of admire that and it would never be allowed to happen these days!

    • Haha, Ian, I admire your “kind of” admiring not giving an award! It happened here recently again, just a very few years ago, with our top unpublished manuscript award, the Vogel. So it still happens here but I’d be surprised if it happened again with the MF.

      As for Tirra Lirra, yes, it is great and, I think, one of those books that could easily be read and enjoyed again. One day I will do just that! I’ve dipped into it again in recent years and have been tempted to just read it but those other books in piles glared at me so I put it down again each time!

  6. It certainly was an interesting period for Australian writing, and I think it was from around this time that Australian books began to dominate my reading. I am a Jolley fan, and do think Mr Scobie’s Riddle would have been a worthy winner of the prize. I will try to read A Woman of the Future again. I am away from home, and though I have use of a library it is not as good as mine back in Melbourne. I love Bill’s comments on Carey.

    • Ha, Meg, And so, away from home, something has sent you into moderation! I certainly returned to Aussie literature big time in the 1980s. It was exciting to see so many interesting books coming out, wasn’t it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s