Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the fourth decade (1988-1997)

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

This is my fourth post in a little sub-series looking at the Miles Franklin Award by decade.

As with the first three, written back in 2016, 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. This mostly involved The Canberra Times and The Australian Jewish News, because this period is still within copyright, meaning the NLA can only digitise newspapers which have given them permission to do so.

Men in the ascendant (again)

In my third decade post (linked below), I noted the increase in awards made to women. Just five awards were won by women in the first two decades combined, but in the third decade, four of the nine awards went to women. This reflected, I suggested, the flowering of writing by Australian women in the late 1970s and 1980s. However, it wasn’t to last. In the fourth decade, eight of the nine awards made went to men – and the woman who did win generated one of the Award’s biggest controversies (see below). Without spoiling my fifth decade post, this “bias” towards men continued for another ten years or more, which inspired, among other things, the establishment of the Stella Award in 2012 … but, I’m jumping ahead. Let’s stay in the nineties for the moment.

The skewing towards men, not surprisingly, carried through to the shortlists, with 31 men shortlisted over the decade to 18 women. However, when it comes to multiple listings, four writers, two men and two women, were shortlisted three times: Rodney Hall and David Malouf, Thea Astley and Janette Turner Hospital (who has never won it).

The men who won included previous winners Peter Carey, Tim Winton, and Rodney Hall. The others were Tom Flood, David Malouf, Alex Miller, Christopher Koch and David Foster. I admit that I didn’t know Tom Flood, but Dorothy Hewett was his mother. His winning book, Oceana Fine, was his only novel.

There wasn’t much discussion about the skewing back then, but I did love Celal Bayari, who wrote in the the University of New South Wales’ Tharunka paper about Elizabeth Jolley missing out in 1989:

Jolley good book (ha ha)

JOLLEY’S latest has just been omitted from the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award. That is a real shame because The Sugarmother is a great book.

Controversy (1)

The controversy concerned Helen Demidenko’s novel, The hand that signed the paper, which won in 1995. Bill (The Australian Legend) summarised the controversy beautifully in his post on the book, so why reinvent the wheel? Bill wrote:

For the benefit of non-Australians, the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award to Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper, the story of a Ukrainian family collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The granting of the Award to an anti-semitic work was justified on the grounds that Demidenko was telling the story of her people, until Demidenko, who would attend speaking engagements dressed in the costume of a Ukrainian peasant girl, was finally unmasked as Helen Darville, a University of Queensland student of entirely English background.

This was a multi-pronged controversy – and Bill explores some of the prongs in his excellent post. There were criticisms of the work itself: it was uneven and poorly written, it was racist/anti-semitic, it distorted history. There were criticisms of the author’s deception regarding her background, with some saying that the only reason they accepted this unpleasant book’s win was because the author was speaking for “her” people. (This feeds into current discussions about who can write what.) There was discussion about literary criticism – about whether it’s all about the text, or whether other considerations, like the author’s background, are relevant to assessing a work. There were discussions about the line between fact and fiction, particularly since Demidenko/Darville herself called her work “faction”. There were criticisms of plagiarism, which were subsequently overturned. There were suggestions that the author, around 24 at the time, was a disturbed young woman to be pitied. And, there were criticisms of the judges – of their decision in the first place, their refusal to admit they were wrong, and their not engaging in discussion. The novel was apparently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and then quietly un-shortlisted before the announcement. The controversy raged for months.

The book, by the way, had previously won the 1993 The Australian/Vogel LiteraryAward for unpublished manuscript, and in 1995 it also won the ALS Gold Medal.

The Canberra Times‘ literary editor at the time, Robert Hefner, suggested that the book “could well prove to be one of the most divisive books in Australian history”. Not surprisingly, it sold well. By August 1995, according to her publisher, it had sold 25,000 copies, and they were preparing to republish it under the author’s real name.

Controversy (2)

Lest you think, however, that this was the only Miles Franklin Award controversy of the decade, think again. The ongoing issue of the “Australian content” requirement raised its head during the decade too. In 1994, when Rodney Hall won for The grisly wife, The Canberra Times reports that, “The Georges’ Wife [Elizabeth Jolley], and Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, were disqualified because the judges decided they did not have enough Australian content”.

No award (again)

In both the second and third decades, there was a year in which no award was made. It happened again this decade but for a purely administrative reason, to do with changing the award’s timing from year of publication to year of announcement!

The value of awards

Given I’ve posted on the value of awards recently, I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of points that came out of this little piece of research.

David Malouf said, on winning in 1991 with The great world,

“An award like this is a bit like the Archibald to painting. Both are extremely well known and important … People who don’t necessarily buy a book when it first comes out are interested to see what books turn up on the short list and which book wins. That kind of interest is always very important.”

He also admits that winning awards offers reassurance:

“Writers are very diffident, basically. They’re always doubtful of themselves and it’s always good when you are offered approval for what you have done”

Similarly, Alex Miller, who won in 1993 for The ancestor game said:

“I decided it was terrific to be short-listed and that was that, and I just got on with my work, and then when I was told last Wednesday I really couldn’t believe it … It’s enormous validation and acknowledgment, for sure.

It’s a bit of a watershed, isn’t it, winning something like Miles Franklin.”

And Rodney Hall, winning in 1994 with The grisly wife, said “this has picked me up”.

I mentioned above sales for Demidenko/Darville’s book, but that had the “benefit” of controversy. Tim Winton’s 1992-winning Cloudstreet experienced a boost in sales. The Canberra Times reported less than two months after Winton’s win:

… Tim Winton returned recently from a 30-day promotional tour of the United States, where Graywolf’s beautiful hardback edition of his Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Cloudstreet has already sold more than 12,000 copies. In Australia, where it was published by McPhee Gribble and Penguin, sales have topped 60,000.

Let’s leave the fourth decade there!

Past posts in the series

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the fourth decade (1988-1997)

  1. All I can say about this excellent piece of research and reportage is that my beloved second-eldest sister, Josephine, was friends with both Janette Turner Hospital and (more particularly) Dorothy Hewett, whom she loved dearly. I sometimes thought that Jo was so tolerant of my girth because of the latter ..
    (Sorry; more than somewhat off-thread. But you know me !)

    • I don’t mind what you say, MR, just say something! Seriously, what matters is something in my post inspired a thought, and then thought inspire thoughts! That’s good. That’s lovely that you have connections with two women mentioned here.

  2. I must get round to reading Oceana Fine…
    I doubt if I’ll ever read the Demidenko… not even to complete my Read the MF winners. It seems to me that there would be something perverse about reading a book that otherwise has no appeal, just because it won a prize.

    • Yes, I must say Lisa that I’m not particularly driven to read it. If my reading group decided to do it, I would, but there are so many books to read that this one just doesn’t have enough priority for me. Goals are good, but “completism” doesn’t have to be one of them!

  3. Thanks for this post, Sue. I’ve just had a lovely time reading through your earlier decades as well. So many books that have disappeared so completely, not just from cultural consciousness but physically as well!

  4. First up, let me say, that I have just spent a most enjoyable 20 mins or so, with a lovely glass of wine from the Clare Valley (from our last big trip just before Covid) reading over these four MF posts!
    These overviews are a wonderful resource Sue. I also loved reading the comments left on each post.
    At least with this post we are starting to move into a time when I have memories of the award, although the 1995 debacle was probably my first clear memory of the award. I remember getting caught up in the hype for Oscar and Lucinda in my final year at uni, although I felt out of my reading depth for most of it!
    I look forward to the next decade 🙂

    • Haha Brona … I think I might leave the next decade for a while, though I don’t think I can wait until it comes out of copyright with the newspapers. I’d be dead by then! It would be nice though to have reporting from more places, though when I research earlier periods I do get a lot of the same articles appearing again and again because of newspaper ownership and syndication.

      I’m really glad that you enjoyed reading them – with a lovely glass of wine, too. I have had fun writing them.

      Re Oscar and Lucinda, I read that with my reading group in 1993, but the year it won was my son’s first year of school, and I had a 2 year old, and was working part-time. I don’t have a great memory of what was going on in the world around me! It’s a bit of a blur!!

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