Miles Franklin Award 2022 shortlist

I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, and if any of you have been following the award you will know that controversy has, once again, hit it, with one of the longlisted books, John Hughes’ The dogs, being withdrawn on the grounds of plagiarism. That’s a shame for me, as it was the only one on the longlist that I had read, although I will be reading another longlisted book next month.

The shortlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you, is, writes The Guardian*, “the third instalment of an auto-fictional series exploring the life of a young Muslim boy in western Sydney named Bani Adam”. It follows The Lebs which was also shortlisted for the Award.
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review, not her favourite de Kretser, and kimbofo’s, also mixed), which, the judges described, as “a witty, meticulously witnessed and boldly imaginative work that rages against racism, ageism and misogyny”. De Kretser has won the award twice before.
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light which deals with the state child care system and is told, say the judges, in an “astonishing voice that reinvents itself from age six to sixty”.
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review) is about a pregnant 16-year-old girl who is “locked into her housing commission flat by her Philippines-born Chinese mother for 100 days before the birth”. Among other things, the judges commented on the book’s “making visible the stories of those deemed powerless”.
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the first self-published novel to be shortlisted. It was also one of Jock Serong’s recommendations in the Warm Winter Read program I recently posted about. Publishers apparently found it “wearisome” and “repellant”, but it has been praised by some writers, whom I would call bold and fearless, like Helen Garner, Murray Bail and JM Coetzee. That tells us something (perhaps!) The judges called it “a uniquely witty and original contribution to Australian literature.”

Some random observations:

  • There are only five books this year, as against last year’s six. Did they only think five were worth it, or was The dogs going to be the sixth? I guess we’ll never know.
  • It is a nicely diverse list with more than half being by, to use modern terminology, people of colour. (I hate labelling but what to do?)
  • It looks like, for want of a better word, an “edgy” list, with little of the tried-and-true in terms of style, form and content. Excellent to see.

For posterity’s sake, here was the longlist

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
  • Larissa Behrendt’s After story
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light
  • Briohny Doyle’s Echolalia
  • Max Easton’s The magpie wing
  • Joh Hughes’ The dogs (withdrawn)
  • Jennifer Mills’ The airways
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days
  • Claire Thomas’ The performance
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ 7 1/2
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish

A note on The dogs

I am not going to buy into the plagiarism debate, as I can’t know what Hughes did or didn’t know he was doing. However, I would like to comment on the publisher of this book, Upswell Publishing. This is an exciting new venture by Terri-ann White who did such a wonderful job at the University of Western Australia Press for many many years. The Guardian’s report (first link above) on the issue quoted White as saying that she “stands steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text”.

However, as more examples of parts of the text being identical or similar to various other works have been identified, White has realised the situation is not as she originally felt able to support. She has made a statement on her website, that:

I have published many writers who use collage and bricolage and other approaches to weaving in other voices and materials to their own work. All of them have acknowledged their sources within the book, usually in a listing of precisely where these borrowings come from. I should have pushed John Hughes harder on his lack of the standard mode of book acknowledgements where any credits to other writers (with permissions or otherwise), and the thanks to those nearest and dearest, are held. I regret that now, as you might expect. To have provided a note in this book with attribution would have been the only way to treat it.  I now recognise this as a breach of my trust.

The point I’d like to make is that we should not let this upsetting situation affect our support of Upswell. I subscribed to their list last year, and have again this year. The books are beautifully designed, the list is wonderfully varied in content, and White has a reputable track record. She and her stable deserve to be supported and encouraged.

Now, back to the Award

The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, praised the shortlist for its

range of dynamic and diverse voices that address the experience of pain, intergenerational trauma and intergenerational dialogue with compassion, exceptional craft and rigorous unsentimentality.

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.

This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki.

The winner will be announced on 20 July.

What do you think of the shortlist?

* All other quotes in the Shortlist section come from the same The Guardian article.

38 thoughts on “Miles Franklin Award 2022 shortlist

  1. Hi Sue,
    There’s definitely a few titles here that I want to get into (if I can only find the time!) Bodies of Light in particular sounds fascinating.
    I must also affirm and re-emphasise your comments regarding Upswell and Terri-Ann White. I can only imagine the distress involved, and I really hope they both come through this without further incident or damage.

  2. This is a group of writings that makes me realize how ‘shallow’ my tastes are, ST.
    I look back to my wonderful Peter Temple’s win and know that this lot of judges would never have allowed that to happen.

    • Different judges different tastes M-R, though I guess I’d say that while Temple’s win was lovely and made a point, overall, I like to see literary awards (as against crime or sci fi etc ones) going to books that push boundaries, that might not get noticed otherwise? Temple was always going to have readers, and always going to have a reasonable income from his writing. The award has to be about merit of course, but perhaps a particular sort of merit??

  3. A little anecdote:
    A couple of weeks ago, at the end of my Friday shift, a young woman with a small baby came to the counter with a Svetlana Alexievich book. I mentioned that I had just started reading her Chernobyl Prayer book and was finding it gut-wrenchingly good. She then asked if I’d heard about the issue with a MF book and Svetlana Alexievich, which I was able to say yes, as I had just read The Guardian article about it that morning. She smiled gratefully, and said that was me!

    We then had a free-ranging discussion about how it all came about and the process it took to get comments from everyone involved. At that point, the other issues had not come to light.

    • You mean she wrote that Guardian article? How interesting, and fun for you.

      I’m wondering if people are now scouring his previous books, and whether they’ll find anything. All very odd – and sad.

  4. Sad that The Performance didn’t make the shortlist – it’s a clever book that captures so much.
    I loved Bodies of Light (exactly my kind of book). The Pung was fine but didn’t feel much different from her other work.

    • Thanks Kate I knew someone had read Bodies of light. Will add your review. I want to read it. I have The performance but whether I’ll get to read it is another thing. I guess I’m not surprised about Pung. Not a bad thing as she writes well, and this is fiction not memoir, but it’s lower on my list because of that and because there are others I need more to read.

    • Ah, Lisa, thanks. I rather thought that’s why you didn’t post the shortlist.

      I don’t quite see it the same way. It’s all part of the literary landscape. Thins like this keep testing what we are all about, what our values are, what are the limits around our practices, etc. It’s awful for poor Terri-ann White. I really feel for the stress she must have been under, but I have this simplistic belief that what doesn’t break us makes us stronger. (Which is sort of what my son said as he and his partner had to go into COVID isolation with their 4-year-old and 4-month-old, “Don’t feel bad Mum, it’s character building”.)

      I reckon Upswell and others will think more about Acknowledgements in the future. In one sense, I feel it’s sad that being flexible with authors about such things might be tightened, as I like the idea of flexibility, particularly in the arts which are there to question rules. But, on the other hand, it never hurts to force consideration of issues like one’s sources. Naively, perhaps, I hadn’t thought a lot about sources in creative fiction like this, but of course, The dogs does have that historical component that he would had to have researched.

      • Well, not quite right, when I’m pressed for time, I quite often just update a longlist post to show which ones have been shortlisted, and that’s what I did this time. (It is Masterchef season, you know!)

        But I didn’t think much of the longlist in the first place, and there were books they ignored that I listed in my longlist post that I thought were much more interesting. There were books nominated that I’d bought or borrowed and abandoned, and I thought The Dogs was the pick of the ones I that I had read. The rest are ones that just didn’t interest me at all.,
        I know there’s a lot of excitement about Grimmish, and I’ve heard the author talk about it down at the Port Fairy Literary Weekend, but it’s about boxing. I am just never going to read a book with boxing in it, like I wouldn’t read a book about live-cattle exports…

        • Ah sorry. I went to your blog this morning and only saw the previous post. Maybe I stupidly didn’t refresh the page and only got what I’d last seen.

          I certainly remembered your long list post and response to it. I enjoyed The dogs too … all very sad.

          I’d read a book about boxing if the focus was the characters and not the action because I’m interested in what on earth drives people to engage in something that hurts others and is going to hurt themselves. It just doesn’t compute for me. But I’d put it down quickly if there were a lot of gratuitous description of fights.

        • As I understand it, that is what publishers found repellent.
          I can’t even bear to watch sports reports about it, as there recently were because of some important fight. People giving each other brain damage, I can’t believe we allow it at all, and calling it sport just makes it more barbaric. It’s like bull-fighting, just *no, no, no, no* .

        • Yes, well, that sounds unlikely to appeal to me I agree. And I agree about calling something like this a sport. I just look at those reports in horror.

          On a related subject, I often wonder how many elite sportspeople, even in reasonable sports (say tennis, swimming) end up physical “crocks” in their 50s say because of the stresses they’ve put their bodies under. I suppose this is being researched now.

  5. I have only read about the controversy over the MF award. I have to say I’ve not read any of the shortlisted books. I do own After Story but not read it yet. I think you mentioned that was on the long list. I went to the Upswell publication page and signed up to their newsletter. I’d not heard of them but their books do look really interesting and I love the cover art of several of them. Just what I needed, more books to drool over. lol. Hope you’re well.

    • Yes, Pam, After story was on the longlist. I can’t wait to read it at the end of July with my reading group. I haven’t heard anyone say they didn’t like it.

      I have several Upswell Books now, but The dogs (haha) is the first I’ve read. They really are beautiful books.

      Yes, I’m well and now have my beady eyes on leaving isolation on Sunday!

  6. Lisa, I couldn’t agree more with your comments about Terri-ann White and Upswell Publishing. Terri-ann is creating a wonderfully interesting and beautifully produced list at Upswell, as she also did at UWA Press. I’m an Upswell subscriber too, and I always look forward to receiving the newest batch of books. My heart goes out to her in this very difficult and distressing situation. I just hope this controversy will alert both authors and editors to the absolute necessity of acknowledging sources.

    • That’s great Teresa … it’s good to hear that others know about and are subscribing to Upswell. Aren’t the books just beautiful. I think there’s a pack waiting for me on my return to Canberra.

  7. Hi Sue, the list looks varied, and I have read a few. I will read Alice Pung’s book this weekend. My favourite from the list is Scary Monsters. I really admire De Krester’s writing style – it took me awhile, but the writing is so good.

  8. I followed The Dogs kerfuffle on Twitter and it was very entertaining. I don’t think Hughes emerged with much of his reputation left intact.
    Other than that, it takes me a few years to realise which was the obvious best book of the year, and how the MF judges got it wrong, so for now I’ll hold my peace.

    • No, Bill, after the later discoveries I suspect not. I think I would have found the Twitter conversation overwhelming – not emotionally, so much but just managing it all – but I’m sure it was interesting. Was it respectful?

      Holding your peace on the rest sounds a fair option to me.

      • I mainly follow writers, or perhaps only writers commented, so yes it was respectful, but there was a lot of sadness and at least a little scorn after Hughes’ op eds (in the Guardian). Passionate support though for Upswell.

  9. Thanks for the links to my reviews, Sue.
    I haven’t been particularly inspired by this year’s list and it’s a shame about the controversy around The Dogs because that’s one book I was looking forward to reading. It’s been on my TBR for a while now. I think Terri Ann White / Upswell Publishing will rise above it all – a publisher can’t be defined by one book and the depth and breadth of its offerings, in such a short space of time, is extraordinary. I have many of them on my TBR. I took out a subscription when it was first launched and have since bought additional titles at my local indie store. I look forward to reading them in due course.

    • You’re welcome kimbofo. Yes, I subscribed to Upswell on first launch, but have only read The dogs, and then did another subscription this year when we could choose from a number of options. The books are lovely aren’t they. I’m glad you are seeing them in shops.

      This year’s MF list is certainly an interesting one.

  10. Plagiarism in fiction is so slippery. For instance, the novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek came out a couple of years ago, and it was about these people in the Appalachia area who had blue skin (this happened in real life). This was from a debut novelist. Then, a couple of months later, very well-known and popular author Jojo Moyes publishes basically the same book. Is it plagiarism? How many folks know about the Blue People? Some scenes are almost identical.

    There are authors who take the direct words of others and don’t credit them and say something like “all authors are borrowing.” Okay, but a direct quote? Entire passages? Kathy Acker was nailed for such behavior.

    When I was teaching college students, it was a rule at every school that plagiarism, whether intentional or not, is stealing. That sort of strictness doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere.

    • Thanks for all this Melanie. I certainly think there are strict rules against plagiarism in all academic institutions in Australia. You must cite your sources. It’s always been tricky in creative writing of course, as you clearly know, but as White said it is becoming common practice to reference usage of the work of others in Acknowledgements – but you never expect it to be as extensive as it now seems is the case in this situation.

      • I want to know if acknowledgement is enough in fiction. In the U.S. you have to have permission to use someone else’s work, and they are likely going to charge you for that.

        • Oh good question Melanie. And here too if you copy holus bolus. In fact I think our rules are stricter than yours as you have some freer fair dealing provisions than we do. Certainly it sounds like in this case there’s been more “borrowing” than is acceptable and than White thought when she initially responded.

        • Slightly different scenario, but I remember going to a reading or launch at UWAP, and a group of us were given a potted tour of the premises and heard from some of the sub-editors. One of them cautioned us would-be authors against quoting the lyrics of well-known songs in our manuscripts (particularly by the more popular or well-known artists), as the music publishing companies would demand an arm and a leg in fees if they got wind of it. I think they said that would apply even with proper acknowledgement. The main take-away was, “Please don’t do it; we won’t print your book with them included because we can’t afford to pay for them.”

        • Wow, that’s fascinating Glen but bears out my understanding that the USA has “better”, ie a little bit more flexible, fair use/fair dealing laws than we have. I mean really. You are not playing the song and music is an important thing in life so it stands to reason that characters would sing a little part of a ditty!

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