Writing Australian life

The Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’ most prestigious and also most controversial, is announced today. My money’s on Kate Grenville. But that, as is often the case with this award, is beside the point.
This year, several commentators have again raised the central issue of the framework of the award, and its criterion that novels must represent Australia. Not the Australian experience, but the country itself, usually taken to mean that the novel should be set in Australia:

“Without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil. An unsung country does not fully exist or enjoy adequate international exchange of the inner life. Further, a country must be portrayed by those who hate it or love it as their dwelling place, familiarly, or remain dumb among its contemporaries.”

Bless ‘er. And her brilliant career. In her will, Miles Franklin left £8996 (almost all she had) for an annual prize to a novel “which is of the highest literary merit and must present Australian life in any of its phases”.
But over the years, works by some of our finest authors have been ruled ineligible:

This year, Geraldine Brooks’ March, which in April won the US Pulitzer Prize, and Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, are among those novels by Australian writers not considered for our top literary prize.
Jane Sullivan has recently argued in The Age that any novel written by an Australian is in fact ‘part of Australian life’ and should be eligible to win the Miles Franklin. Sullivan contends that, since the award’s establishment in 1954, ‘times have changed in a good way for our books’. She suggests that Australian literature is no longer ‘an endangered species’ needing ‘all the nurturing, protection and encouragement’ it can get, and that if Franklin herself ‘were alive today … I’m sure she would celebrate the fact that Australian writers feel free to take anything and anywhere and anyone in the world as their subject, and still expect their work to be seen as Australian’. If the situation remains as it stands, Sullivan states, ‘we will have to look elsewhere for a prize that will take over as the top award for our fiction writers’. (The Age, 18 June)

Perhaps. But it’s a minefield. Define an Australian writer: A resident? A part-time resident (like Brooks)? An Australian citizen living elsewhere? Australian-born but living in a tax haven in the Caribbean for the past 40 years? Recently arrived and still incarcerated? All of the above?
There’s something less readily definable which creates a novel about the Australian experience and perspective that can’t be bound by award rules: a perspective on the world; cultural influences and literary heritage that all go into creating Australian writers, even if they are writing about the US Civil War or New York art dealers or the League of Nations – or even my humble pirates (I’m not suggesting they’re in the same league). It might be seen from the inside, by a writer steeped in the experience, or from the outside, as it were; from eyes new to the country and the people and the literature. It most certainly might be set anywhere in the world, at any time.
Of course, we need books that engage with Australia’s history and help to explicate its present – and future – character. But most of all we need generations of writers willing to engage with the world, with humanity, wherever it may be found and however it may be portrayed. In that lies a cultural maturity of which Miles Franklin could only dream.

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