Anna Funder’s All That I Am is undisputedly the best novel written by an Australian in the last 12 months. But I do not think it should have won this year’s Miles Franklin award.
There are a vast number of awards for books around the world and all of them have their own conditions that give the great ones a unique character and prestige. Genre awards obviously limit eligible books by genre, although this is not without controversy. The most prestigious award is of course the Man Booker which is limited to authors from Commonwealth countries (which excludes the United States). There is of course the Orange Prize which is awarded to female writers from any country. And The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction which is awarded to an American citizen whose novel “preferably” deals with American life.
The Miles Franklin Award is the most prestigious literary prize in Australia. It was established after the death of Miles Franklin in accordance to her will and was first awarded in 1957. What makes the Miles Franklin Award unique is that according to the terms of her will the winning novel “must present Australian Life in any of its phases” however the author does not have to be an Australian citizen.
I think this condition shows immense foresight. Australia is a small country, far away from similar western cultures. For the first half of European settlement we were dominated by British culture and over the last forty years highly influenced by American culture. We do have our own “Australian” culture but it is a hybrid of many cultures around the world (sadly we greatly ignore our rich indigenous culture). Miles Franklin’s stipulation preserves and recognizes fiction writing about Australia. There are still plenty of other awards and recognition for Australian writers to write stories that don’t present Australian life but our highest literary award should reflect Australian life (as does The Pulitzer Prize for Americans).
All That I Am is a fabulous novel. It has won The Indie Book of the Year, 2 ABIA awards, the Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award. It will also win the Prime Ministers Literary award announced on July 23, I have no doubt. It should also win the Man Booker Prize. But it should not have won the Miles Franklin Award. Yes, one of the characters in the novel is telling her side of the story from Sydney. Yes, a phase of Australian life is migration particularly from Europe after the Second World War but All That I Am is not a novel about migration or life in Australia. It is about Germany between the two world wars and a group of people opposed to the rise of Nazism in their country and Hitler’s lust for war. Ruth ending up in Australia is inconsequential to the story. She could have ended up anywhere and it would not have changed the novel at all.
The judges of this year’s Miles Franklin Award were authorised to extend their interpretation of Australian Life beyond geography and “include mindset, language, history and values” which is also why The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman made the longlist. Again I would argue that the Australian character in The Street Sweeper and the scene in Melbourne are inconsequential to the novel as a whole. Perlman’s book is about The Holocaust and the Civil Right movement in America, it is not about Australia or Australians. While Miles Franklin’s stipulation of Australian life has always been controversial I think the new looser interpretation by the judges is by far the most controversial in its history. This watering down of Miles Franklin’s wishes open’s a whole new conundrum for future prizes. By this new definition any Australian authored work would be eligible for the award as their Australian citizenry automatically gives their novel an Australian mindset. Geraldine Brooks’ fantastic novel March or Caleb’s Crossing could have been considered for the Miles Franklin under this interpretation because you could argue she brought her Australian perspective to Little Women and the first Native American to attend Harvard.
The Miles Franklin Award wasn’t perfect (which is why we need The Stella Prize) but that doesn’t mean it needed to fundamentally change. Literary awards become prestigious and have value for authors and readers alike because they have a tradition and a history. Changing that tradition and history to avoid controversy and broaden the pool of books eligible for the award doesn’t enhance the award, it endangers it. I would much prefer an award that stands up for itself that one that bows to pressure to be all encompassing.