Why ALL THAT I AM should not have won the Miles Franklin Award

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.

7 thoughts on “Why ALL THAT I AM should not have won the Miles Franklin Award

  1. I don’t think it should have won either – but then I don’t think it is anywhere near the best book of the past year anyway. Ironically enough, I’d much rather have had ‘the Street sweeper’ win…

  2. I don’t agree with your ündisputedly the best novel written by an Australian” thesis because there’s no objective test for “best” and I know plenty of people who have read it and didn’t think it was that great (I haven’t read it yet but even so I think I know enough to know there are plenty of people who will dispute the “best”claim as is always the case with something subjective like this).

    However I am wholeheartedly in agreement with your broader argument – that no book that is not largely about this country or its people should be considered for the Miles Franklin and I don’t think loosening up the criteria for what should be considered as “presenting Australian life” is really going to help matters much. It’s already a bit sad to see so many of our best writers writing about life outside Australia, why give them more impetus not to care about depicting our own experiences?

    1. Thanks Bernadette. Just wanted to be clear that I’m wasn’t attacking All That I Am. Book prizes and ‘best ofs’ are always subjective and cause debate but that’s always a good thing

  3. I happen to agree with you, the novel may technically be eligible for the award but it does not meet the spirit of it.

  4. The Miles Franklin Award is an annual literary prize given for the best example of a novel or play which was published in Australia and portrays Australian Life. The award is Australia’s oldest and most prestigious literary award, and showcases the best writing that Australia has to offer. Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales and was known for her feminism and her writing. Her best known book is the novel My Brilliant Career , which she wrote while still a teenager. Franklin (1879-1954) was proudly Australian and determined to see Australia have its own strong literary voice. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to the creation of the annual (AUD) $50,000 prize. The winner is usually announced in June. Fans of fine literature will recognise some major names on the roll-call of former winners, including Patrick White, Peter Mathers, Thomas Keneally, Peter Carey, Tim Winton and David Malouf. White was the first winner in 1957, taking home $500. Apparently, after his victory, he said: “I am going to buy a hi-fi set and a kitchen stove.” The latest winner, for 2012, is Anna Funder, whose debut novel, All That I Am , impressed the judges with its compassion and clarity. The novel tells the story of choices during World War II – those who resisted the Nazi party from the beginning, and those who did not, and their realities decades later. All the winners thus far are listed below in chronological order – you will notice that 1973, 1983 and 1988 are missing as no prize was awarded those years.

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