There is often a whiff of scandal about Australia’s most prestigious literary award. $50,000 is a lot of money. One of Australia’s most notorious literary hoaxes was perpetuated when Helen Demidenko, the 1995 winner, lied about her origins; the previous year, author Frank Moorhouse had threatened legal action when his book was excluded from the short list. Every year, the concept of ‘Australian-ness’ is debated, as the judges struggle to fulfill the prize’s two criteria: literary merit and the representation of ‘Australian life in any of its phases.’
In 2012, Anna Funder’s novel All that I am won the prize. It certainly has literary merit; she is a fine writer, as her brilliant work Stasiland proved. But how ‘Australian’ is this novel about the fate of German exiles in post-war London? The characters, settings and themes of other 2012 Franklin award contenders were far more clearly related to our country and our culture. Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill is Australian colonial historical fiction; Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing is based on the life of Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed; Duigan’s The Precipice is one of the most evocative, unequivocally Australian novels that I have read for a long time.
In his thoughtful commentary ‘What is Australia anyway? : the glorious limitations of the Miles Franklin Literary Award’, Patrick Allington discusses a variety of ways of looking at Australian writing. Is any novel written by an Australian author ‘by definition an Australian book’? How do we define an ‘Australian literary sensibility and Australian interests’ ?(David Malouf’s suggestions for appropriate criteria.) Should we only look at novels that deal with significant Australian issues: our treatment of Aboriginal people, our sense of history, our engagement with Asia, our refusal to accept the irony behind Donald Horne’s expression ‘the lucky country’?
Professor Gillian Whitlock, speaking on behalf of the 2012 judging panel, said of Funder’s book: ‘The judges admired this ambitious novel that moves across continents and decades to remind us that experiences of exile and dislocation have long been part of Australian life. (1)
I’m interested in hearing about your experiences of our novels. Which ones have felt the most ‘Australian’ to you? I have a number of titles that I keep going back to. Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945) comes to mind first of all; it deals so well with the Australian fear that a civilized culture is something that other, older countries possess to the detriment of ours. (Like Stead herself, the novel’s heroine cannot wait to escape Australia and her family; she has to undergo the voyage to Europe to discover her true self.) Shirley Hazzard’s beautiful Transit of Venus (1980) is about two Australian sisters living in England, forever outsiders to the men they love and the families that tolerate them. Michael Meehan’s The Salt of Broken Tears (2000) will always stay with me, because of his unforgettable descriptions of the barren Australian landscape, the salt flats and the swamps, the desolation of the outback. Lastly, Georgia Blain’s first novel, Closed for Winter (1998), set in the Adelaide suburb of Grange, near the beach where a girl goes missing – that very Australian fear of the dangers hidden in our vast open spaces.