Essay: Patrick Allingtonon the 1973 Miles Franklin Literary Award

‘No Award’: The Miles Franklin in 1973

1974 – Ronald McKie The Mango Tree

1973 – No award

1972 – Thea Astley The Acolyte

When adjudicating on novels published in 1973 — the year Gough Whitlam’s Labor government bought Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’, the year the delightfully awful Alvin Purple was released, and the year Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature — the judges of the Miles Franklin Literary Award decided not to name a winner. Their statement read:

This is the first time since the Award was established in 1957 that the judges have failed to find an Australian novel of sufficient merit among the entries to warrant the prize. … One of the Judges, Professor Colin Roderick … said it was regrettable that more eligible published novels were not entered for such a substantial Award ($1,250).

As the Canberra Times bluntly reported in a one-sentence article on 27 March 1974, ‘The Miles Franklin Award for the Australian Novel of the Year will not be presented for 1973 because the judges said none of the six entries was good enough’.

While the Miles Franklin does not release full lists of entered works, such lists do appear on the State Library of New South Wales catalogue (the library has a historic and ongoing relationship with the Award). According to the library catalogue, the six books entered for the 1973 Miles Franklin were: Kester Berwick’s Head of Orpheus Singing, Mavis Thorpe Clark’s Wildfire, Harold Lewis’s Crow on a Barbed Wire Fence, Morris Lurie’s Rappaport’s Revenge, David Martin’s The Chinese Boy and Helga Mayne’s Island of Fire. By comparison, the media release that accompanied the announcement of the 2017 longlist stated that 64 novels were submitted for consideration for this year’s award. In 2017, nine novels were longlisted and five have been shortlisted. The years that abut 1973 offer a more apt comparison: there were eight entries in 1971, ten in 1972, 18 in 1974 and 28 in 1975. In his short history of the Miles Franklin to 1988, long-time judge Harry Heseltine notes that entry numbers had been low since the late 1960s:

After the initial enthusiasm generated by the establishment of the Miles Franklin, either interest by writers or publishers had suffered a decline or there may have been a falling away in the amount of literary fiction produced by local authors.

Heseltine adds that the real worth of the prize money ‘had become significantly less than in 1957’.

The Miles Franklin judges have only twice elected to give no award – for 1973 and for 1983. I want here to reconsider the statement ‘No award’ – it offers a misleading snapshot of the state of Ozlit in 1973 but it is an accurate reflection of a low point in the history of the Miles Franklin. In my view, the Award’s legacy – that is, the substance of the gift that Miles Franklin herself bequeathed the nation – emerges from a mass of stories and styles piled together, year after year. I’m not arguing that we should avoid judging excellence or picking winners (and losers). But as a reader, I have no interest in ceding my taste to a group of judges from 1973 – or any other year. And in four or five decades time, I hope we do not remember the 2016 Miles Franklin solely by the winning book (as much as I admire Alec Patric’s Black Rock White City) or even the longlist, which excluded – for example – Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World, Amanda Lohrey’s A Short History of Richard Kline, Merlinda Bobis’s Locust Girl: a lovesong, Mark Dupain’s R&R, and James Bradley’s Clade.

In any case, the Miles Franklin Literary Award is not solely a prize for excellence. In her will, Franklin dictated that the Award ‘must present Australian Life in any of its phases’. As Franklin’s biographer Jill Roe puts it, the Miles Franklin is a prize ‘for a subject’. The sixty-year history of the Miles Franklin, including the judges’ shifting understanding of what ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ means, offers a chance to take stock of Australian life in many of its phases. But to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to consider a cross-section of novels.

Whatever their individual literary qualities, there is value in holding the novels entered in the 1973 Miles Franklin Literary Award up to the light to see what shadows they cast. Of the six novels entered, Morris Lurie’s Rappaport’s Revenge most distinctively represents the Whitlam-era shift in the arts towards more critical, and sometimes caustic and irreverent, portraits of Australia and Australians. In 1973 the song ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was in the early stages of its somewhat tortuous journey towards becoming what it is today: a national anthem for all Australians to endure. But it was also the year that Kevin Gilbert’s landmark work about relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Because a White Man’ll Never Do It, was published.

It was a tumultuous time for one of the judges, the influential editor (and friend of Miles Franklin) Beatrice Davis: after a dramatic and tense period of change – another sign of the times – Davis was dismissed from publisher Angus and Robertson. Four of the six novels entered for the 1973 Miles Franklin were Angus and Robertson publications. Davis is rightly lauded as a defining figure in the history of Australian writing, but her service as a judge of the Miles Franklin for 1957 until 1992 amounts to a long and complex conflict of interest (one that warrants its own detailed discussion).

Apart from perhaps being in sync with the spirit of the times, Rappaport’s Revenge is also, to me, the best of the six books. A comic novel, it is a sequel to Lurie’s debut about a Melbourne antique dealer who is, as a Kirkus Review writer puts it, ‘articulate if rather incoherent’. Rappaport’s Revenge follows the expatriate adventures and the mateship of Rappaport and Friedlander: ‘Friedy and Rap. R and F. Was there ever such a friendship, such a togetherness, such a warmth (and nothing homosexual, close your dirty mouth) between two men? Well, initially boys.’ Rappaport’s Revenge’s most distinctive quality is its attention to detail: Lurie’s ability to stretch out an encounter, a stray thought, a whinge, gives the comedy an acutely observant quality, as if the narrator is grabbing the reader and saying, ‘Stop! Look! Keep looking!’

The Miles Franklin judges might simply have disliked, or liked insufficiently, Rappaport’s Revenge. They might also have decided its comedy indicated lightness. They might have been preoccupied with their interpretation of the preferences and tastes of Miles Franklin the person, circa 1954. Regardless, they would have ruled Rappaport’s Revenge ineligible because it is mainly set in London. As a book about Australians in the world, Rappaport’s Revenge would be uncontroversially eligible in 2017. In 1973, however, the judges would have deemed its foreign setting as failing to represent, for the purposes of the Award, Australian life in any of its phases.

None of the other five novels match the standard of literary excellence set by Rappaport’s Revenge. Englishman Harold Lewis’s Crow on a Barbed Wire Fence has aged neither well nor entirely disgracefully. The novel fictionalises Australia’s early years as a nation, ahead of the first world war, as narrated by a green, gangly, red-faced Englishman. Arriving in Queensland, he acquires the nickname ‘Bluey’, walks long distances from low-paying job to low-paying job, and mixes naïve endurance with a capacity to never quite prosper.

The novel dwells on dust and heat (and a flood); it stereotypes women and Chinese people. Lewis’s attempts to capture the essence of Australia and Australians sometimes lead to crude lessons:

How odd it was, I thought at the time, that my father, a generous and God-fearing man, should live in the greatest and most enlightened city in the world, yet be so narrow-minded, while out here in the Never-Never township of Muttaburra all men drank and swore and fought and gambled, yet in a broader context they were honourable, hardworking men whom you could trust with your horse.

Part of Crow on a Barbed Wire Fence’s enduring interest lies in a retrospective weighing of these limited understandings of Australianness. But the novel also contains marvellous moments, not least a depiction of an endurance skating world record attempt of 100 hours:

Through the morning the crowds helped us to keep Pete awake and moving. He was skating with his eyes closed, and there were murmurs from some of the women about stopping the skate. …

So, amid the din, Pete survived crisis after crisis, until the most important man in Barcaldine strode into the middle of the rink, watch in hand, and eventually raised his arm and fired the starting pistol. It was seven o’clock. Men shouted, women burst into tears, Billy played “God Save the King” at his loudest, and Pete slid, graceful to the end, into a heap at the feet of the most important man.

Kester Berwick’s Head of Orpheus Singing is set in the Greek Islands, where the author lived for many years. As with Lurie’s Rappaport’s Revenge, the judges probably ruled it ineligible because of the setting. The novel is heavy-going, but again, the idea that the expatriate experience does not represent ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ now seems ludicrous. The only year that the judges have formally identified ineligible works was in 1994, when the judges ruled against Elizabeth Jolley’s The Georges’ Wife, Maurilia Meehan’s Fury and Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days (Heseltine’s book details several other instances of ineligible works). While we should not expect judges to reveal their private deliberations – they should be free to argue amongst themselves in good faith – it is a pity that the Miles Franklin does not officially reveal titles ruled ineligible each year. Was J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, for example, ineligible or did the judges simply not like it as much as the eleven novels they longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin?

Berwick’s life and writing experienced renewed attention when it served as an inspiration for Robert Dessaix’s much better 2002 novel Corfu. ‘I’m getting to the bottom of it (sort of) bit by bit,’ Corfu’s narrator says. ‘To the bottom of Kester Berwick, I mean. And therefore (and this is mystifying) to the bottom of something else.’ There’s something both meditative and strained about the way Corfu’s unnamed narrator tries to intuit the essence of Berwick.

Helga Mayne’s Island of Fire would have been ineligible for the Miles Franklin in 1973 – but unlike Rappaport’s Revenge and Head of Orpheus Singing, it would still be ineligible in 2017. Set on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion in Napoleonic times, it is an action-packed and sometimes breathless account of soldiers, colonial political intrigue, slavery, sex, and, not least, an active volcano:

He crawled over to his daughter as clouds of ash began to darken the sun, which only a few moments before had shone so boldly from a naked sky. It seemed twilight now, and they both lay still, half paralysed with the fear all men feel when the solid earth they have known and trusted so long betrays them.

Mavis Thorpe Clark’s Wildfire and David Martin’s The Chinese Boy are both novels for younger readers. Wildfire — a late-ish work in Clark’s career — follows the misadventures of a group of friends as the town of Oceanside, and its surrounds, endure a catastrophic bushfire. Although the passages about farmland, bush and rural life are quite evocative, the descriptions of the fire itself, while detailed and subtle, lack some intensity and brutality: ‘Peter was temped to ask what the Book of Operations said for when you were stonkered. It was horrible … walking towards the fire to find the means of escape. Already, he thought, it was hotter. So hot that his woollen jumper was suffocating him’. Wildfire’s most endearing quality is its focus on friendships and rivalries amongst its teenage characters.

In The Chinese Boy, Martin’s fictionalisation of Chinese people in nineteenth-century goldfields feels excessively educative. The dialogue plods, with characters engaging in conversation to explain cultural nuances, expose cross-cultural clashes, or generally redress a neglected history. Nonetheless, there are flashes of humour, including a ‘courtroom’ that needs vacating so that the pub can serve lunch in the room, and a boxing match that pauses and then resumes the next day. When I read a Canberra Times review of The Chinese Boy, I became alarmed by standards of criticism in 1973 — ‘You are kept interested by the many adventures that Ho battles through, and you want to keep on reading. … Suspense is felt almost throughout the story’ — until I noticed that the reviewer was, ‘JAMES ELDRIDGE, aged 12’.

On a measure of literary excellence, neither Wildfire nor The Chinese Boy has any business winning the Miles Franklin. But their imperfections are accentuated by time: both books — especially The Chinese Boy — feel like relics; the language and the themes have gone stale. The 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award guidelines state that, ‘Biographies, collections of short stories, children’s books & poetry are not eligible for this award.’ While it appears that publishers generally choose not to enter YA novels, they are eligible (assuming they pass the Australianness test). Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son was longlisted for both the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the YA section of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2011. At a stretch, Sonya Hartnett’s Of A Boy, currently in print in adult and Y12 editions, was shortlisted in 2003.  But YA works by authors such as Hartnett (her Ghost’s Child was entered in 2008), Vikki Wakefield, Darren Groth and others could and should, in my view, be legitimate contenders.

Morris Lurie, who died in 2014, is a prime example of an Australian writer whose books warrant more ongoing attention than they receive. His writing, including short fiction, non-fiction and children’s books as well as novels, is fixed in its time and yet remains fresh. The works of a writer such as Mavis Thorpe Clark feel more obviously dated. But Clark is nonetheless an example of an Australian writer whose long and celebrated career warrants recognition, and her writing, even if now stale, forms part of the wider story of Ozlit. But beyond individuals, it is worth finding ways to gaze upon Ozlit collectively, of having writers sit together like blobs of paint on a canvas (think, perhaps, of a Fred Williams landscape). While there are no standout works amongst the other five entries in the 1973 Award, they combine with Lurie’s novel to tell a broader story about the way fiction writers, at a particular moment in time, interpreted Australia. More broadly, the Miles Franklin offers us many opportunities, should we be interested, to re-examine Ozlit in ways not unlike Robert Dessaix’s recreation of Kester Berwick.

More than six Australian novels were published in 1973. Two giants of Australian fiction, Patrick White and Christina Stead, each published novels in that year: The Eye of the Storm and The Little Hotel. Bruce Bennett named White’s The Eye of the Storm ‘Australia’s major urban novel’ (while paraphrasing White’s comment that ‘he hates what he loves’). Bennett’s claim is too forceful —White evokes a limited, defined, refined world — but The Eye of the Storm remains a riveting, penetrating, worrying portrait of Sydney and of family life. Elizabeth Hunter’s children — plus nurses, housekeepers, lawyers, and others — gather around her as she lies bedridden, elderly and ill.

White’s 1957 novel Voss was the first winner of the Miles Franklin. ‘Personally I felt as though a slow tin of treacle was being poured over me,’ White wrote. ‘But on the whole, it was all very pleasant, and gratifying, and strange, and tiring.’ He endured the treacle treatment again in 1961 for Riders in the Chariot. But when he heard that he’d won for The Solid Mandala (1966), he forcefully declined the award. It went instead to Peter Mathers for the dense and sardonic Trap — and in a letter to his agent, White says that he told the Award’s trustee ‘they could easily divide the prize between Peter Mathers’ Trap and Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower which are both well above the average book that wins’. From then on, White declined to enter his novels, including The Eye of the Storm, in the Miles Franklin.

Christina Stead’s short novel, The Little Hotel, is a fine, if minor, work, recently reissued by Text Classics. Stead wrote the novel in the early 1950s, but it was first published in 1973. The story revolves around a group of post-war expatriates (not Australians) who are holed up in a small Swiss hotel. The ‘technical perfection’ Barbara Jefferis describes allows for a visceral examination of the various characters’ preoccupations and twitches. If published in 2017, The Little Hotel would still likely be ineligible for the Miles Franklin, however, because it contains no apparent Australian content (apart from a brief mention of a character’s brother, who ‘owned property in Adelaide, Australia, and he swore it was going to develop amazingly’).

Writer and visual artist Barbara Hanrahan’s debut novel The Scent of Eucalyptus, published in 1973, is a lyrical and idiosyncratic evocation of an Adelaide western suburbs childhood. Hanrahan’s diaries reveal her disquiet about what she was writing and publishing: ‘how to get over the Memoir/Novel difficulty’. In her biography of Hanrahan, Annette Stewart uses the elastic term ‘an autobiographical novel’; in Hanrahan’s diaries, her partner asks why it cannot be ‘fictional-autobiography’; and the blurb of UQP’s 1993 edition joins ‘magical first novel’ and ‘autobiograhical evocation’ in a single sentence. I do not know why The Scent of Eucalyptus wasn’t entered. Perhaps Hanrahan preferred it that way, perhaps the uncertainty about whether the book was a novel or a memoir continued after publication, or perhaps it wasn’t a priority for the publisher. In its very different way, it is as urgent and potent as Rappaport’s Revenge. A fine and original work, The Scent of Eucalyptus would have made a deserving winner of the 1973 Miles Franklin.

Kit Denton’s novel The Breaker (another Angus and Robertson title) is about the life and times of the historical figure Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, an Englishman who spent time in Australia — where he gained the nickname ‘Breaker’ because of his ability to break horses — before fighting in the Second Boer War. Morant was court martialled and executed for war crimes. The Breaker is a rollicking and disquieting – if at times mythologising – war story. Denton’s ability to push deeper into questions around Morant’s possible personal culpability and that of his military commanders was hindered when British authorities declined to give him access to key historical documents. In the  years since, Morant’s controversial life and times have continued to capture public interest – including, amongst much else, Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant and, not least, recent reports that some of Morant’s possessions had been found at a tip in Tenterfield in New South Wales. In his 1983 non-fiction book, Closed File, Denton offered a piercing and open assessment of the mythologising of Morant by himself and others. As with Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus, I am unsure why Denton’s publisher did not enter The Breaker in the Miles Franklin.

It is possible to push further into the Australian novels of 1973 — to political thrillers by Morris West (The Salamander, set in Italy) and Alison Broinoswki (Take One Ambassador, set in Japan), to an English men’s Ashes cricket tour of Australia (Christopher Nixon’s The Tour), perhaps even to pulp novelist Jim Kent, prolific author of books such as Nazi Love Slaves. All this shows, I think, that literary history cannot be shoved together based on a list of winners over decades — or, as in 1973 (and again in 1983, when many more novels were in competition), the absence of a winner. The legacy of the Miles Franklin lies partly in its 60-year list of winners, but more so in its lists of entered works — the great, the ineligible, the ignored, the flawed but relevant, the dated, the dodgy, the long-forgotten. It lies in the sensitivities and decisions — sometimes inspired, sometimes weird, and always debatable — of judging panels. It lies in competing ideas of ‘excellence’ but also in a recognition that the literary past is valuable for many reasons.  It lies in the Award’s shifting focus on diversity, and its sometimes narrow interpretation of ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.

I believe the 1973 judges erred, both on the question of literary excellence and the question of Australianness, by not awarding Morris Lurie the 1973 Miles Franklin Literary Award. However, I support the principle of judges declining to award a prize if, in their collective opinion, no book is good enough. Judge Colin Roderick’s statement of regret that more novels were not entered shows that the judges did not call in other works. But White’s The Eye of the Storm and Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus, along with Rappoport’s Revenge, would both have been worthy winners.

Most major writing prizes endure bouts of controversy. This is unsurprising given that gatekeepers adjudicate on the vexed question of excellence while being bound by certain rules and precedents as well as by personal taste. Interested readers will inevitably have mixed views about a winning book or author. Most prizes develop tics and personalities, inspired by their rules as well as by the biases, tastes and wider priorities of administrators and judging panels. The Miles Franklin possesses more than its fair share of idiosyncratic moments — and that’s a good thing. Taken in combination, the six books entered in the 1973 Miles Franklin – plus the other books not entered – offer an account of Australian writing that is richer, messier and more alive than the judges’ decision suggests. Winning the Miles Franklin brings cultural cachet and  veneration. But the real value, potency and complexity of the Award — both its excellence and its Australianness — lies beyond the lists of winners.

Works Cited

Patrick Allington, ‘“What is Australia, anyway?” The glorious limitations of the Miles Franklin Literary Award’, Australian Book Review, June 2011.
Anon., review of Morris Lurie’s Rappaport in Kirkus Review, 31 August 1967.
Bruce Bennett, Place, Region and Community (Foundation of Australian Literary Studies, 1985).
Kester Berwick, Head of Orpheus Singing (Angus and Robertson, 1973).
Mavis Thorpe Clark, Wildfire (Hodder and Stoughton, 1973).
Kit Denton, Closed File (Rigby, 1983).
Kit Denton, The Breaker (Angus and Robertson, 1973).
Robert Dessaix, Corfu (Picador, 2001).
Barbara Hanrahan, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973; UQP, 1993).
Harry Heseltine, The most glittering prize: the Miles Franklin Literary Award 1957-1998 (Australian Defence Force Academy, 2001).
Harold Lewis, Crow on a Barbed Wire Fence (Angus and Robertson, 1973).
Morris Lurie, Rappaport’s Revenge (Angus and Robertson, 1973).
David Martin The Chinese Boy (Hodder and Stoughton, 1973).
Helga Mayne, Island of Fire (Angus and Robertson, 1973).
Christina Stead, The Little Hotel (1973; Text, 2017).
Annette Stewart, Barbara Hanrahan: a biography (Wakefield Press, 2010).
Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (Jonathan Cape, 1973).
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life in Letters (McPhee Gribble, 1989).