This year, only three books are in contention for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (MFA) – Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran. The unusual and controversial stance of making such an exclusive shortlist has brought with it a lot of criticism.
The main argument against the shortlist is its apparent narrow representation of the Australian voice. Firstly, there are no women on the list despite Honey Brown, Kirsten Tranter and Melina Marchetta all making the Long List. Secondly, there are no novels set in Australia’s urban areas. Womersley and McDonald’s novels are set in rural or country Australia, and Scott’s novel covers the colonial settlement of south Western Australian. Thirdly, even though Scott has Aboriginal heritage, there are no novels exploring our multicultural diversity.
My answer to these complaints is that the exclusivity of the MFA in 2011 is a welcome and positive move. I commend the judges for maintaining the high standard of writing that the award should reflect. At the end of the day, the MFA showcases distinctive Australian voice in writing – but that writing also has to be of the highest calibre in the country. If the only writers who meet the criteria and standard of the MFA are all men who have all written about historic and rural Australia, then that is the lot of the MFA for that particular year. It is also completely misleading to say that these novels are essentially the same - the two novels I have read, Bereft and That Deadman Dance, are worlds apart in style, content and theme.
Readers should be able to trust judging panels and reviewers. If every Australian novel received glowing reviews, if every place in the MFA Short List was symbolic rather than based on merit, the public will learn to stop believing in good Australian writing. The great writers of this country will not get the recognition they deserve either.
I have been guilty of dismissing Australian literature as inferior to literature from overseas – I think many of us have been. However, there are some excellent and challenging reads out there and the MFA needs to be an indication of where to start looking. Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and Chris Womersley’s Bereft are two of the finest novels – and not just Australian novels - that I have read in a long time; That Deadman Dance for Scott’s sheer mastery of storytelling and Bereft for the exciting potential Womersley displays in only his second novel. I will soon be reading McDonald’s When Colts Ran based purely on the company it keeps in this 2011 Short List.
The Australian literary scene cannot head down the same track as its film counterpart where every Australian movie receives an extra star from Margaret and David, purely for being Australian. If Australian literature wants to be taken seriously, it needs to be reviewed and judged in a serious manner. We have amazing talent, but let’s be honest about it.
Written by Natalie