The Miles Franklin Long List – you be the judge

by |March 18, 2010

Spare a thought for the judges of the literary award. Can you imagine the pressure they are under to “get it right”? Given that everyone is an expert, everyone is a critic, everyone’s view of what makes a good book varies, is it possible to ever “get it right”? After all, what tastes like truffle to one person tastes like chiko roll to the next.

Yes, there are guidelines (and even those can be disputed) but oh, the scope for debate is endless.

The one time I was invited to be a judge on a (very minor) book award I was staggered by the amount of work we judges put in. Our opinions were completely disparate, from interpretations of the judging criteria to the value we placed on the design and content of the books themselves. And my goodness, the debate was fierce!

Now if you really want to live dangerously, try wading into the debate about children’s books awards. People care passionately about children’s books. You think there is a stand off between North and South Korea? That’s nothing like the tension that existed between the Children’s Book Council of Australia and primary school librarians when Elizabeth Frensham’s Helicopter Man picked up an award a few years ago. While the book certainly satisfied the criteria for the award, many of the librarians hated it, believing that the content was not suitable for primary school aged children (particularly the bit about the depressed, alcoholic dad and a suicide attempt). I hate to think of the numbers of books that got pulped once those librarians finally got to read that winning book. I know booksellers all over Australia had them returned by the carton.

And so we come to yesterday’s announcement of the Miles Franklin long list. This is the nation’s most prestigious literary prize. Prestige in spades. But prestige doesn’t automatically lead to commercial success, nor to your face as one of the six Legends of the Written Word which are currently plastered on the top right hand corner of every letter posted in Australia. You’ve got to do more than win the Miles Franklin to get that honour.

What is interesting to me about this list is how many of the books were originally sold in as cross-over titles – ie stories for young adults that would also be enjoyed by an older audience. Jasper Jones, Siddon Rock and Butterfly all fall into that category. This year’s list contains names that come with a rock solid reputations borne of years of fine writing experience – Alex Miller, Brian Castro, David Foster, Peter Carey – as well as a good smattering of out-of-left-fielders and newcomers. And then there are the popularists – Thomas Keneally and Peter Temple – writers generally thought of as too commercial and not literary enough for the Franklin. Most of the titles (but all of them) were championed as exceptional

OK, I’m game. I’ve read about half of them. I’ll put myself out there.

Here are my top three picks in terms of beautifully crafted, wonderfully written storytelling – Lovesong, Jasper Jones and Parrot and Olivier in America (the latter by the way will attract a reasonably amount of ire because the subject matter is not Australian and the author is an ex-pat). And if I staged a coup and took over the judging panel by force, the winner would certainly be Alex Miller with Lovesong.

Feel free to have your own two-bits worth by leaving a comment.

Stay tuned for the short list on April 20.

The 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist is:

Lovesong by Alex Miller

Jasper Jones by  Craig Silvey

The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro

Siddon Rock by  Glenda Guest

Butterfly by  Sonya Hartnett

People’s Train by Thomas Keneally

Truth by Peter Temple

Sons of the Rumour by  David Foster

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Figurehead by Patrick Allington

Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust

The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster

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