The winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 2017, Josephine Wilson, spoke at the recent Australian Parliamentary Friends of Books and Writers event at Parliament House Canberra on Monday 18 June 2018.
The event, which was co-chaired by Senator Linda Reynolds and Graham Perrett MP, introduced four of the six authors who have been shortlisted for the 2018 award, which will be announced in late August. Many politicians and their staff joined representatives from Books Create, the Australian Publishers Association, the Australia Society of Authors, the Australian Booksellers Association and librarians for the event on a wintry morning.
This is a transcript of Josephine Wilson’s speech.
Good morning, and welcome.
My name is Josephine Wilson, and I would like to welcome you here today, to this event hosted by Parliamentary Friends of Australian Books and Writers. In a little while I will be introducing the shortlist for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, but right now I ask you to put your hands together to congratulate the writers who are with us today.
I would hazard that I am here because my novel Extinctions was awarded the prize in 2017, in the year which marked the 60th anniversary of the Miles Franklin Award.
Oh, what a journey!
When I was writing the book, I had no publisher, no agent and no expectations, like many writers. I had written a novel before, so I knew how hard it was for a book to find its readers.
Extinctions came to be published in Perth, where I live, by UWAP, after having won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript – an award funded by the Copyright Agency.
I suppose you could see me as a living example of how funding for the arts, and the support of awards like the Miles Franklin can make the world of difference to the trajectory of a writer. And the effects are cumulative; the Award has been enormously gratifying and encouraging for writers in Western Australia, who note the success of my book at a national level – a West Australian book, published by a small independent publisher.
A book is a latent object; it has no life unless read. For writers of fiction who live outside of the East Coast, well away from the major publishers and big festivals, finding readers is not easy. And our isolation can be not just physical, but cultural and emotional.
In a practical sense, the Miles has enabled me to connect with other writers and readers and talk about my work in a meaningful way to audiences who are, like you, passionate supporters of Australian fiction. Since winning the prize I have been invited to festivals large and small across the country, including Sydney, Clunes, Margaret River, Perth, Byron Bay, Williamstown, Queenscliff … I have given many talks at libraries in city and regional centres and have been a guest in people’s homes for many book clubs, where I learnt so much about what and how people are reading, and the enthusiasm with which they embrace the book.
At one book club, a particularly innovative group of readers told me of their attempts at incorporating new technologies into their book club by setting up online meetings with authors in Canada and England, using Skype and other software. In one of their first sessions, the author materialised on a laptop on the coffee table upside down, where he remained for the next hour and a half. The group were too polite to tell him he was upside down and had no idea how to make him the right way up, so they finished the evening with cricked necks and mild to medium cases of vertigo.
Prizes and awards play an essential role in bringing writers (and their publishers) to the attention of the Australian public; in selecting their lists from publishers both large and small, the judges of the Miles Franklin play an important role in restoring the public’s faith that a book can find its way out of the corners of our country and into the national consciousness.
The annual Miles Franklin Award occupies a central position in the cultural landscape; in the field of writing it acts as a signpost and barometer of value and confers authority on the books selected; it also engenders debate – a bit like the Brownlow Medal. And like the Brownlow, it is a prize that reaches a broad audience, even for those who, like my engineer brothers, don’t ordinarily read fiction.
The lists are evidence of what the judges consider to be worthy of reading and remembering – and this in a country which prefers to forget so much, so quickly, and in a climate where novelty and youth are content-fodder for quick rotations of media and publishing.
Of course, any judgement that ends in lists – short, long and in-between – sets off debate; which is great – debate and discussion about literature and art are what we want!
If we look at the ideas explored in recent Miles Franklin longlists and shortlists, we see a transformative approach to subject matter, style, and genre. We see that the category of literary merit that frames the Miles Franklin is not an excuse for the upholding of a narrow idea of what counts as literature, for tired tropes and rehashed settings played out in cosy familiar voices that return to us a fantasy image of ourselves as a nation. To quote Richard Neville, speaking on behalf of the judges: “All the novels explore how Australians connect with their complex stories, with their emotional histories, and with the legacy of colonisation.”
As the judges have noted, the 2018 longlist encompasses historical fiction, contemporary satire, speculative fiction and fictionalised autobiography.
Literature is a broad church, and the canon (if that is what national prizes are in the business of creating) is flexible and capable of revision. It is open to challenges, which ensures that the Award stays relevant and representative of the rich complexity of contemporary Australia.
You are here because you are the Parliamentary Friends of Books and Writers. You have a power that we writers do not.
We writers thank you for defending writers of books, and for your continued support for the state and national bodies that fund the arts. When someone questions the value of creative practice, we all have to speak up.
It is such a precarious business, this business of writing novels. It may be a complete and utter waste of time; how does one know? One carries on mole- like, burrowing away, driven by some sense of direction that reveals itself only as you move forward. Without firm public ground below and above, through the foundation of public support for the arts, creative practice will crumble. And without the protection afforded to creators through our copyright laws, and through the work of agencies like the Copyright Agency, Australian writers and creative producers would be without the income that they so depend upon.
I don’t need to tell you that we don’t earn much; the statistics are out there.
That is why we must protect Australian copyright, through the efforts of the Copyright Agency. We look to our elected representatives and to our Minister to do just that: represent us, the creators of creative ‘content’, to ensure that we are well-equipped to negotiate the complex global publishing market in a way that protects our creative work and ensures an income stream from that work.
I thank the judges, Perpetual and Stella herself for this prize, and I look forward to the Miles Franklin awards continuing to be put to the service of remembering, not forgetting.
We need a firm and steady gaze upon our books, so that they do not go the way of all things of the moment: – Click / Swipe / Move to Trash.
I would now like to introduce to you the 2018 Shortlist for the Miles Franklin.
And what a stellar list it is:
The 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist is:
THE LAST GARDEN by Eva Hornung (Text Publishing): When Matthias Orion shoots his wife and himself, on the same day their son Benedict returns from boarding school, a small religious community is shattered. Benedict is struck dumb with grief. Their pastor feels his authority challenged by the tragedy. Both must come to terms with the unknowable past and the frailties of being human.
BORDER DISTRICTS by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing): Similar to the author himself, the narrator of this novel has moved from bustling Melbourne to a small town on the Wimmera Plains, where he intends to spend the last years of his life. Mediating on fragments of his past, exhaustively and compulsively, Border Districts explores the border land between life and death.
THE LIFE TO COME by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin): Revolving around three characters in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, this novel is about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, societies and nations, and highlights how the past and future can change the present.
STORYLAND by Catherine McKinnon (HarperCollins Publishers): Set on Lake Illawarra, this is a compelling novel of five separate narratives which span four centuries. Ultimately all these characters are connected by blood, history, place and memory: together they tell the story of Australia.
TABOO by Kim Scott (Picador Australia – Pan Macmillan Australia): Set in present-day rural Western Australia, this novel tells the story of a group of Noongar people, who after many decades revisit a taboo area: the site of a massacre. Taboo explores how the Noongar and descendants of the family that initiated the massacre so long ago wrestle with the possibilities of reconciliation.
NO MORE BOATS by Felicity Castagna (Giramondo Publishing): A man, once a migrant himself, finds his world imploding. He is forced to retire, his wife has left him, and his children ignore him. The 2001 Tampa crisis is the background to his despair at the disappearance of the certainties he once knew.
Congratulations to all of you!
Four of the six shortlisted authors for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award. From left: Michelle De Kretser, Felicity Castagna, Catherine McKinnon and Kim Scott. Photo: Martin Ollman.