Saturday, 15 June 2013

Was Miles Franklin any good as a writer?

This is Miles Franklin, an author nobody reads who has two Australian literary prizes named after her. She looks like a wowser; a total leftie, she probably was a bit. What's my point? Well, I'm doing this blogpost because there is a piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald by Susan Wyndham, who writes regularly for the paper, in the Spectrum section, which is an excerpt from a new critical edition of a novel that won the Miles Franklin in 1992. A novel by an author nobody reads and nobody remembers. It's a slog being a feminist in Australia, but placing that piece in the paper is a little bit more than cynical, considering Wyndham's links to the paper. It's more than a touch uncritical, as is the respect that Franklin receives among Australia's sisterhood (let alone the cultural elite more broadly), although I totally understand the reasons for that. Another wonderful author that noone reads is Christina Stead, then there's the bizarrely-named Henry Handel Richardson (a pseudonym), also totally unread nowadays. Aware Australian culture-industry women fight against oblivion in the only way they can: by being uncritical.

Unlike Americans, who uncritically fawn upon their pioneering authors (such as the horrendous Mark Twain, the longwinded Longfellow and the sentimental Hawthorne), Australians pay little attention to theirs, with the possible exceptions of Paterson and Lawson. It's the same with our prominent democrats, like William Wentworth; the mercenary Macarthur, a speculator and a cad, gets all the attention. Money rules, not principle, in Australia.

And principle counted for people like Franklin and Lawson. The political ideas and the social forces that contributed to the way they lived their lives and the types of books they wrote, however, are left undisturbed by the majority of Australians, who are generally embarrassed by intellectual conversation. Real estate, though, they'll talk about until the cows come home, hence the love of Macarthur. It's a shame, but there you are, and it's the same reason why noone knows anything about Franklin and noone reads her books. I respect Wyndham for writing about unknown past winners of the Miles Franklin award - and I forgive the SMH for donating the space for it in their august vehicle - but I think it's time to ask: was Franklin any good?

Was Patrick White any good, for that matter. I personally think so, and he was innovative in a way that Franklin never even closely approached, but then again he's sort of ignored because he's a bit embarrassing after all: a homosexual and a die-hard leftie. In the case of Franklin there needs to be a bit more public discussion about why she did what she did, particularly the going-overseas thing (Stead and Richardson did the same thing, of course) and about why she wrote the kinds of books she wrote. Sure, there might be bruises. Plates might be thrown. Names will be called. Reputations shall be bruised. But our uncritical if elite celebration of Miles Franklin I personally find a bit creepy, and I think it's unhealthy too.

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