The common reaction to the 2011 Miles Franklin Award all-male shortlist, the second in three years, was to condemn the judges for author gender bias. Indeed, it was my very strong initial reaction. I agreed with the outraged women – and several men – that it was yet another ‘sausage-fest’ (Angela Meyer) and should be renamed the ‘Males’ Franklin Award (Sonya Hartnett). While there still may be a case for this, with the ink now dry on the announcement this argument proves itself to be a simplistic one: a classic case of playing the man, rather than the ball.
For the focus on author gender detracts from any consideration of the content of the writing. Such a focus is akin to attacking Prime Minister Julia Gillard for being a hopeless Prime Minister because she is a woman, rather than arguing she is a hopeless Prime Minister because she appears to have no vision for Australia, no policy agenda of her own and no ability to manage the policy she inherited, rehashed and lied about reintroducing.
So if we judge the Miles Franklin Award properly – on content rather than author gender – an analysis of the last decade of winners reveals, in a delicious twist, that the only three authors to have won the Award with books depicting central female characters are all male: Frank Moorhouse, Alex Miller and Steven Carroll. The other eight winning authors (six male and two female) have written predominantly about men with women firmly relegated to
supporting – and disturbingly stereotypical – roles confirming that perhaps the Miles Franklin Award does in fact have
‘women’s issues’ requiring further attention.
Take the 2011 winner: Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. The central characters are male and the few female characters we glimpse are colonial stereotypes: noble, capable Aboriginal women and pathetic, class-obsessed white women. Aboriginal man Bobby Wabalanginy dominates the story, supported by no less than ten detailed male characters.
In contrast, we learn little about the elderly Aboriginal woman Manit, save for she is a capable hunter with an excellent sense of humour, or young Aboriginal woman Binyan who is happy, a fine shepherd and horsewoman, and a forester who works ‘like a man’. Manit and Binyan are the antithesis of the bland white women who tire easily, retire to darkened rooms with ‘headaches’ and are burdened by ‘monthly strife’. The character of Christine, the
white woman we learn most of, seems doomed to be obsessed by class and race regardless of her close childhood friendship with Bobby. ‘Fancy, a native as a best friend!’ she reflects.
The two female winners of the past decade, Alexis Wright with Carpentaria (2007) and Shirley Hazzard with The Great Fire (2004), confine women to the supporting cast as lovers and mothers placed firmly in the realm of domesticity. Carpentaria is dominated by some dozen or so male characters and their escapades on land and sea. Angel Day and her daughters Girlie, Patsy and Janice are conversely limited to the home and are defined through their interaction with men. The final pages of the book introduce the more adventurous Hope, but she is briefly sketched. Women fare little better in The Great Fire described mainly through their association with
protagonist Aldred Leith as his assorted past and present lovers ranging in age from seventeen-year-old Helen through to fifty-one-year-old Aurora. Helen does, however, demonstrate an intelligence and strength of character in difficult circumstances and interacts with a range of men and women.
Peter Temple’s Truth (2010), Tim Winton’s Breath (2009) and Dirt Music (2002), Roger McDonald’s The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) and Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth (2005) all focus on central male characters exercising their manhood and having interesting manly adventures while most of the supporting female characters seem defined only by their relationships with these men: generally as wives, lovers or mothers. This is the case in The Ballad of Desmond Kale – though at least the women are not portrayed in a particularly unflattering manner. Comparatively, Laurie in Truth believes claims by her drug-addicted daughter, Lizzie, that her estranged husband (and central character) Stephen Villani has sexually abused her; friendless, wealthy, injured, confined-to-home American Eva in Breath seduces her partner’s fifteen-year-old protégé and teaches him the pleasures of erotic asphyxiation, ruining him for life; Georgie in Dirt Music, another friendless upper-middle class mainly confined-to-home woman, seeks solace from her failing relationship with some bloke she picks up on the side of the road; and Veronica, in The White Earth, also friendless and confined to home, ignores her young son’s serious illness irrespective of the fact he is her only child and the key to their financial future. I could go on.
And so it is that the women portrayed in the above novels sit in stark contrast to the women portrayed by Messrs Moorhouse, Miller and Carroll who, combined, reveal that while gender matters on the page, the gender of the winning author on the cover of the book does not.
Mr Carroll creates a range of strong and interesting women, particularly Rita and Mrs Webster in the poignant The Time We Have Taken (2008). His female characters have jobs, partners, friends, interests, and interact with men and women. Former station girl turned middle-aged academic, Annabelle Beck in Mr Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country (2003) suffers a distressing relationship breakdown, but rather than moping about it, she decamps to another state, finds a job, ignores her cheating husband’s pleas for forgiveness, examines and confronts her pastoral heritage and the ramifications for her fledgling relationship with Aboriginal man Bo Rennie.
Mr Moorhouse’s extraordinary Dark Palace (2001) gives us Edith Campbell Berry and a raft of diverse supporting female and male characters. To my mind the timeless Ms Campbell Berry deserves to become one of the great women of Australian fiction, akin to Miles Franklin’s very own Sybylla Melvyn. Edith is intelligent, educated, hard working, well travelled, thoughtful, beautifully presented, sexy, adventurous, yet fallible. She has male and female friends, lovers, colleagues and family.
So let’s hope the next installment in Mr Moorhouse’s Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, Cold Light, due out in November, is as intelligent, gently provocative and oh-so very sexy as its predecessors. And let’s hope it includes the requisite Australian content so that a man, writing about a woman, can again win the Miles Franklin Award and prove that it’s not who you are, but rather, what you write about that matters.
Nicolle Flint is a PhD student at Flinders University, South Australia.