Sofie Laguna’s Miles Franklin win helps keep half the world visible

Sofie Laguna last night became the fourth woman to win the Miles Franklin award in as many years. Allen&Unwin

The Miles Franklin Award may have been named after one of Australia’s great women writers, but it has long been synonymous in the literary world for novels that are invariably historical, set in rugged rural landscapes, and written by men.

Last night, Sofie Laguna became the fourth woman to win what is Australia’s most prestigious fiction prize in as many years, for her book The Eye of the Sheep (2014). Just as significantly, Laguna’s work marks a departure from the usual sorts of books that become Miles Franklin novels.

The Eye of the Sheep is a story about family dysfunction, social disadvantage and a mother’s love. It tells the story of young Jimmy Flick, whose world is shattered by alcoholism and domestic violence.

If a society should be judged by the way it treats its children, and those who are struggling on the margins, then Laguna’s work once again proves that the novel is a crucial means for drawing attention to the burning problems of our times.

The judges said:

The power of this finely crafted novel lies in its coruscating language, inventive and imaginative, reflecting Jimmy’s vivid inner world of light and connections and pulsing energy.

Laguna has a true ear for the rhythms of everyday dialogue, and her compassionate rendering of the frustrations – and compensations – of dealing with a child of sideways abilities, makes this novel an impressively eloquent achievement.

In another refreshing turn for the Miles Franklin, four out of the five novels shortlisted in 2015 were also by women writers, including Joan London, Sonya Hartnett, and debut novelist Christine Piper. The fifth shortlisted work was by Craig Sherborne.

Three out of the five shortlisted novels also deal with themes of family and childhood – themes that are so often marginalised as “women’s writing”; as domestic, interior, “feminine” and personal, as opposed to the so called “masculine” themes of history and national identity which have traditionally won the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Two of the shortlisted authors, Laguna and Sonya Hartnett, originally made their name writing for children and young adults. They are brilliant literary writers in a genre whose authors have all too often been under-recognised.

Perhaps this change is partly due to the work done in recent years by the Stella and VIDA counts, which have charted the gender bias that governs the literary establishment both here and in the United States.

This bias is not only due to the very real and ongoing under-representation of women on awards lists and in the books pages, but shapes the way we think about literary merit – a whole complicated fabric of assumptions about seriousness, significance, authority and gender in writing.

It is embedded in deeply held beliefs about what constitutes a work of serious literary intent and a conviction that certain kinds of subject matter are more significant, worthy, and therefore literary than others.

As Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, infamously responded to the 2011 VIDA study:

[…] while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.

More recently, the NSW Board of Studies responded to criticisms of gender bias in the school literature curriculum by stating that the exclusion of women’s writing was a product of decisions related to “quality”.

Yet names such as Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing – and indeed Sofie Laguna – testify to the fact that there is no absence of “quality” in the work of woman authors.

What is wrong?

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin abandoned the name Stella in order to be taken seriously as a writer. The name Miles was adopted in the hope that her work would be better received as the work of a man.

In adopting a male pseudonym Miles Franklin joined writers such as Henry Handel Richardson, George Eliot and George Sand who all published under male pen names in an attempt to conceal their true gender.

Even the Brontes published under male pseudonyms in their lifetime. Charlotte became Currer Bell, Anne became Acton Bell and Emily became Ellis Bell.

But in a world forged through a history of sexism, the adoption of a male pen name did not spare Miles Franklin. Henry Lawson wrote about My Brilliant Career:

I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once – that the story had been written by a girl […] I don’t know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book – I leave that to girl readers to judge.

Sofie Laguna joins 11 of Australia’s most distinguished female authors who have been recipients of the Miles Franklin Literary Award across its 50-year history. These include Evie Wild, Michelle de Kretser, Anna Funder, Alexis Wright, Shirley Hazzard, Thea Astley (four times), Jessica Anderson (twice), Glenda Adams, Elizabeth Jolley, Elizabeth O’Connor and Ruth Park.

There are many criticisms that could justifiably be made of the culture of literary prizes. But awards do make a difference to the kinds of conversations that go on around and about writers and writing, the kinds of books that get reviewed, that go on display at the front rather than the back of the bookshop, and ultimately the kinds of books that get read.

I may be a hapless romantic, but I continue to think that literature has the capacity to shape much of what we think and feel about the world. It would be a sad thing if half of that world stayed invisible.