How to win the Miles Franklin: analysing 64 years of data

By Pallavi Singhal

Named after the author of My Brilliant Career and established by her bequest, the annual Miles Franklin Literary Award is one of Australia’s most prestigious, valuable and popular fiction prizes.

So what does it take to call yourself a Miles Franklin winner? We’ve crunched the data on every winner since the first in 1957, ahead of the announcement of this year’s award on Thursday afternoon.

Be a man

Twice as many men have won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, with men writing 41 of the winning novels and women writing 21 of them. However, the tide may be turning. Eight of the 21 women on the list have won in the past nine years.

The Miles Franklin is not unique in its gender disparity, with most other book awards, including the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, also having a higher proportion of male winners. The Stella Prize was launched in 2012 to counter the gender bias in Australian literature.

A gender breakdown of Miles Franklin winners.Credit:Nine

Be in your 40s or 50s

Older seems to be better when it comes to winning the Miles Franklin. The average age of authors when they won the award was 51 and more than half were in their 40s or 50s.

There have only been three winners aged in their 20s – fewer than the four winners who were in their 70s when they won. The youngest winners, at 23, were Randolph Stow for To the Islands in 1958 and Helen Dale, aka Helen Demidenko, for the controversial The Hand That Signed the Paper in 1995. The oldest winner was Thea Astley for Drylands in 2000 when she was 75.

Be born in New South Wales

Sixteen winning novels were written by authors who were born in NSW, while 12 were by Queensland authors and 10 from those born in England. There have been seven winning novels written by authors from Victoria, seven from Western Australia and two from Tasmania. While Australia and England are the most common countries of birth for winning novelists, there have also been winners who were born in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Serbia and South Africa.

Shows the place of birth of the author of each winning title.Credit:Nine

Be white

The overwhelming majority of Miles Franklin-winning authors have been of Anglo-Saxon or European descent, with only four Indigenous Australian authors and one author, Michelle de Kretser, with Sinhalese-Dutch ancestry having won the prize. Tara June Winch became the fourth Indigenous author to have won the award last year, following Melissa Lucashenko in 2019, Kim Scott in 2000 and 2011 and Alexis Wright in 2007. These authors have all won in the past two decades.

Tara June Winch’s The Yield won both the Miles Franklin Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction last year.

Write about 400 pages

The judges appear to have a Goldilocks approach to book-length – there are few very short or very long novels that have been awarded the prize. Four winners have had novels with 400 pages and the average length for winning books is 374 pages.

The shortest novel to win was The Hand That Signed the Paper by Demidenko in 1995 at 157 pages, while the longest was nearly 10 times as long, Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country, the 1975 winner with 1472 pages.

Begin your book title with ‘the’ and keep it short

The most common feature shared by winning titles is starting with the word “the”. So far, 23 books have done this. A three-word title is the most common among winners, with 16 such books. Four-word titles were the next most common, at 12 books. There was one six-word winning title, the longest so far – Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed the Paper.

Be published by Allen & Unwin

Eight of the winning titles were published by Allen & Unwin, the highest number for any one publisher. Six winning novels were published by Angus and Robertson, and four each were published by Macmillan, Collins and Penguin Books.

Be Tim Winton or Thea Astley

Both authors have won the Miles Franklin four times (each time they were shortlisted), making them the most frequent winners. Astley’s first win with The Well Dressed Explorer came in 1962 when she was 37. Her last win was 38 years later in 2000, for Drylands, when she was 75. Winton’s wins have also spanned decades, with the first in 1984 for Shallows, when he was just 24, and the latest in 2009 for Breath, at the age of 49.

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