Eyes on the Miles Franklin prize and its glitter

In 1957, when the inaugural Miles Franklin literary award was presented to Patrick White for Voss, only 19 books were entered for the prize and the cheque the 45-year-old novelist received was for ??500. He would, he declared, use the money to a buy a hi-fi set and a new kitchen stove.

Chances are the winner of this year's award, to be presented at the New South Wales State Library on Thursday evening, will be able to buy considerably more home comforts now the prize is worth $60,000. And even the four other shortlisted authors - selected from the 64 books entered - will be able to consider an indulgence with the $5000 they receive as consolation.

It was Australian screenwriter and novelist Tony Morphett who described the Miles as Australia's "most glittering" literary prize. There is no doubt it has clout - it helps to have longevity, the occasional controversy and an impressive literary track record.

But whether Morphett's adjective is still applicable is debatable. Perhaps that's because other big-money prizes have emerged that appear to challenge the Miles' primacy. Consider the well-endowed, tax-free but badly organised Prime Minister's awards, the various state premier's prizes, the triennial Melbourne Prize and the Stella prize for women writers.

The latter was set up in response to one of those occasional kerfuffles that swirl around the Miles - two all-male shortlists within three years - only five years ago. But its approach is different and in a short time it has carved out a distinct place for itself in the literary landscape.

Over the years, several members of the Miles judging panel, who are obliged by the terms of Franklin's bequest to honour a novel of "the highest literary merit and which must present Australian life in any of its phases", have been eager to give the award more presence - other than on its big night - and loosen the interpretation of that crucial phrase.

But Caitriona Fay, philanthropy manager at Perpetual, the trustee of the Miles Franklin bequest, says Franklin felt the greatest gift she could offer was the focus on the individual author.

"When the lights go off, what Miles was attempting to achieve was about the author - not necessarily about the accolades or the book sales," Fay says.

"It was really about that investment in the individual author and I think it's important for us to make sure the legacy is protected not just for authors today but any author writing in the future."

The Stella approach aims for a year-round presence - to "keep the conversation going", as executive director Aviva Tuffield??? says. To that purpose it holds monthly events around the country, has a schools program with ambassadors, all-day mini festivals, visits and on-line discussions, monthly literary events and, in its Stella Count, analyses gender bias in book reviewing in Australia.

The five writers in contention for the Miles this year - Emily Maguire (An Isolated Incident), Mark O'Flynn (The Last Days of Ava Langdon), Ryan O'Neill (Their Brilliant Careers), Philip Salom (Waiting) and Josephine Wilson (Extinctions) - comprise a list that is significant not only for its quality but also for the fact that none of the writers has been shortlisted before.

David Gaunt at Sydney retailer Gleebooks said: "It's probably as quiet a year as we've had for the Miles shortlist ??? but we will sell a lot of the winner."

That is confirmed by Barry Scott, who published last year's winner, A.S. Patric's??? Black Rock White City, under his Transit Lounge imprint. Print sales of Patric's first novel jumped by about 600 per cent after his win (with plenty more e-book sales) and Scott, who publishes about 13 books a year, has no doubt that had the book not won the Miles it wouldn't have been snapped up by Melville House in the US, where it was published on Tuesday.

This story Eyes on the Miles Franklin prize and its glitter first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.