A self-published book has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin for the first time in the award’s 65-year history, with Michael Winkler’s cult hit Grimmish clearing the final hurdle before Australia’s most prestigious literary prize is announced on 20 July.
Announced on Thursday evening, Grimmish joins Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You, Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light and Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days to compete for the $60,000 prize.
Winkler’s “exploded nonfiction novel” Grimmish was called “wearisome” and “repellent” by the publishers he approached, according to the author’s interview with Guardian Australia last week: “Everyone said there was no way they could sell it.”
But the book – an experimental, meta, kind-of-biography of the boxer Joe Grim, which opens with a faux-review and disputes itself throughout – found its way to readers through indie bookshops, exultant critics and word of mouth. It also won praise from writers including Helen Garner, Murray Bail and JM Coetzee.
In their comments accompanying the Miles Franklin shortlist, the judges described it as an “unusual novel that is by turns playful, funny, heartfelt and deeply reflective … Daring and hilarious, Grimmish is a uniquely witty and original contribution to Australian literature.”
Also shortlisted is Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters, a book that is actually two books, with a different cover on each side that you can read in either order. De Kretser is one of Australia’s most celebrated authors, and won the Miles Franklin in 2013 (Questions of Travel) and 2018 (The Life to Come). The judges described Scary Monsters, her seventh novel, as “a witty, meticulously witnessed and boldly imaginative work that rages against racism, ageism and misogyny”.
Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s the Other Half of You is the third installment of an auto-fictional series exploring the life of a young Muslim boy in western Sydney named Bani Adam. In The Other Half of You, which follows on from the Miles Franklin-shortlisted The Lebs and Ahmed’s first novel The Tribe, Bani is now a man; the book takes the form of his “body bruising, soul-searing confessional letter to a child”, according to the judges, who hailed it as “the howl of an Australian voice striving to be heard”.
Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light tells the devastating story of a life on the fringes, starting with a five-year-old girl’s harrowing journey through the state care system. The book is told through an “astonishing voice that reinvents itself from age six to sixty”, the judges said. “With ethical precision, Down insists that we do not look away from the destructive consequences of … decades spent in the shadows of institutionalized neglect, socially sanctioned loneliness, unforgivable poverty and the attendant abuse.”
Rounding out the shortlist is One Hundred Days by Alice Pung, who was awarded an Order of Australia for services to literature this year. The novel follows a 16-year-old girl who becomes pregnant, and is locked into her housing commission flat by her Philippines-born Chinese mother for 100 days before the birth – a postpartum confinement tradition in many cultures, which can be read as both an act of love or an act of emotional abuse.
“Within this story, mothering practices transcend the ordinary and intimate, becoming instead an epic site of intergenerational cultural struggle between mother and daughter,” the judges said. “Pung has gifted us with a novel of national significance, by making visible the stories of those deemed powerless, and vividly patterning the mosaic of Australian literature.”
The Miles Franklin is judged by a panel including literary critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley, literary scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty and author and editor Elfie Shiosaki. The panel is chaired by Richard Neville, the Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW, who praised the shortlist for its “range of dynamic and diverse voices that address the experience of pain, intergenerational trauma and intergenerational dialogue with compassion, exceptional craft and rigorous unsentimentality”.
Earlier this month, the Miles Franklin prize pulled The Dogs by John Hughes from its 2022 longlist, after Hughes apologized for plagiarising parts of it from a Nobel laureate “without realizing”, as uncovered in a Guardian Australia investigation. More instances of apparent plagiarism were subsequently found, including from The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina and All Quiet on the Western Front. Hughes has denied he is a plagiarist.