Anna Funder has won the Miles Franklin award for her first novel All That I Am.
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on its literary merits. Winning a Miles Franklin is not necessarily a recommendation, since they seem frequently to have been awarded based on the level of agreement between the author’s political opinions and those of the judges. The general opinion in the Amazon reviews is that it is heavy going, but worthwhile.
The theme of the book seems to be the importance of standing up to totalitarianism, even in the face of personal failures, rejection and betrayal. It is a good theme, though well worn.
The problem is that it is easy for an author to look back at a troubled period in history and claim it was obvious what needed to be done, and by proxy, that she would have had the courage to do it.
I have known clergy to preach bravely about the need to learn from the martyrs about standing up for the faith, for justice and mercy, but who would not lift a finger to support lay people being bullied by members of the hierarchy, simply because they were scared some of the other clergy might not talk to them, or that, at worst, they would lose their jobs.
It is much harder to recognise and confront real threats to freedom now, than it is to recognise them fifty years later, and in imagination confront them. We always like to think ourselves wise and courageous.
I have heard nothing from Ms Funder about the two greatest totalitarian threats of our own time; radical environmentalism and radical Islam.
Instead, like Lady Gaga, she chooses safe targets. Most recently Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Consider some of the comments she made while accepting the Miles Franklin:
She has taken aim at Campbell Newman who, in one of his first acts as Queensland Premier, axed the Premier’s Literary Awards to save taxpayers $245,000. “I don’t really think they are the Premier’s to scrap. It’s the people’s money and the people want to have this recognition of the writers who reflect their world back to them,” she said on ABC Radio. “And the first thing that someone with dictatorial inclinations does is to silence the writers and the journalists…
“Abolishing writers awards is a cost cutting measure but also a step towards the unscrutinised exercise of power.”
Firstly, let’s note the utter absurdity of talking about being silenced while giving a speech accepting a major national writers award, to hall full of people, being broadcast on the ABC, reported widely, while criticising the premier of the state in which the award ceremony was being held.
Second, to compare the removal of funding for a book award with the actions of the Nazis is devoid of any sense of moral proportion. Diminishing the evil of Nazism to make a point is either deeply immoral or so ignorant that it makes one wonder whether Funder has any understanding of the period and the people about whom she has chosen to write.
Third, it is not true that dictators go after writers and journalists first, for the simple reason that they can rely on ninety per cent of writers and journalists not to cause them any problems. Totalitarian regimes go after their scapegoat minorities first. Again, to put oneself in the same category as the Jews in Nazi Germany or the Copts in Egypt demonstrates an alarming lack of moral sense.
Fourth, a politician’s declining to take people’s money and force them to pay for books they don’t want to read is not a “step towards the unscrutinised excercise of power.”
For the government to take people’s money and give it writers who write the kind of books the government wants people to read, whether directly or through grants and awards, is far closer to being an illegitimate use of power and antithetic to democracy. For one thing, it means people have less money to buy the books they do want to read.
Finally, it is not Campbell Newman or Tony Abbott who are trying to restrict the free speech of journalists or anyone else, but Labor with its media enquiries, commissions, councils and tribunals. No word from Funder on those.
Based on her Miles Franklin acceptance speech, I very much doubt Anna Funder has anything to teach most Australians about reason, moral sense or courage.