in defence of the stella prize
Next week, on Tuesday 16 April 2013, the winner of the inaugural Stella Prize, the award that celebrates women’s contribution to Australian literature, will be announced.
The shortlist is as follows:
The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
The award is named after one of Australia’s most loved writers, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin whose name, or rather, nom de plume, is also used by another literary award: the Miles Franklin. Despite bearing the name of a well-known female writer, the Miles Franklin has only been awarded to a female 14 times since it began in 1957.
Somehow, literary awards, especially female representation in literary awards, have become a pet topic of mine. The first time I wrote about the issue, I was attacked by trolls. They came out of the digital woodwork and bared their teeth, tearing into me and then tearing into each other, troll on troll. For a few days it was on for young and old. I would flinch every time a new email alert popped up, fearing a fresh attack. It was demoralising.
So you may wonder why I would decide to tackle the subject again in this column. Well, with the inaugural Stella Prize soon to be announced, I think it is worth re-examining the awards. I want to explore what they are aiming to achieve and how they might change the Australian cultural landscape.
The Stella Prize aims to celebrate women’s writing and draw attention to the many talented female authors Australia has to offer. It will ‘open debate, raise awareness, start conversations, provide role models for young and emerging writers, and inspire other women to write.’ It also aims to address the gender imbalance in the literary world. And there it is—gender imbalance. Say that phrase and things start to get prickly.
When it comes to gender imbalance in the writing and publishing industries, the critics usually complain that a women-only prize is discriminatory and outdated. The trolls who attacked my previous article claimed that the issue was simply a case of hysteria and self-pity. Similar arguments crop up on other websites. In response to Emily Rhodes’ article for The Spectator, someone named ‘Eddie’ replied: ‘Typical victimhood-craving feminism.’ He went on to say that there is no need for a women-only literary award; there is a want.
I believe there is a real need for awards like the Stella Prize. Women are underrepresented in certain areas of literature. Co-founder of the Stella Prize and former editor of Meanjin, Sophie Cunningham, sums up the current literary climate: ‘Women are much less likely to win literary awards, to write reviews of books, or have their books reviewed. This, despite the fact they write about half the books published.’
I won’t go into too much detail about the hard facts. You can read more about the imbalance at the VIDA website and on the Meanjin website. But the long and the short of it is that there is an alarming lack of female voices in prestigious literary awards. When you consider the impact awards have on an author’s career you can understand the trouble women face. Simply being shortlisted is enough to boost an author’s profile and improve sales. When the longlists, shortlists and then winners of awards are predominately male, there is not much room left for female voices in the already crowded marketplace.
The imbalance is caused by a number of different factors and naturally the situation is not black and white. And it’s not all bad for women. The publishing industry, for example, is a predominately female workplace. If someone wants to start a movement campaigning for more men in the publishing industry then sure, good luck to them.
It would be a thousand times easier if we lived in a meritocracy—no discriminatory awards, no quotas, no imbalance. Sadly, that’s not the case. Of course there are disadvantages to things like the Stella Prize but it’s better than doing nothing.
I don’t subscribe to the victim mindset—I do not defend the Stella Prize because I think women should receive special treatment and men should be discriminated against. But I do support the prize because I support Australia’s female writers. There is no doubt that women are near invisible in some areas of literature. Until we reach a balance and edge closer to a meritocracy, initiatives such as the Stella Prize are necessary.
So on Tuesday 16 April, I will be celebrating Australian women’s writing by holding a Stella Prize satellite party. The proceedings of the award night, held in Melbourne, will be live-tweeted. You can hold you own party. Check out the Stella Prize website for details and download the Stella Prize Satellite Party Planner. Support our talented female writers and help make literary history.