In 2011 I wrote an article for Kill Your Darlings about why there was a need for a prize that recognised excellence in Australian women’s writing and the hopes of a group of us to start such a prize. ‘We don’t accept the suggestion,’ I wrote, ‘that women’s writing is inferior. And, instead of exercising howling restraint, we’ve chosen the path of joyful celebration, of action.’ Seven years later I’m about to step down from the board of the Prize that went on to be called Stella. In those early days we approached a lot of people for support – including Germaine Greer, who responded with a serve about structural patriarchy and prize culture being an extension of that. To be honest I don’t disagree with her, but we also got sick of waiting for the revolution to arrive (and, I confess, of being told we didn’t know what we were doing).
Our focus is the power of language and words. Today, Stella consists not just of the prize itself, but also our Schools Program, the Stella Count and Stella Sparks. As one of our former chairs, Louise Swinn, pointed out back in 2011, of the fifteen texts being discussed that year by VCE English students, only two of them were written by women. ‘These are kids going through school and this is what they’re reading,’ she told the International Women’s Day panel at Readings, where the idea for Stella was first conceived. ‘And then we tell the girls that their voices are just as worthwhile.’ And while gender inequality is not limited to publishing, publishing was where we – a group of women from that industry – felt we could make headway.
Since the Miles Franklin Award started in 1957, a woman has won that prize eighteen times. Four times that woman was Thea Astley, and twice she shared the award. (Indeed the only two times the award has been split it has been co-won by Astley, once with Indigenous writer Kim Scott – suggesting a reluctance to ask white men to share the prize while expecting women and Indigenous writers to do so). To put those figures in perspective, in the years since the establishment of the Stella Prize in 2012, women have won the Miles Franklin four out of six years, and twenty-two of the thirty-one writers shortlisted have been women. This means that between the years of 1957 and 2011 only ten women won the award. You can argue the toss about any given year; you can’t argue with decades of systematic exclusion.
You can argue the toss about any given year; you can’t argue with decades of systematic exclusion.
As well, Stella has been collecting data on the patterns of reviewing in the media for five years now. In the inaugural Stella Count of 2012, 40 per cent of books reviewed in all publications surveyed were written by women. Since then, the figure has hovered between 41 per cent (in 2014 and 2015) and 43 per cent (in 2013). In 2016’s Count, the percentage increased to 48 per cent – the first year in which women authors have achieved near-parity in the reviews pages. Some publications have significantly improved the representation of books by women authors in their reviews over the five years of the Count. In another first, all twelve of the publications surveyed in the 2016 Count either increased or maintained the percentage of women authors they reviewed compared to the previous year. In 2015, only one publication, Books + Publishing, reviewed more books by women than books by men. In 2016, four publications did so and a further three were either at or near parity.
The shift has been dramatic and speaks as much to the fact that Stella was a prize that had found its time. This point was well made by the recent controversy around the treatment of female staff at the ‘international literary tastemaker,’ The Paris Review. While the resignation of editor Lorin Stein ‘amid an internal investigation into his behaviour toward female employees and writers’ was concerning enough, frankly I was more surprised by the correction at the end of the accompanying New York Times article: ‘Correction: December 7, 2017 – An earlier version of this article omitted the name of an editor of The Paris Review, Brigid Hughes, who succeeded George Plimpton after his death in 2003.’
Brigid Hughes was an editor of the Paris Review whose name was actively removed from the digital record. This, from a recent Longreads article:
[Hughes’] name had been excluded from discussion of the Paris Review in not only the New York Times but also in the New Yorker, and in a wide range of articles, announcements, interviews, profiles and biographies relating to the Paris Review’s editors, from a variety of publications in print and online. The Review’s Wikipedia page was also edited to remove her multiple times…She wouldn’t return until November 2017.
My belief is this: it is harder to disappear women from public life if they have been shortlisted or won literary prizes – though clearly not impossible, if you’re determined. What it felt from the inside was that this issue – the systematic exclusion of women from all walks of life, from pay equity, from public recognition – was a swell that had begun to form a wave. We were on that wave.
Since the Stella Prize was first offered in 2012 it has been won by five writers: Carrie Tiffany, Emily Bitto, Clare Wright, Charlotte Wood and Heather Rose. (The winner of the Miles Franklin Award during those years was Anna Funder, Michelle de Kretser, Sofie Laguna, A.S. Patric and Josephine Wilson.) There have been various criticisms of the Stella Prize over the years, the loudest of which was that a gender positive prize was patronising to women, that women like me were members of a ‘Handbag Hit Squad’, striding along in our prudish way, much as the blue stockings of the early twentieth century did when they were banging on about women’s right to vote.
Members of this exclusive squad, the argument runs, think women can’t compete on a fair playing field. To that I have simply said, and continue to say, it was never a fair playing field. To be honest I was not agitated that some commentators were pissed off about this. Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants came out the year that we started dreaming of Stella; in it she tells a story about Amy Poehler’s response to vague criticism like this, and a quote I’ve taken up as my personal catchcry – though perhaps now is the time to be clear that this article reflects my own view and I am not speaking on behalf of the Stella Board, etc. etc.
Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike.’ Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said: ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’
My point is that when you establish a new organisation you can’t assume everyone will be on board with what you do – hey, Germaine Greer wasn’t down with what we were doing – and you can’t lose sleep over the fact you’re going to be criticised. You have to figure out what you let wash over you, and the moments when you listen to what people are saying and think to yourself, ‘they’re right’. Not giving a fuck has become more widespread. These are exciting times and I don’t need to remind readers that in the year of #MeToo, gender politics are more firmly on the table than ever. That wave that Stella rode in on has become a tsunami.
These are exciting times and in the year of #MeToo, gender politics are more firmly on the table than ever.
The tsunami isn’t just about gender – it’s a generational one as well, and that may be one reason for the perception that the type of book that wins literary prizes is changing. Prizes are recruiting a new generation of judges, and administrators. Some of them, including the Stella Prize, have begun making a concerted effort to bring on judges who represent our society in all its diversity. The winners of prizes these days are more likely to be published by independent presses than they once were. They are less likely to be established writers. At last week’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, for example, there were six winners, younger than winners have been in the past. Five of the winners were women and one was a non-binary trans person. Three were people of colour and small presses were well represented.
When the Miles Franklin Award began it was one of only a handful of literary prizes in Australia. There were nineteen entries and the winner was Patrick White. These days there are, by my count, seventeen national ‘literary’ prizes for ‘adult’ books, though not all of them are annual prizes. I’m not sure how many books were entered in the Miles Franklin last year, but I do know that some 180 books were entered into the 2017 Stella.
Established authors have become frustrated by the stress and attention created by having so many prizes around. I understand this. Many organisations expect a lot of their shortlisted writers, an expectation made worse if you are shortlisted several times over several years then asked how you feel if you don’t win. Late last year, Richard Flanagan’s publishers wrote to the administrators of the Miles Franklin to let them know that his new novel was not going to be entered in that prize, and that his withdrawal from the award was permanent. Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide (which, to be transparent, I commissioned when I was publisher at McPhee Gribble/Penguin) lost the 1995 Miles Franklin award to Helen Demidenko/Darville/Dale (who was published by Allen & Unwin, the publishing house I had just moved to).
Without getting into that particular fiasco here, I have some sympathy for Flanagan calling it quits – though by all accounts it was the snub of his Booker Prize-Winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North which frustrated him the most. Similarly, Stella asks that everyone entered into the prize by their publisher actually wants to be, and not everyone does. My personal view on this is that prizes are for the authors. If they don’t like a prize, be it Stella or anyone else, they should not have to be submitted to it. Women are not obliged to be pro-Stella, and Flanagan is under no obligation to stand by the Miles Franklin. If an author does win a particular prize they shouldn’t be expected to be spokespeople for it (though we at Stella have been blessed on that front). Prize money is (or should be) offered to promote a writer’s work and buy them writing time – anything else is a bonus.
Prize money is (or should be) offered to promote a writer’s work and buy them writing time – anything else is a bonus.
Arts funding has been savaged since 2014, and it’s harder for individual authors to get grants. The downward pressure on sales continues, which eats into authors’ incomes, and the incomes of the organisations of those that publish. This makes prize money more essential, but that alone doesn’t help the publishers, who only benefit from a prize if sales increase. The publishers of smaller presses have criticised the burdensome nature of the cost of entering books into prizes; at the end of 2016, Terri-Ann White, the director of the University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) told Fairfax that the publisher had spent $2000 on entry fees and almost $10,000 on related costs that year. For this reason she emailed authors telling them press was no longer ‘in a position to enter books for eligible Australian book and literary awards…the expense (of entry fees, books and postage) and the time involved in entering books for literary awards and prizes has exceeded our resources.’ She went onto explain that even when books she published did win awards there was little increase in sales and suggested authors could always submit books to literary prizes themselves. UWAP author Josephine Wilson did just that and went on to win the Miles Franklin award (which does increase book sales) in 2017.
To their credit, prizes such as the VPLAs have responded to this issue by making entry free for members of the Small Press Network. Entering the Stella Prize costs either $60 or $80, depending on timing of entry. Publishers of shortlisted titles are expected to contribute $500 towards marketing and promotion of the Stella shortlist. It’s not nothing, that’s for sure. But the Stella Prize has got a good track record for increasing the sales of winning (and shortlisted) books – Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things tripled its sales after winning the Stella in 2016, and other winners have seen sales increases as well. This isn’t exclusive to Stella of course; more importantly (to my mind) is that authors who are short- and longlisted for the Stella Prize see their income, sales and profile grow as well. Carrie Tiffany paved the way in this regard when she gave some of her inaugural winnings to her fellow shortlistees. Since then we’ve received funding to pay shortlisted writers $3000; they are also offered a writing retreat. And, for this year at least, longlisted writers will receive $1000. I’d also note that the Stella Prize is a not-for-profit organisation. While I can’t name check all our incredibly generous funders you’ll find them listed here. Stella would not exist without them.
Publishing in general is changing, but it’s hard to tell how rapidly – it’s a slow industry.
I do want to address the criticism of The Stella Prize that has been the most painful one – that we’re a prize for white women only. We’ve been told that, as an organisation that is critical of others’ track records, we should be holding ourselves to higher account on this. We have taken that to heart. All our winners, and the first iteration of our board have been white, though our judging panels have always been more diverse. Our goal is to extend that diversity to the board, which is happening slowly (all the more reason for me to step down, to make room for others), as well as our staff. The pressure is on, as it should be. Indeed, the entire publishing industry needs a shake up when it comes to diversity – while most significant literary prizes in Australia in 2017 were won by women rather than men, they were usually white women (Leah Purcell’s script of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ being a spectacularly successful exception). Publishing in general is changing, but it’s hard to tell how rapidly – it’s a slow industry. Books take years to produce and the good work of both authors and their publishers is often done behind the scenes.
One way that the Stella Prize is trying to address issues both of gender inequity and diversity is our Schools Program. This program has always been as essential to us as the prize itself, even if it has not received as much attention. We organise women writers (poets, performers, novelists, social media aficionados, journalists) to go into schools. We develop and distribute reading lists and reading notes. We publish ‘provocations’, available via the Stella Podcast, and the Schools Blog, to stimulate discussion and deepen understanding around a range of issues pertinent to young people and the society that they are growing up in and the particular challenges they face. We’ve developed a series of day-long festivals for kids between 12–18 called Girls Write Up, which have been held in most cities around Australia. These are aimed at any teenager who has felt limited by their gender and wants to understand how language can be used to liberate and empower.
The literary and prize landscape has changed (or should be changing) in more ways than generational shift, diversity issues or ongoing interest in gender alone might suggest. Stella’s work is not done – Far from it. I acknowledge the criticisms of both our prize and prize culture in general. But I feel intensely proud of what we have achieved. Have we changed things? We have. Is it enough? Of course not – it never is. The culture needs to, and will continue to change. Change is, as it should be, the constant.
The 2018 Stella Prize longlist will be announced at a gala event this Thursday, 8 February.