The Stella Prize

On International Women’s Day I finished up at work, caught the bus into town and walked down the main street of West End in my pale pink Alannah Hill shoes with bows, while my silk frock rippled against my calves.  At Avid Reader, I bought yet another copy of Anna Funder’s All That I Am for a friend, gratefully accepted a glass of wine from Fiona and sat outside to listen to a forum on the Stella Prize.

Still in the making, the prize will award $50,000 annually to a woman writer with Australian citizenship, in any genre.  It is intended to raise the profile of women writers and increase their readership.

It was another humid Brisbane evening and the palpable indignation of the speakers and audience made things even warmer.  Here was Susan Johnson, whose writing I have always loved and whose blog I used to read when I was miserable in London, brandishing some thoroughly depressing pie charts from Vida showing the number of women’s publications vs men’s publications in respected literary outlets in 2011; here was Anita Heiss declaring from the audience, ‘I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a black woman writer, I just want to be a writer’; here was Ben Law attending to the absence of women’s representation in culture through an anecdote of Triple J’s Hottest 100 of all time which showcased no female artists whatsoever; and here was Krissy Kneen saying that her sexy books are marketed with pink covers whereas a male author writing about sex has a more serious cover.  So, it was asked, do we need an award just for women writers?  Then consensus was that yes, we do.

To me, it was blatantly obvious after the discussion that evening that a culture exists in Australia which women’s intellectual and artistic contributions are diminished or made invisible, and that we need the award to draw attention to this.  Some might argue that market forces push women’s work to the margins.  Books such as Carrie Tiffany’s finely crafted Mateship with Birds, with its muted love story and gentle renditions of domesticity, would be completely swamped in a market that favours, as Mary Philip noted, the weighty non-fiction tome.  Yet if the readership isn’t alerted to the beauty of quiet texts such as Tiffany’s, how are these texts to gain the attention they deserve?

As someone who is disabled, I know full well that unless you get up and make a noise, nothing will happen or, more likely, people will walk on you.  If you don’t jump and shout, if you just accept the status quo, then society remains blind to its flaws.  Naturally, such challenging might result in stripping the status quo of its privileges, which is undoubtedly why, as Ben Law pointed out, when four male bands in a row win an Indie music award, it’s called a meritocracy, but when a woman is a winner, it’s a conspiracy.

The effects of such shouting were apparent that evening.  One member of the audience noted that she often bought books by female authors as gifts for her female friends, and books by male authors for her male friends.  She hadn’t realised it until that point, and from now on, she said, she was going to buy books by female authors for her male friends.  Consciousness raising might be a dated and unfashionable concept, but clearly it still works.

There are some however, such as MJ Hyland and Sonya Hartnett, who are completely opposed to the idea.  Mention was made of the anonymity of Hyland’s name.  Are we, I wondered, returning to the days of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell?  Concerns were raised, too, that such an award might trivialise women’s women by consigning it to a corner.  Yet, as another audience member pointed out, women can still win awards for both genders and besides, when was getting winning more money ever a problem?  Male authors might complain that they’re missing out, but given Vida’s stats showing how well they’re doing, I don’t know how strong an argument this is.

I’ve been reading a slew of Australian fiction lately, and I noticed that all of it, aside from Alex Miller’s awful Autumn Laing, was written by women: Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Anna Funder’s All that I Am, the abovementioned Mateship with Birds, Sophie Cunningham’s Geography and Bird, Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, Melissa Lucashenko’s Steam Pigs, Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence and Favell Parrot’s Past the Shallows.  I’ve been trying to work out if this is because I actively seek fiction by women or I just like their subject matter; most likely it’s both.  Given the quality of these books, I think that an award to encourage the production of more of them can only be a good thing.

And then, as we filtered back into the bookstore, P stepped through the doors, diverted me from Anna Krien’s Quarterly essay and we Jam Jarred across the road on a salad with chilli-flavoured popcorn.

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