by Amanda McMahon
The founders of the Stella Prize are hoping to start a revolution. They're not expecting violence unless you count a certain violent use of the written word. They're planning on wielding literature as an agent of change.
The Stella Prize provides the narrow focus for young women with a talent for writing, a passion for finding their voice in the written word and the ability to turn adversity into a positive outcome.
Using Britain's Orange Prize as a model, the prize has been set up as a counterbalance to the Miles Franklin award but aims to be so much more. The Stella Prize recognises and celebrates the contribution to literature by Australian women writers by awarding one major prize each year, as well as also focusing publicity on its shortlisted authors.
Established in 2012, the Stella Prize was started by a group of women who were confounded at the lack of women writers on the Miles Franklin Prize shortlist (Australia's major award for literature). The Miles Franklin Prize has only been awarded to a woman 11 times in its 55-year history, and on four occasions, including as recently as 2009 and 2011, it had an all-male shortlist.
The lack of female writers getting shortlisted for literary prizes is not just an Australian problem. Internationally, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction has been won by women only 17 times out of 47, and out of 111 Nobel Laureates in Literature only 14 are women. Clearly, as the Stella Prize founders realised, a space to celebrate talented female writers was desperately needed.
However, the Stella Prize does more than just promote individual women writers. The annual awarding of the prize is just the jewel in the crown of a much more diverse grassroots project. The 'Schools Program' for boys and girls in years 7-12 includes in-school workshops, panels and special events to inspire conversations about gender bias. While the 'Girls Write Up' program is aimed at encouraging school girls to find their voice in literature, exposing them to new ideas, literary role models and fostering a sense of aspiration.
The annual 'Stella Count' also monitors the number of newspaper reviews written about female writers. At the time of the Prize's founding, books by men received significantly more coverage; in The Weekend Australian, 70% of the reviews were of books written by men, while in The Financial Review and The Monthly reviews of male authors made up 80% and 74% of the total reviews respectively. The publishing of this data aims at shaming publications and critics into change, or at the very least gently reminding the critics and judges of their unconscious biases.
As well as changing the way critics, and the general public, think about women in literature, awards like the Stella Prize life changing for those that win them. The $50,000 prize money alone, as Kate Grenville found out after winning the Orange Prize for her novel The Idea of Perfection in 2001, can seriously alter lives. They can lift a writer out of the struggle to pay the bills while trying to pursue a professional writing career.
Furthermore, prizes can influence reviews, increase sales and ultimately lead to more women writers appearing on school curricula. Which all can significantly impact on the livelihood of women writers. For example, in the months after winning the Stella Prize, author Emily Bitto doubled the lifetime sales of her book The Strays.
Unfortunately, unlike many other prizes funding for the Stella Prize is not guaranteed each year. While the Miles Franklin draws on the resources of a significant bequest, the Stella Prize needs to source funding for the prize and the supporting programs each year. So public engagement in the prize has never been more important.
As University of Melbourne students observed the aim of the Stella Prize should be to become redundant and to build in its place a thriving literary world of writers where gender is irrelevant.
The 2017 Stella Prize will be announced on April 18th and the shortlisted authors are:
Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle
An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire
The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor