The Stella Prize was founded in 2013 to address the growing gender imbalance in Australian literary circles; women’s books weren’t being reviewed, they weren’t nominated for prizes, in short, they weren’t getting the same attention as their male counterparts.
Five years on, the prize is still celebrating female writers young and old, and holding the literary world accountable for its actions through the Stella Count, which tallies the percentage of female writers, both reviewing and being reviewed, in publications across Australia.
With Stella having achieved so much in just a short time, it seems the future is bright, both for the organisation and Australian women writers in general. And in a way, it’s possible to see what the future might hold for the Aussie prize by examining its older British counterpart, the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Like the Stella Prize, the WPFF was founded in response to an all-male shortlist for the Booker Prize in 1991 (and the fact that in just under twenty-five years only 10% of Booker shortlisted authors were female). Over its twenty-year history the WPFF has been awarded to now-familiar names like Zadie Smith, Kate Grenville and Ali Smith.
The shortlist for the 2018 prize was released on 23rd April, and once again the list is diverse, evocative and intriguing. Unlike the Stella Prize, which is specifically for Australian authors, there are no stipulations about themes or nationality for entry – the WPFF is open to any work of fiction by a woman published in English – but even so, the variation in nominees is impressive.
The 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction Shortlist:
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Exploring the dark history of racism in America’s south, this novel explores family, violence, poverty and race.
- Sight by Jessie Greengrass
Following one woman on her journey through life and into motherhood, this novel combines a personal story with tales of how medical research bleeds into family life.
- Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
About family and the burden of legacy, this gripping novel explores the complexities of being Muslim in modern day London.
- The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Investigating the importance of culture and language, this story follows a young teacher as she struggles to stay afloat at Oxford and follows a handsome mathematician to Hungary.
- The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
When a Georgian merchant comes into possession of a mermaid, his life is changed forever in this historical novel about ambition and destruction.
- When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
A brutal story of domestic violence, this novel follow’s a young woman’s struggle for independence and happiness after being seduced by a charismatic professor.
The aim of the WPFF has always been to help women’s writing get read, and by collaborating with booksellers, reading groups and even by sending out book-themed biscuits, they’ve definitely managed to achieve that. But the Stella Prize’s aims are perhaps even wider and more ambitious. In addition to the aim of increasing awareness of and appreciation for Australian women’s writing, Stella strives to educate young readers about the importance of gender equality and challenging stereotypes, to encourage them as writers, and to investigate and report on the current gender disparities in Australian publishing and literature reviewing.
If the Women’s Prize for Fiction hasn’t lost any momentum after two decades and a number of changes in name and sponsors, then in another fifteen years Stella too may have radically changed Australian literary culture. The 2018 shortlist highlighted a diverse and imaginative range of voices, and as the WPFF shortlist illustrates, these values don’t dwindle with time.
Change can be slow, but it feels like a safe bet that by the time it’s celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the Stella Prize will likely be as much of a cultural institution in Australia as The Women’s Prize for Fiction is in the UK.
Image from Jobelle Villanueva, used with permission.