The Stella Prize

Maxine Beneba ClarkeA few days late and a few books read short, I’m getting round to getting my head around the Stella Prize shortlist. There are six books on the list, none of which I’ve read and only three authors I’ve heard of (Maxine Beneba Clarke, Christine Kenneally, and Ellen van Neervan):

If ever there were a reminder of why we need this prize, I’d say it’s that a female writer in Australia isn’t across these authors and books. And yes, I’m planning to familiarise myself with the works just as soon as I can. In fairness, I can say I heard van Neervan read an excerpt at the 2014 Brisbane Writers Festival.

Although I’m a bit rubbish at reading Australian female writers, I am incredibly impressed and grateful the Stella exists to give me (and everyone else) a nudge to rectify the issue. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin, and established in 2013 in response to the dearth of female writers named in the Miles Franklin award, ironically, after an all-male shortlist was named.

Some of Australia’s top female writers decided enough was enough and set about forming their own prize to recognise the underrepresented, often overlooked female writers. The subsequently set up prize’s mission is to:

  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contributions to literature
  • introduce more readers to books written by women, thereby increasing sales for these books
  • provide role models and emerging female writers—school-aged and beyond
  • reward one writer a $50,000 prize—money that buys that writer some measure of financial independence and time (the undervalued yet necessary commodity for women) to focus on their writing.

The Invisible History of the Human RaceI’m impressed by the thought and extent to which the Stella has extended its reach and effect beyond one writer, one prize. First, it is open to both non-fiction and fiction books and writers. As the Stella website states:

Our judging terms are that the winning book be: excellent, original and engaging. By raising the profile of women writers, and celebrating their achievements, we hope to erode the self-perpetuating cycle of underrepresentation that confronts all women writers—not least non-fiction writers.

And:

In recent years, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction has become more permeable. Indeed, women’s writing is often distinguished by a refusal to fall into categories. We want to celebrate this.

I’m a non-fiction writer whose work spans multiple fields and platforms and defies categorisation, much to my frustration when it comes to rigid (outdated) categorisation-requiring things such as grant applications. So I’m kind of impressed by this egalitarian, progressive approach to recognising and validating writing forms.

Then, in addition to running some school-based programs where writers, educators, and publishers run writing workshops for students (both boys and girls), PD for teachers and librarians, teaching resources, and talks, the organisation also collates the Stella Count.

Heat and LightThrough this, it tracks and compares and contrasts the number of books by men and women reviewed by men and women in major newspapers and literary magazines. No prizes for guessing we’re not yet at gender parity, but without important data to demonstrate this, we’ll never flag, acknowledge, and rectify the issue.

The 2015 prize-winner will be announced in April. Not having read any of the books—yet—I can’t hazard a guess which one will win, or even which one I’d like to win. But I’m looking forward to the announcement nonetheless and adding all the books to my to-be-read list in the meantime. If there’s one I should start with, feel free to let me know.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.