Last Tuesday the first women’s-only literary prize in Australia—the Stella, after the lesser-known first name of Miles Franklin—was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. On Thursday night, the winner; founding donor, Ellen Koshland, and chairs, Aviva Tuffield and Kerryn Goldsworthy, of the Stella Prize; and panel facilitator Sian Prior met at the Wheeler Centre to discuss the landmark event.
I’m sure most have heard of the dismal representation of female writers being reviewed and writing reviews in major publications, and winning prizes, despite the breakdown of actual books being published by women being pretty even with men. The Stella Prize was born of this with the goal to “put gender on the agenda”, and if the 80% of books by women being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year and the accompanying press is any indication, the Stella committee has certainly succeeded in opening up the discourse.
Most of the news media I consume is feminist-, or at least left-, skewed, so everything I’ve read about the Stella has been positive. However, on the panel Tiffany quoted this choice headline from a certain newspaper with this country’s name as its title amidst the news of her win: “Bush Romance Novel Wins Writer’s Prize” [online title differs slightly].
Because all women are capable of writing about is romance, right? Specifically, vampire- and sadomasochistic-romance. But as Prior asserted, if that’s the case, “what’s so wrong with vampire- and sadomasochistic-romance, anyway?” And romance is a “small subject”, just like all the other “small subjects” apparently only women write about: domestic life, relationships, etc. And on the occasion that a man does write about these topics, they’re looked at through a different “scope” than when a woman tells the story.
While I shamefully haven’t read any of the books on the Stella shortlist (although I did pick up Mateship with Birds and Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, which I’ve wanted to read since I heard her speak at the Bendigo Writers Festival last year), not all of them subscribe to this “gender of genre” talked about above. Sea Hearts is a fantasy novel, while The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson is speculative fiction. Goldsworthy mentioned that the judges were wary of choosing books that ticked certain boxes; being a genre novel, fact-laden non-ficition, or from an Indigenous woman, for example.
When an audience member asked about Indigenous writers included on the longlist and quotas for them within the Stella prize during question time, Goldsworthy mentioned they didn’t want to “ghettoise” the prize by awarding it to a token Indigenous woman. By using this reasoning for not awarding the Stella to an Indigenous longlistee, doesn’t that just “ghettoise” and “tokenise” the longlist? What’s the point of including them on the longlist at all if they don’t have a chance at the main prize? I noticed a lot of head shaking during Goldsworthy’s answer, including my own, from people presumably on a similar train of thought. Indigenous people are a marginalised group, as are women (despite being more than half of the population and, indeed, about the same number of written word consumers). Born of the need to hear marginalised voices, would the Stella Prize even exist? I hope next year more Indigenous women are selected as contenders, not just for their tokenism.