The issue of gender equality in literature one is a difficult one. One one side there is the argument that writing should be selected, published, read and awarded on its merits irrespective of who wrote it and that the writer’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, politics etc should not come into it. On the other hand there is the argument that such objectivity is impossible, that all the odds the odds are stacked against writers who write from outside one of the literary mainstreams.
As someone who has edited a literary magazine and as an editor of a website that attempts to run reviews and criticism of new Australian writing, such questions are critical to the way I approach my work. When P76 was receiving unsolicited work my memory is that we received far more work from male writers than female writers (this was in the 1980s and 1990s). While I don’t pretend to know the reasons why I suspect that it is not that there were more males writing poetry than females – I tend to suspect that males felt more confident sending their work out or saw their work as public whereas perhaps some women writers felt less condiment offering their work for publications. Oner way I attempted to overcome this was to approach a number of women writers directly to try and ensure a more balanced gender split.
With Rochford Street Review the issue is a little more complicated – on one level there is the question of how many books by male writers have been reviewed compared to female writers. Then there is the question of the reviewer – how many of our reviewers are female as opposed to male. I attempted to collate some of these figures on the occasion of Rochford Street Review’s first birthday last November. The results of this analysis can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/02/happy-birthday-rochford-street-review/.
And so to the Stella Prize. There is a certain irony in the fact that up to 2012 works by female writers have won 16 out of 55 Miles Franklin Awards. While the importance of these statistics can be debated, the questions obvious go much deeper than a single award. During 2012 there was a widespread perception that women’s rights where under attack. There were, for example, the obvious attacks lead by the commercial radio shock jocks which were reflected in gender specific attacks against Australia’s first female Prime Minister. One of the founders of the Stella Prize, writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, summed it up when she said “After a rapid acceleration in women’s rights in the ’70s and ’80s, things have started to go backwards”.
This was also playing out in the literary arena. By 2012 it was pointed out that roughly 50% of books published in Australia were by women, yet books by women were under represented in Award short lists and on the review pages. So in mid 2012 a group of women decided to set up an Australian Literary Award open to women writers only. Based on the Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction, the Stella Award was to offer a prise of Aust$50,000 for the ‘best’ book by an Australian Woman – unlike the British award it is not limited to fiction.
This week the short list for the initial award was announced. Those making the final cut are:
- The Burial – Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
- Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
- The Sunlit Zone – Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
- Like a House on Fire – Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
- Sea Hearts – Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
- Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
Interestingly, while the prize was not limited purely to fiction, it would appear that all he short listed books fall into that category (one could debate the status of The Sunlit Zone as a verse novel). While it would have good to see some more poetry among the shortlist, it is encouraging to see Five Island and Scribe making the cut against the larger publishers.
The winner will be announced in Melbourne on 16 April.
– Mark Roberts
The Stella Prize website can be found at: http://thestellaprize.com.au/