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Do women really need a prize of their own?

Carrie Tiffany, the 2013 winner of the Stella Prize.
Carrie Tiffany, the 2013 winner of the Stella Prize.

By AVIVA TUFFIELD

In 1928, Virginia Woolf argued that a woman ‘must have money and a room of her own’ in order to write. More than eighty years later, her proposition still holds true because money gives writers some measure of financial independence and buys them the biggest luxury of all – the one that women writers struggle most to attain – time.

Just last month, the inaugural Stella Prize, the new prize for Australian women’s writing, was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. For Carrie, the prize has already given her more options: ‘At a practical level I will be able to take on less paid work and have more time to write. I feel tremendously encouraged – which I think is at the heart of what the Stella Prize organisers intended.’

When ideas for the Stella Prize were first raised in early 2011 a number of people questioned whether we really needed a women-only prize for literature. Detractors argued that women should compete on equal terms, that the prize was unnecessary, that prizes should be ‘merit based’.

Such arguments assume there is a level playing field, and the statistics we had to hand suggested otherwise. Women’s underrepresentation is apparent in all the major literary prizes. For example, over its 55-year history, only 10 individual women have won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and there have been 4 all-male shortlists since 1987, including two in three years, 2009 and 2011.

And it’s not just that women miss out on prizes in Australia. Their books are also less likely to be reviewed in our major newspapers. (You can find the figures here.)

Does any of this matter?

Claudia Karvan, actor and creator (who will be speaking about the Stella Prize at Sydney Writers Festival this week) thinks so: “Actors and producers couldn’t exist without good writing so my respect for writers’ craft is enormous.” This is one of the reasons she agreed to be a Stella Prize judge in 2013:

“Knowing and seriously admiring many writers I think a prize that can support them in such a tough industry is a terrific initiative and one that I was excited to support. The prize money is enough to enable the writer to write another book.’ The judging experience ‘introduced me to countless gifted Australian female writers and my ignorance of their work made me feel sorry’. It also meant that she got to ‘discuss books with Kate Grenville – an utter privilege.”

Author Kate Grenville, who was also a Stella Prize judge in 2013, is the only Australian woman to win the UK’s woman-only prize, the Orange Prize, for her wonderful novel The Idea of Perfection, and she says that winning that prize was “career changing.”

Kate Mosse.
Kate Mosse.
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In fact, the UK’s Orange Prize, established in 1996 (and now known as the Women’s Fiction Prize), was an important inspiration for the Stella Prize. Kate Mosse, one of its founders (who will be at the Sydney Writers Festival this week), says that discussions for that prize emerged after the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist contained only men.

The more research they did, “the more the figures spoke for themselves: that although women wrote some 60 per cent of novels published and bought the majority of fiction too, only something in the region of 10 per cent of books shortlisted for major literary awards were by women. Before the Orange, for example, 11 per cent of books shortlisted for the Booker Prize were by women; since 1996, that has gone up to some 40 per cent.”

Carrie’s actions at the Stella Prize Award night, where she returned $10,000 of her prize money to be shared between the five other shortlistees, has made a difference in turn to those writers.

Shortly after Carrie Tiffany was awarded the 2013 Stella Prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award announced its first-ever all-female shortlist, which guarantees a female winner in 2013. A woman also won last year.

In light of this, some have again asked whether we need the Stella Prize. Yet, as Kate Mosse confirms:

“There is still a perception that a male voice is a neutral voice and a woman’s voice a variant of that. It’s important to keep having the debates about the importance of gender to reading, writing and publishing.”

Just the other week Wikipedia was called to account because it had been removing women authors from the ‘American novelists’ category and re-categorising them as ‘American Women Novelists’.

For the immediate short to medium term, we want the Stella Prize to give Australian women writers a chance to build brilliant careers, and have their work recognised, celebrated and read. It may seem strange to yearn for obsolescence, but it would be no bad thing if by the 100th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s book, a level playing had truly been achieved and Stella could retire, put her feet up. But as Kate Grenville has said: “That isn’t the world we live in. Not yet”

Aviva Tuffield is Associate Publisher at Scribe Publications and Chair of the Stella Prize.

Come and hear more about the Stella Prize and the Women’s Fiction Prize at Sydney Writers Festival event ‘A Prize of One’s Own’ with Kate Mosse (bestselling author and founder of the Women’s Fiction Prize), Claudia Karvan (actor and Stella Prize judge), Carrie Tiffany (author and inaugural Stella Prize winner) and Aviva Tuffield (Chair of the Stella Prize). Friday 24 May at 10 a.m., Pier 2/3 The Loft, FREE. Details here.

To find out more about, or to donate to, the Stella Prize, please visit their website.

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