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.
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.”
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.