Modelled after the successful Orange Prize in the UK, the Stella is an "annual literary prize for women It will raise the profile of women’s writing, and will reward one writer with a $50,000 prize. The shortlisted and winning books will be widely publicised and marketed in order to bring readers to the work of Australian women writers. In short, the Stella Prize will celebrate and recognise Australian women’s writing, encourage a future generation of women writers, and significantly increase the readership for books by women." (definition from The Stella Prize website). My understanding is that the prize is not restricted to fiction works, but I am not 100% sure about that as the word fiction was mentioned a few times tonight.
Like the Miles Franklin award, The Stella Prize is named after one of the most famous Australian authors - Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin - who wrote under the more masculine sounding Miles Franklin name and authored books like My Brilliant Career.
The driving factor behind the creation of this award at this point in time was the fact that this year, for the second year out the last three (2009 to 2011), there was no female author on the shortlist of the Miles Franklin award, which may not be the richest prize in Australian literature, but it is certainly right up there in terms of prestige.
If that was the only basis for creating an award, I would probably question the thinking. The key question for me is not so much so much why didn't any women make the shortlist, so much as did any of the books written by female authors deserve to make the shortlist? To be honest, I can't tell you one way or the other because I haven't actually read any of the long listed books in the two years concerned. The idea of which book is best is such a subjective thing anyway.
However, when you add this with the discussions that were held earlier in the year in relation to the lack of reviews of books by females in major publications, the lack of female reviewers in those same publications and the other statistics which show that even now women don't have equality, then there is obviously a need for a prize like this. And for me, that is the major key - is there equality? Not special treatment, not anything more - just equality. I also work in a sector (social and community services) where it has been confirmed that wages are lower than they should be and that a major reason for this is that the majority of the workers in that sector are female.
The differentiation between special treatment and equality is an emotive one. Just last weekend I had a discussion with someone I know who got quite riled up at the idea of needing a prize like this because in his opinion it seemed as though it is special treatment that women are looking for. And the thing is, this person is normally a mild-mannered bloke. If we can't convince reasonable, intelligent men like him that there are definitely still blatant inequalities then it is going to take a lot of convincing for society as a whole.
One of the things that is very interesting to me about the reviewer question is the fact that I would say that probably more than 95% of the reviews that I read online are by women. When I go to author events, the crowd is predominantly women. The statistics suggest that women read more, purchase more books etc etc. Will the importance of how many reviews by women or about women's books are written for the major newspapers diminish as the online world continues to expand. I can't remember the last time I read a review in a newspaper, or even on a newspaper website, mainly because they don't usually review the kind of books that I like to read!
But here's the major reason why I will be supporting the Stella prize when it is announced next year. Of all the major prizes (i.e. Booker, Pulitzer etc), the Orange Prize lists are the ones that I consistently find really enjoyable books on. If more of those books that I love to read get more recognition, and especially when those books are by Australian women I can't help but be excited at the prospect of the longlists and the shortlists being released. Who knows,. maybe some of the excellent genre fiction around might also make it onto one of these lists one day!
If you are interested, below is the speech that Sophie Cunningham, one of the women involved in creating The Stella Prize, gave recently at the Melbourne Writers Festival, talking about Why We Still Need Feminism. It makes for very interesting and challenging listening.
A special thanks to Lisa from ANZ Litlovers who invited me to attend the launch with her!