Female writers have stormed back into contention for the Miles Franklin -- this year it's the men left off the shortlist. So is it reactionism or simply a stellar year for women authors?
After being slammed two years ago as a "sausage fest" of male contenders, the Miles Franklin literary award today unveiled an all-female shortlist.
Romy Ash's Floundering,
Annah Faulkner's The Beloved,
Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel,
Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain
and Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with Birds
are now all vying for the $60,000 prize, to be announced on June 19.
The announcement comes just two weeks after Mateship with Birds was declared
the inaugural winner of the Stella Prize, a $50,000 literary award given to a female Australian author. The creation of the Stella Prize was partly inspired by a lockout of female writers from the Miles Franklin shortlist in 2009 and 2011.
Only 11 women have won the Miles Franklin award in its 55-year history (including Anna Funder last year for All That I Am
) and there's never been an all-female shortlist. Is it a reaction to the gender criticisms?
"If we'd included a male in there, it would have been just as tokenistic," Miles Franklin judge and Mitchell Librarian at the NSW State Library, Richard Neville, told Crikey
. "We're damned if you do and damned if you don't, really. We would strongly argue it was coincidence rather than any deliberate attempt to respond to the Stella."
Fellow judge and bookseller Anna Low agrees. "The gender isn't a criteria for judging the prize," she told Crikey.
But judges are aware of how people will react. "Once we put down our pens and finished our discussion for the list, we immediately knew what the implication was and we knew what people were going to say," said Neville. "I was judge in the year of the infamous 'sausage fest'. I've been at both ends of it.
"But I think to try and move away from that simply because we felt we had to accommodate the criticism or the commentary would be wrong. We are charged with trying to select a novel of the highest literary merit and that's what we think we've done."
The 10-book longlist only contained two male authors: multiple-Miles Franklin winner Tom Keneally for The Daughter of Mars
and Brian Castro's Street to Street
. Female entries outweighed male entries to the Miles Franklin, 44 to 29.
The shortlist reflects the robust nature of female writing in Australia, according to Neville: "It was very strong year for female writing. It doesn't necessarily mean it was a bad year for male writing, just that this year the female writing was stronger."
Aviva Tuffield, chair of the Stella Prize, agrees. "I think it was a strong year for women's fiction," she said, noting the Stella Prize is open to both fiction and non-fiction writing but its shortlist is all fiction, and three books from the Miles Franklin shortlist appeared on the Stella Prize longlist. Tuffield notes the only omission from the Miles Franklin longlist that surprised her was Christopher Koch's Lost Voices.
But one year of female dominance doesn't mean the battle for recognition is over yet, says Tuffield. "With 15 female winners -- including Thea Astley four times -- over a 55-year history, I think we've got a little way to go before we can say the playing field is level," she said.
Two new Miles Franklin judges joined Neville, Low and The Australian
columnist Murray Waldren this year: founding chair of the Queensland Writers Centre Craig Munro and Susan Sheridan, an adjunct professor in English and Women's Studies at Flinders University.
With new books due out this year from literary prize stalwarts Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan and Christos Tsolkais, it's unlikely the all-female Miles Franklin shortlist will be repeated in 2014. Not that any of those men are guaranteed a spot in next year's list, Neville insists.
"Each year presents new challenges and new strengths and also often new weaknesses as well. Hopefully it's the book that chooses itself rather than the author," he said.