When the Stella Prize was being founded I remember listening to the debates surrounding the naming of the award. The prize was in some ways emulating what was then still known as the Orange Prize in the UK, and people bandied about humorous names such as the ‘Mango’ for our antipodean version. Stella was ultimately chosen because it was a reclamation of the first name of Miles Franklin. ‘Miles’ was a name adopted by the author, like so many female writers before her, to disguise the fact of her gender. To give the new all-female literary award Franklin’s true first name was an appropriate mirroring of the purpose of the award itself – a reclamation of a prize which had gone to male authors far too many times since its founding in 1957.
It’s hard not to see a rivalry between the two prizes now, with the Miles Franklin clearly on the back foot since the accusations of gender bias.
The prize money for the Stella is $50,000. Such an amount would have been identical to that of the Miles – a deliberate choice to put the Stella on an equal footing, achieving the equivalent prestige and equally rewarding its winner. But the Miles Franklin’s Trust Company this year increased their prize to $60,000, in what is difficult not to regard as an attempt to remain on top.
There’s been some incestuousness between the awards too, with Romy Ash’s Floundering , Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel and Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds appearing on both the Stella and Miles Franklin longlists. There is no doubt that this year has been a strong year for female writing. Yet, in their announcement of the longlist last month, the Trust Company emphasised the fact that it was dominated by females, claiming that while half the original list of 73 submissions were written by women, this year’s longlist “sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.”
Today, as if to put the final nail in the coffin of any further accusations, we have an all-female shortlist for the first time in the prize’s history.
The gender issue has been a persistent theme in the announcement of shortlists and longlists over the last few years. Commentators such as myself have had to tally up the score of men vs women upon every announcement, and you can see it in the reporting of the shortlist of almost every publication covering it today (my own just a further instance of the tend). There is no question that the debates around gender in literary awards* have been important and resulted in real culture change. Yet I feel an uneasiness that it has reached the point where gender has become almost the primary concern in reportage.
The Stella Prize has a strange ultimate aim: happy obsolescence. With this year’s Miles Franklin lists we’re on our first step there. Perhaps there will ultimately be a melding of the Miles Franklin with the Stella, one day the two versions of her self will be put back together again and she will regain her full name.
But Stella Maria Miles Franklin left a legacy greater than her name or her gender – in founding the award, her stated aim was to reward the novel “which is of the highest literary merit” and which “present[s] Australian Life in any of its phases.” Last year, there was an expansion of the selection criteria, with the judging panel allowed to “use their discretion to modernise the interpretation of Australian life beyond geographical boundaries to include mindset, language, history and values.” The Stella Prize is a wonderful expansion of this project too – recognising not just novels but children’s fiction, verse novels, non-fiction and short stories.
The 2013 Miles Franklin Award, we now know, will be won by a female author as it was in 2012. This year’s shortlist – Romy Ash’s Floundering , Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain and Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds – is a recognition of the writing of women as significant and a testament to the talents of these female authors. The debates and controversies of the last few years have made judges and readers aware perhaps of unconscious biases, and let’s hope such self-reflection continues. But discussions should focus far more strongly on the richness of literary merit of each of the titles. Politics and aesthetics — to employ a great phrase Martin Shaw used today — always play a part in judging decisions. There’s been a huge positive focus on the former lately, let’s move our attention once again to the latter.
* our own version of the VIDA survey conducted by Bookseller + Publisher last year shows that inequality in writing extends beyond just literary prizes.