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If you consider reading books to be a dream job, spare a thought for the five judges of the Stella book prize. Each of those judges had to read 160 books in six months — how did they survive? And are they now in some sort of print detox facility, throwing books on a pyre and gleefully lighting a match?

At last night’s ceremony to announce the winner, the ABC’s Annabel Crabb outed herself as being in a special category of judges. Under the Stella rules, the judging panel must comprise four people who are experts in the field of writing and a fifth, high-profile person not commonly known as a expert.

“Well, I’m here to represent the voice of inexpert Australia,” she said, adding that as the deadline for her own book, The Wife Drought, was this week, last night was the first time she had actually left the house — or worn shoes — in some time.

“In the last six months I have slept with more than 160 women,” she told a packed crowd. “The stack of books beside my bed is a tottering tribute to my promiscuity.”

Consuming all these books gave her the same feeling as reading the best of the best books and the worst of the worst books, which is, “if I write a book, it could turn out like this one,” she said. The prize, she said, was “not to create quality but to remind us where we might find it”.

It was a great night, partly because of the fact that the shortlisted authors already knew who had won, taking the adrenalin out of the room. It also meant that no one had to practise her “honour to be nominated” smile and spend the night weeping in the loo. In fact, it was one of the most positive literary events I’ve ever attended — the factionalism and politics of which usually resemble a night at the United Nations with Kevin Rudd.

The winner of the $50,000 prize was historian and author Clare Wright for her book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, about the women of the Eureka stockade. The judging panel found that it combined “true scholarship with a warmly engaging narrative voice”.

She said last night: “No one writes books to win prizes, but holy fuck, it feels great to win the Stella!” The prize reminded her of the AFL Brownlow medal, she added, as it was a celebration of muscle, courage and skill with a touch of glamour.

History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, she said, adding she believed in the power of the written word to make change, and that we should all have equal access to that power.

Stella prize board member and publisher Aviva Tuffield said that while last year the focus was on whether we actually needed a literary prize for women, this year the feeling was “how good are these books?”. It was a celebration of more than just the winner and the whole shortlist was promoted, she said.

Australian author Kate Grenville is a strong supporter of the prize. “I am living proof that a women-only prize can be career-changing,” she said.

The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize, won no Australian awards and was only shortlisted for one minor prize. After that win my professional life turned around completely — suddenly my books were taken seriously, won prizes and for the first time featured on heavy-duty shortlists … Yes, a prize for women’s writing wouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world, but that isn’t the world we live in.”

Peter Fray

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