What’s the Stella Prize – and what is it trying to say about the way female writers are regarded?

Mateshipwithbirds

This week the first ever Stella Prize was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds.

Just what is the Stella Prize?

Not to be mixed up with the Stella Award, the now-defunct award for the most frivolous and outrageous lawsuits filed, the Stella Prize is a new literary award created to award Australian women’s writing. It first came about after a group of Australian female authors and publishing figures  got to discussing the latest stats from feminist literary group VIDA which showed that female reviewers and authors have been badly under-represented in leading literary journals and newspapers. Then there’s the Miles Franklin shortlist which has been alarmingly dominated by male authors as of late. (Ironically, Miles Franklin, the author whose estate first endowed this award, is an Australian female writer and feminist. Her full name is Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, and the Stella Prize is also named after her. Interestingly, when she first published My Brilliant(?) Career under the name of Miles Franklin, she had initially hoped to keep her gender secret.)

The question that everyone’s asking is – is the Stella Prize really needed? Are women still under-represented in the literary world? The stats would have it so. Male authors still get more coverage. Women authors are still dismissed for covering ‘lightweight’ issues like family relationships and romance – yet whenever men like Jonathan Franzen tackle similar issues, they don’t cop the same amount of flack. Nobel-prize winning author V.S. Naipaul caused a flurry of controversy in 2011 when he claimed no female writer in history is his literary equal.

I don’t want to go on too much about it because I think plenty has already been said on the Stella Prize and whether women are still fighting for recognition in the literary world. I think the fact that more just a few people out there felt there was a need for such a prize pretty much sums it up. And basically it got me thinking – are female authors out there under-represented because there’s a lack of talent in the literary feminine department? In short, no, there isn’t.

There are so many great female authors out there – Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Ayn Rand, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Angela Carter, Nora Ephron, Dame Daphne du Maurier, Barbara Kingsolver, A.S. Byatt, Sylvia Plath, Hilary Mantel, Iris Murdoch, Harper Lee and Virginia Woolf, just to name a few. In fact, the world’s first novelist was a female, an 11th-century Japanese noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu who entertained the royal court with classic work The Tale of Genji. 

MurasakiShikibu

Other classic writers? The Brontes, George Eliot (born Marian Evans but took on a male pen name because she wanted her works to be taken seriously), Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Jane Austen, Edna Ferber, Joyce Carol Oates, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Sewell, Aphra Behn, Colette, Sappho, and Edith Wharton. Thinkers like Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis and the Greek philosopher Hypatia. Diarists like Anne Frank and Sei Shonagun whose entries give us precious glimpses into what life was like in another time.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie was one of the most prolific writers of all time and also the author of the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap. Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe and Anne Rice set the bar for the horror genre. Suspenseful thrillers? Look no further than ‘the Pats’, Patricia Highsmith and Patricia Cornwell. Margaret Mitchell, Louisa May Alcott, J.K. Rowling and L.M. Montgomery may be authors whose work may be considered by literary snobs as ‘lightweight reading material’, but Gone with the Wind, Little Women, the Harry Potter series and Anne of Green Gables have sold millions of copies worldwide and resonated with so many people of all ages, genders and classes that their influence is worth more than anything Naipaul could ever hope to effect.

The point, however, is that there are so many amazing female authors out there, so many more than I can name here. And I don’t want them to be singled out, for their works to be read, reviewed and lauded just on the mere basis of their being female. That, in effect, is a gender insult. These authors are amazing writers, regardless of their gender. I don’t want this to end up being a fight over who is better, female or male writers. The answer is, neither sex is the better writer. Both sexes are capable of turning out first-class works of literature (and also terrible literature at times, but let’s leave that for another day). They should be judged on the merit of their work alone, and only that. I certainly don’t choose which authors I read based on their sex – and I don’t think the Stella Prize founders want that either. The point they were trying to make was that women were being judged negatively on their work. They don’t want women to get a free pass to a literary plaudit based on their gender. But neither do they want them to be unfairly dismissed based on their gender either.

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