Established in 2013 as reparations for the women overlooked by the Miles Franklin Award and to advance and protect female authors in the future, the Stella Prize seems to be doing its job. Last year was a fine year for female authors. Out of sixty literary prizes surveyed for the purpose of this article, prize money amounted to $1,061,500 for female writers (not including the $135,000 endowed by the Kibble Awards, the Stella Prize, and the Barbara Jefferis Award), compared to $481,000 for male writers. Furthermore, prestigious short story awards like the Jolley Prize, and Overland’s VU Short Story Prize and inaugural Story Wine Prize boasted female authors placing first, second and third. The same can be said for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, the Calibre Essay Prize and the Porter Poetry Prize. A good year, indeed.
And this is no cause of concern for male authors. The figures above don’t represent the antithesis stage in the Hegelian Dialectic of Gender Inequality in Literature. Anyone familiar with games of almost-even chance (red and black on the roulette wheel or the flip of a coin, for instance) knows you can witness a streak of twenty of the same result without there being a systematic bias, or effecting the almost-even odds of the next result. If anything, the prize winners of 2014 amplified the voice of the literary community in Australia demanding one thing: diversity.
In his recent article in Sydney Review of Books, publisher and professor Ivor Indyk suggested literary prizes and literary festivals pander to the lowest common denominator in the interest of provoking popular appeal. Yes, we are seeing greater attendance at literary festivals. Yet, rather than popularising literature, which in itself might be impossible, the literary community is embracing more voices. What Indyk perceives as the mediocrity of popularism could just as easily be seen as the growing competitive force of inclusion.
As the systematic biases are stripped away from prize-giving and the reviewing of Australian authors, I do expect we will see more authors from wider and richer backgrounds represented on shortlists for these prizes. And it makes my heart swell, even though it means such a strong competition. These literary awards are the one place in the literary world where year after year, success is a zero-sum game. It strengthens the entire community when the voices of the disenfranchised and the overlooked are represented alongside those who have enjoyed the lion’s share of awards and accolades for so long.
Literary prize money plays a large role in subsidising the cost of the starch-heavy diets of starving artists. The truth is that authors and readers in this country cannot afford any more insults. The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards becoming biennial this year was a disgusting affront. The Queensland premier abolishing the state’s literary prize entirely in 2012 was intolerable. Not only do we strip away the small consolations of a career in letters, we also silence voices so beautiful that the reading of them drowns out the dissonance of our daily lives with euphony.
One such voice, that of Jennifer Down, I would never have heard if not for her win in the 2014 Jolley Prize. Because I had the pleasure of reading Aokigahra, I was moved to read her other short stories, like Turncoat, which won the 2013 VU Short Story Prize. I think anyone who shared the same satisfaction in reading these stories would join me in promoting the necessity of literary prizes in Australia for nurturing talent and presenting new voices to readers.
If anything, we need more prizes, more awards, more festivals, more literary journals, more writers, more readers, and greater inclusion. The experiences I have had reading prize-winning authors and attending literary festivals in the last few years reminds me of Hunter S Thompson describing the feeling of being a party to the activism and the inclusive spirit of the 1960s in San Francisco: ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.’
It is my responsibility and yours to keep up the momentum by doing what we can to support prizes and festivals and the literary community in Australia.
Image: simonbooth / Flickr