Enter Stella: on why we still need women-only literary prizes

When Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was announced as the winner of the 2016 Stella Prize, it prompted me to get the book off my shelf, where it had been sitting with all my other good intentions, and actually read it. I did this in about twenty-four hours, the book inhabiting my mind for all the time I spent away from it. Much of this is due to the narrative drive in The Natural Way of Things – the way it propels you forward, your absolute need-to-know what happens next. But another, larger part is the book’s central theme and the explicit feminist parable at its core.

The book has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in almost every review and for good reason: the women in Wood’s novel are imprisoned, shut away for committing high-profile sexual sins, for not playing the victim, for daring to speak out. Like Atwood’s women they are forced into dull, plain clothes and treated brutally when they do not obey orders. Yet in Wood’s novel we get the feeling that her dystopian future is not so far away, that the brutality that is levelled at the women in the book is right around the corner. So when I finished reading Wood’s novel, I was relieved and grateful that it had won The Stella.

And I wondered if a book like this would have won a prestigious national prize in Australia before Stella was established.

Last year, I published a piece in The Conversation pointing out that most of the women authors who have won large literary prizes, here and in the US and UK, have done so when they write about men or set their novels in typically masculine settings. That is, that women are more likely to be rewarded for their work when they don’t write about women.

Women-only prizes like The Stella and The Bailey’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange) seem to buck this trend. In fact, most of The Stella prize winners have featured female protagonists, and many might be construed as feminist in nature – as is the case with Clare Wright’s work of non-fiction The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. When I think back to the explicitly feminist novels published in the last ten years or so – Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and The Summer Without Men, Carol Shield’s Unless – none won the Booker or the Pulitzer, though I would argue that a couple of them should have. Even The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which has never been out of print since it was first published, did not take out the Booker for that year, the award instead going to Kingsley Amis for The Old Devils.

Women-only book prizes get a lot of heat. The Stella Prize has been accused of sending ‘a resounding message to women that they are incapable of competing equally with men on an intellectual basis’. And that by establishing a female-only prize, Stella is paving the way for books to ‘be judged by the gender of the author on their covers, not by what the author says on the pages within’. And while it is hard to take these comments seriously when the same article uses the sales figures of Fifty Shades of Grey as a success for all women, these kinds of criticisms are not new.

When the Orange was established in 1991, Kingsley Amis declared that ‘one could hardly take the winner of this prize seriously’ and writers such as Anita Brookner and AS Byatt refused to submit their work for the prize. Yet, what these criticisms all labour under is the idea that we are living in a meritocracy and the prize panels are above the sexism that pervades our literary landscape. In a fair world – one in which students at school and university get to encounter as many texts by diverse writers as they do by white men, where women’s books get reviewed as frequently and in as much detail as men’s, where the standard of ‘great writing’ is completely divorced from a literary canon which has been notorious in excluding the work of women authors, not to mention Indigenous authors, writers from CALD backgrounds, writers who identify as LGBTIQ or are gender-diverse and those who are differently abled – I’d say that women-only prizes are unnecessary. But this is not the world we live in.

The world we live in is actually more closely aligned with the world in Wood’s novel. The events in TNWOF have happened before, in Australia. In interviews, Wood speaks of the Hay Institution for Girls, part of the Parramatta Girls Home. At Hay, the girls were ‘drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.’ In Wood’s novel, it is women who are imprisoned, not girls. This is not an over-reach when you consider the kind of maliciousness still directed at public women who have spoken out about sexual scandals. Just last week respected journalist Paul Bongiorno tweeted that the woman contracted to play Monica Lewinsky in an upcoming movie was ‘not ugly enough’. And so it goes.

So when I realised that an explicitly feminist book had won this year’s Stella Prize, I was elated. Not only does the novel feature female characters, but it is a searing indictment of the way in which Australian culture treats women. In a powerful passage we are asked to imagine what the outside world thinks of the female prisoners: ‘Would it be said that they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.’

The Miles Franklin has obviously felt Stella nipping at its heels and since the prize was established in 2012, all the Miles Franklin winners have been female. It will be interesting to see if Stella can keep pushing the Miles Franklin to think about gender not only in terms of authorship but also in terms of whose stories get told and how. To think more deeply about ‘the natural way of things’ and how it can be changed.


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Natalie Kon-yu

Natalie Kon-Yu is a lecturer at Victoria University and has been published nationally and internationally. Most recently, she was a contributor to and co-editor of the collection #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement (2019).

More by Natalie Kon-yu ›

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