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Type
Polemic
Category
literary culture
Writing

An inherently stupid prize of our own?

A couple of weeks back I was watching stories appear on social media celebrating the historic win of Melissa Lucashenko in the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel Too Much Lip. She became the third Indigenous writer to win the prize in its 62-year history, and the sixteenth woman. One moment I was looking at flowers and champagne for her book, the next I was running across Emmett Stinson’s essay arguing that literary prizes are ‘inherently stupid’, published in this magazine literally days after Lucashenko’s win.

To which what can one say, particularly when one has been living in California for the past six years, but ‘Dude, What The Actual Fuck?’

Many of Stinson’s points are actually really valid and deserve attention if literary culture is ever going to become less elitist, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less complicit in oppressive structures of race and class and gender. Literary prizes reflect all these undesirable aspects of literary culture. But I don’t agree that literary prizes are inherently stupid. What probably is stupid is to make this argument days after an Indigenous woman writer wins the most significant national literary award and to act like that is not a big deal.

I believe that literary prizes are inherently problematic, particularly in the way they tend to replicate the dominant systems of value in literary culture in an unexamined way. They do not question the categories and terms that form the rubric of their own operation: what is ‘excellence’? What is ‘merit’? What is ‘literary fiction’? Why is genre fiction persistently excluded from the category of the literary? Who gets to decide all these things?

Why have authors and books that do not fit the traditional model of An Author (white, male, middle-class, ‘literary’) been so often excluded from prize longlists and shortlists?

It is rare to see ‘prize culture’ reflect on itself by openly addressing these questions and making them part of the conversation.

Prizes can make literary culture feel like a process that forces competition when we writers and readers might prefer something other than a ‘winner-takes-all’ event.  Prizes tend towards making it into a contest, rather than a community. As Stinson points out, they tend to be ‘technocratic,’ judged by ‘experts’ in secret. Not transparent, not available to critique.

In practice, prizes tend to reflect the problems of inequality, elitism and exclusion that afflict literary culture and society more broadly. But to argue that they are stupid is to invalidate the efforts that women and others have made to address those problems, and to dismiss the significance of interventions such as the Stella Prize without even properly evaluating them. It is to dismiss the positive changes that have taken place over the past ten years, such as increased numbers of women and small publishers on shortlists. It is to undercut the meaningful win of Too Much Lip, and to sneer at anyone who celebrates it.

According to Stinson, literary prizes are inherently stupid because of the ‘structural issues’ that plague them, their ‘top-down’ method of judging literary merit, and all the things they are supposedly bad at like encouraging new, diverse, innovative authors and writing.

Although Stinson grudgingly admits that prizes are good at a few things, these are not judged to be sufficiently worthwhile to redeem prizes from stupidity or their iniquitous effect on literary culture. These good things include increasing sales, publicity and attention for writers, although the benefit of these things is measured critically against the small group of established writers and big publishers that usually win

‘Counter-prizes’ such as the Stella are judged to be ‘locked into this same problematic system of value,’ but why must this be the case? The actual work of such prizes is completely dismissed, when this could have been an opportunity to consider them more carefully. Stinson does not acknowledge the efforts of the Stella Prize to challenge this system, and as a result he is not able to offer a nuanced critical account of how they might have begun to succeed or fail. These efforts include the Stella Count; the Stella Schools program; the inclusion of a person from outside the literary world on the judging panel; increasing diversity in the judges and a corresponding rise in the diversity of longlists and shortlists; recognising literary work that crosses or mixes genres; and allowing entries of self-published and digital-only works.

What of prizes such as the Davitt Awards for crime writing by women? The Patrick White Award, given to a writer who has not achieved recognition for a substantial body of work? The Barbara Jefferis award for fiction which ‘empowers the status of women and girls in society’? The now-defunct Asher Award for a woman author of anti-war writing? The Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist award, which is awarded to a group of writers, and frequently recognises new and innovative voices?

How might we distinguish these awards, or major awards, from prizes run by organisations, journals and publishers such as Overland itself, or tiny publisher of tiny fiction, Spineless Wonders, or the Australian Review of Books? These all function, after all, along the same technocratic lines derided by Stinson, pitting works against each other in a contest of ‘worth’ judged by experts who do not open their judgments for debate. Would it be possible to make such distinctions? What if we regarded ‘prize culture’ as something less monolithic, and more fundamentally contested?

What if we actually evaluated how these awards, or the Stella Prize, or prizes for unpublished manuscripts or older writers, impact dominant prize culture or literary culture more broadly?

As I revise this essay, Kurdish-Iranian refugee Berhouz Boochani has just been awarded the National Biography Award after scooping the Victorian Premier’s Award and the Victorian Prize for Literature. It is hard to think of a writer from a more excluded or oppressed group or a greater struggle to bring words to print. The judges of those prizes, I imagine, used their power not only to recognize the sure brilliance of Boochani’s writing, but to bring attention to the horrific plight of refugees like him. Moments like these make me think that prizes are not stupid, and that they can be strategically useful for making the world a bit less terrible.

Stinson also ignores the recently established, extremely lucrative Wyndham Campbell Award, created in 2013. It is US-based but recognises writers in English from around the world not simply for a single publication but for a whole body of work, drawing on a wide judging and nominating pool that actively seeks diversity. From this international spectrum of authors, Australian women have won four times in different categories in just seven years of awards: playwright Patricia Cornelius (2019); Indigenous poet Ali Cobby Eckerman (2017), author Helen Garner (2016) and dramatist Noëlle Janaczewska (2014). This award is massive to the point of being life-changing for many recipients: US$165,000. In a world where writers are being paid less every day for our work, prize money always means something, however small. (Or in this case, enormous.)

These quirky prizes, the extraordinarily successful Stella Prize, these individual wins, the unique Wyndham Campbell and its remarkable recognition of writers of color and women around the world, do not alone redeem prize culture from its inherent problems. But surely they have the potential to complicate our picture of what ‘prize culture’ is and what it does. If we are interested in challenging the power of prizes to entrench already-existing hierarchies, why not include them in the conversation?

Stinson briefly acknowledges the ‘fantastic’ wins of Melissa Lucashenko for the Miles and Alexis Wright for the Stella (in 2018, for her book Tracker), but seems to regard these as flukes. He ignores the fact that women have won seven of the eight most recent Miles Franklin Awards – an utterly astonishing turnaround in the historical record of the Miles, which before 2012 had awarded the prize to just nine women since it was established in 1957.

Why?

How is it possible to note that Lucashenko and Wright’s wins were ‘fantastic’ and then recommend this course of action: ‘don’t talk about prizes. Don’t discuss the longlist or shortlist. Don’t buy books that are shortlisted or win.’

What should the engaged reader do, according to Stinson? ‘Go read some reviews instead.’

Because reviews are somehow not subject to the same structural problems that beset literary prizes? Can this possibly be a serious argument? The Stella Count and the US-based VIDA Count have firmly established the patterns of gender exclusion and other forms of bias that dominate literary reviews both in terms of what kind of books get reviewed and who does the reviewing. But criticism is judged to be not stupid, I guess because this critic is, well, a critic who has chosen to keep on engaging with the form.

Criticism is not inherently stupid, it seems. Except that the state of criticism is problematic. And serious interventions that attempt to challenge the inherent bias of criticism, to make space for new, innovative voices from a broader social sphere are not stupid, and not a waste of time. We might look to a publication such as The Lifted Brow to make the case (as Stinson does, in his praise for various publishing ventures that challenge the hegemonic values of prize culture). We could even look to the prize that they established for experimental nonfiction. Except I guess that would be stupid.

It is easy to forget that less than ten years ago, the Stella Prize did not exist. In 2011, women faced down yet another all-male Miles Franklin shortlist (my first novel, The Legacy, was one of three by women on the longlist that did not make the cut). At the same moment, the VIDA Count, a statistical analysis of gender bias in the literary pages of major publications, made evident the dramatic imbalance that had been obvious for years, rendered in colorful, enraging pie charts. It was no longer just me or that other hysterical feminist reading something into just one or two or five or twenty or a hundred issues of Granta or The New York Review of Books. It was real.

They ignored women.

The VIDA numbers, which were roughly reflected in Australian publications, launched a debate familiar to anyone in any group historically excluded from any institution. To intervene, or not to intervene? These ‘legacy publications’ – like those hoary old prizes – were stodgy, establishment dinosaurs. Why bother banging our head against their thick patriarchal dinosaur hides?

On the other hand, why accept our exclusion? Why not try to do something about it, at the same time as articulating and expanding a critique of those institutions?

In 2011 we founded the Stella Prize as a platform to launch a conversation about gender in Australian literary culture, to celebrate women’s overlooked contribution to Australian literature, and to materially and symbolically support women writers.  Sophie Cunninghams’s 2011 essay in Kill Your Darlings is a good overview of the rage and despair we felt at that moment, and the reasons we decided to create a ‘prize of our own.’

We chose to intervene in literary culture with a prize in part because we knew that when prizes had a sufficient public profile and acceptance by the industry, they could raise the profile of authors who would otherwise be ignored, not only by putting the spotlight on a single winner, but by longlists and shortlists. Simply put, they could bring authors to the attention of readers and sell books, and we saw this a good thing for women authors who had been systematically excluded from the kind of cultural and symbolic capital that prizes can give. And it would be a base from which make other interventions such as the school program and the Count.

It felt to me like we were gatecrashers at a closely guarded party and it is still astonishing to witness the success of the Stella. Women have worked incredibly hard to make that happen: forging alliances with booksellers, publishers, critics, authors, literary festival directors, journalists, editors, schools and other organisations to garner broad support for our efforts, to bring legitimacy, respect, attention and hard-won funding to the endeavor. It is too soon to hope that all-male shortlists for the major prizes are a thing of the past but it doesn’t seem impossible like it did just a few years ago, and I think it’s very possible that the Stella Prize has had something to do with that.

The Stella does not deserve uncritical celebration. On the contrary, it deserves careful, nuanced critique. I believe we should argue about whether it has achieved its goals and whether and how it can do more to challenge entrenched hierarchies and do more positive things for literary culture. But that would require paying attention to what it does and how it works and thinking through what its impact might be alongside other interventions. That would be the opposite of stupid.

There’s something that Stinson doesn’t discuss or account for, a slippery thing that is hard to articulate, a thing about aspiration and meaning. When I was involved with setting up the Stella Prize I often thought of my much younger self and what it meant to me, to her, to watch the lists come out every year. I remembered that feeling of being a girl looking at the constellation of ‘winners’ in the field of writing, painfully torn. On the one hand, wanting to ignore it or tear it down because it so profoundly and utterly excludes and devalues who one is, and because one is tired of being taught always to compete on others’ terms. On the other, wanting to be included, to belong, to be recognised, to have a star or constellation named after me. Wanting at least to have a shot at that, wanting to imagine that I could have a shot. Ambition is a hard thing for a girl to own up to, even now. I wanted to make Stella happen to provide that for her, and for other girls. I wanted them to imagine that even in those years when women were pushed off the longlist in one prize or another, or never even made it on, there was one that would recognise women. I imagined that it might inspire a girl to keep writing. This is a deeply held desire and hope; it is no doubt sentimental, but I can’t disavow it. To put it simply, this intervention means something. And it means something to see women on those other lists. I don’t know exactly how to account in critical terms for this seam of affect, but I know it matters.

I moved back to the US a few years ago and departed the Stella board, but I put sparkling wine on ice every year to toast the winner.

There are days we feel so much rage and despair we want to destroy the joint. And there are days we want to make small constructive interventions to sustain us in our daily grief at the ongoing apocalyptic nightmare that besets the planet. The Stella founders were gatecrashers who have become gatekeepers, it seems. This prize party is a bigger, quirkier event than it looks at first. Now there is not only a Ladies Lounge, but whole rooms that let in women because we fought and forced them to.

We want our stupid cake and we want to eat it too. I’m glad we have an inherently stupid prize of our own.

 

Ed note: this piece was updated 22 August to include dramatist Noëlle Janaczewska’s Wyndham Campbell win in 2014.

 

Image: Xiaopeng Ma / Unsplash

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Kirsten Tranter is a literary critic and the author of three novels, Hold, A Common Loss and The Legacy. She was a co-founder of the Stella Prize, and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.

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Comments

  1. I will leave it to others to discuss the arguments in the piece, but I do want to dispute it’s central claim. My piece was written and filed prior to Lucashenko’s win and was actually a response to the Booker longlist (which is clear in the final sentence). I added the sentence about Lucashenko on the day of publication (after the win). To suggest my article is an attack on Lucashenko is, in this sense, straightforwardly incorrect.

  2. That’s an extensive response Kirsten. Thanks.
    May I add Noëlle Janaczewska as the first Australian to be awarded the Wyndham Campbell prize in 2014 – for her work as a writer/dramatist please?

  3. Thanks Kirsten for this piece and for your work as co-founder of the Stella. The Stella has made a major impact on Australian prize culture and that is an important point to make. I agree prizes are problematic but interventions can be made, the Stella founders demonstrated that.

    My novel The Bridge was shortlisted for the Stella this year and it has made a huge difference. While I haven’t seen sales figures yet, I know that it resulted in an audio book being produced and in readers hearing about and reading the novel who had not heard of it before the shortlisting. The Bridge wasn’t reviewed in The Age or The Australian (though it had positive reviews elsewhere) I don’t know why and of course writers can’t ask but it meant that until the Stella many readers hadn’t heard about the novel. It was also important to me as a writer who spent 7 years writing a novel, to have the judges acknowledge the novel. It certainly encouraged me to keep writing. Of course I know as we all do that there are many fantastic novels that are never shortlisted, that don’t win prizes, that deserve recognition and don’t get it and that all judging is subjective. In a good year, different books will be recognised by different prizes, highlighting the subjective nature of the exercise and spreading the monies. But we do need to keep being vigilant and making sure judging panels are diverse, and that we challenge ideas of the ‘expert’. Stella has made this a priority, all prizes should.

    It is often the case that the status quo, in this case prizes, reviews etc, are not criticised when they are dominated by those in power. The moment when women or people of colour begin to dominate, the system comes under criticism. Of course suddenly it appears flawed. It’s important to remember it has always been flawed! It’s been a great year for prizes this year, Melissa Lucashenko winning the Miles, Berhouz Boochani winning the Victorian Premiers. These wins have given me hope but we can’t be complacent. More interventions are needed.

  4. Stinson is stuck in that (usually male) undergraduate way of thinking that a negative opinion is more insightful/intelligent/valuable than a positive one. It is the justification of one’s existence by being anti; just bag everything and you win!
    From young men, it’s wanky. From older men, it’s curmudgeonly. At all ages, it’s really boring.
    Thank you for your brain and your passion, Kirsten Tranter, in challenging this.

    Furthermore, Tranter’s central claim is not what Stinson says it is in his comment. The Lucashenko win does undermine Stinson’s argument (as any ‘good’, ‘acceptable’, ‘interesting’ prize win at any time would also do) and was perhaps simply a catalyst to Tranter’s writing of this broad and reasonable piece. But her response is not contingent on that one detail.

    • HI Lizzie: I actually commissioned Emmett Stinson’s piece for the online magazine, asking him to expand on a Twitter thread he’d made recently about his research examining trends from 40 years of Australian literary prizes.

      It was unfortunate timing that it happened to coincide with Melissa Lucashenko’s win, but I’d already held it over for a week, and it was not at all meant to detract from her win.

      I think there is much merit in Emmett’s questions about how prizes are serving literature, who is actually benefitting from them and what a prizewinning text represents.

      Equally, I think that Kirsten raises a lot of good points here, as does Enza. This is why debates about literary culture matter.

  5. I don’t understand why you say that he was commissioned by you in response to tweets. I don’t see what difference that makes, other than to highlight the centrality of prize culture to his research career.
    It is also rather disingenuous to say ‘there is much merit in Emmett’s questions’, when he is doing rather a lot more in his original article than just asking questions. He’s got all the answers too. He is arrogantly dismissing a whole complex and diverse part of literary culture as a ‘stupid’ thing.

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