Thursday, 2 July, 2015

The Stella Prize is important in recognising and promoting the hard work of Australian female writers of fiction. This greater literary appreciation will ideally trickle down into required reading lists for high schools nation-wide.

The Stella Prize was launched in 2013 to celebrate and appreciate Australian women’s writing in fiction and non-fiction. Carrie Tiffany was awarded $50,000 in 2013 for Mateship with Birds, as was Clare Wright in 2014 for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

Over the past two years, the Stella Prize and Books+Publishing have together raised awareness and appreciation for the hard work of female writers in Australia, who are often overshadowed by male writers in book sales, reviews and literary criticism. Through the Stella Count, statistics are annually compiled to show how many books by men and women are reviewed and published in Australian newspapers and literary publications. In 2013, the largest gender disparities were found in the Australian Financial Review, where 85 per cent of book reviews were of books by male writers. Most publications sat well over 50 per cent, while Books+Publishing featured the smallest number of male writers at 39 per cent.

Sophie Cunningham, Deputy Chair at the Stella Prize, voiced her concern about the need to level the playing field of literature. “Women are not taken as seriously as they should be,” she states, even though there already exists “a healthy vibrant scene”. Cunningham believes that women are doing great work in literature. “The aim [of the Stella Prize] is to increase visibility of women’s writing, and our experience is, libraries are asking for longlists and writers are being recognised and rewarded.”

Last year, the Stella Prize launched the Stella Prize Schools Program, a new education initiative to encourage girls and boys alike to read more books written by women. The program includes school visits by well renowned Australian writers and publishers, writing workshops and resources including teaching notes on Stella Prize shortlisted books.

It’s interesting because a lot of people pigeonhole the Stella Prize as just another ‘women’s interest’ issue, leaving such people reluctant to engage with it.

A young woman might get nods of approval for being ‘well-read’ if she spoke about admiring books by Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan or Christos Tsiolkas. But if a young man were to talk about his admiration for Helen Garner, Anna Funder or Alice Pung, he would likely be called out. Oh wow, do you read anything other than stuff written by chicks?

You can be and still love reading . It’s as simple as that, because your reading preferences do not undermine your gender and vice versa. The idea that literature should be conceptualised as girl stuff or boy stuff is ridiculous and redundant. Reading and appreciating great literature is a matter of humanity; being a person ultimately comes before our gender identity.

In Victoria, secondary schools select texts for English and Literature students from a collated list, which is organised by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). As seen on the VCE/EAL English and Literature text lists for 2015, it is obvious that greater care has been taken to better recognise women and writers from diverse cultural backgrounds, compared to previous years.

My VCE experience with English and Literature studies was quite homogenised. In Years 11 and 12, we were required to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming and David Malouf’s Ransom, along with Macbeth and Hamlet. These were all brilliant texts in their own right, but they were all predominantly about white, male struggles. They overshadowed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe – each text equally deserving of far greater appreciation than they received by teachers and students. My Literature classes in Years 10 to 12 were always full of girls, with far fewer boys. These were also the classes where I encountered most texts written by women. However, even these writers were all white women from either the United States or England.

Looking at the 2015 text lists gives me hope. The fact that students are given the opportunity to critically engage with such renowned texts is brilliant; in terms of diversity the current text lists are a great improvement in comparison on those of previous years.Although the text lists are much more culturally representative than they used to be, they could still be improved with greater representation of women and writers from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

This is why initiatives like the Stella Prize are important. With their efforts it is clear that not only will the literary scene gain a greater appreciation for female Australian writers, but this appreciation and recognition will trickle down into the mindset of teachers, and to students, who will, I hope, begin to read books for the power of their stories rather than the name on the cover.