Apr 30, 2014

Clickbaiting the Stellas

Which is what Nicole Flint and the Advertiser seemed to be trying to do with the article, Stella Prize sends a message that women are incapable of competing intellectually with men, because at no time is that heading backed up with anything resembling facts or an attempt at thoughtful dialogue.

It’s all so much pissing in the punchbowl at the party and with only about 9 comments maybe visitors have found the tone and taste of the “article” a bit tart.

The reader is treated to air quotes or scare quotes, just in case any latent MRA’s or privileged folk who think their position in life is one born entirely out of merit aren’t sure what to get angry at.  Flint lets us know why the Stellas were formed:

The Stella Prize is Australia’s “female-only’’ book award. Apparently it became necessary to create the prize when Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, short-listed all-blokes-and-no-sheilas not once, but twice, in three years (2009 and 2011).

This statement is correct but doesn’t of course contextualise it or mention some of the other reasons why the Stellas came into being. 

It might be worth noting that Australia’s most prestigious literary award is rather narrow, it only focuses on that genre called “literature” and it only rewards writers who write about the Australian experience(whatever that is – blokey, bushy and mostly white according to some critics).  So if I was inclined to be a little disingenuous or to play Flint’s game, I could say that the Miles Franklin says to writers that the only fiction with writing about is …that which contains a distinctly Australian flavour like a Bushells Tea of world Literature.  Forget it if you want to write Science Fiction (unless you can make it look like literature – congrats Alexis Wright) or heaven forfend, Romance. 

Most of us will realise that the Franklin is about trying to engage with what it means to be Australian, in a broad context. 

It might also be noted that in its 50 odd year history up until 2011, only 10 women had won the award and 4 times it was the same woman. 

So what is Flint saying here? That women just don’t write as well as men, for the proof is in the results or do we recognise that in Australian Literature, as in other spheres, that it’s a small fish pond, that all sorts of prejudice and bias comes into play. It should be noted that this underrepresentation of women was noted in other literature awards as well. 

Rather than take Flint’s word for what the award is all about you could go straight to the Stellas:

The Stella Prize seeks to:

  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
  • bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
  • provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
  • reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing

To expect the Miles Franklin to somehow do all the lifting for Australian written culture is expecting too much really.  Can we really only celebrate one book, must we restrict ourselves to only choosing one writer? One view of Australia?

Engaging in a nuanced debate though would have knocked the wheel off the barrow Flint is pushing. 

See, the Stellas aren’t just the Miles Franklin sans blokes, many women( not to mention people of no fixed gender, and men) aren’t eligible for the Franklin by virtue of its narrow scope ie literature about Australian life – Flint’s poster woman, Hannah Kent, is one of them because she’s written a book about Iceland.

Flint likes to fly the flag for Merit but at the time the Stella’s were formed there had been discussions around the “curious” underrepresentation of women both as reviewers and as recipients of review. There is clearly a bias toward male writer’s work in this country(and others if the Vida results are anything to go by), probably not a conscious one anymore but one born out of history and culture. 

Anyone doing even a half arsed bit of research will come across figures.  So if you can’t even be half arsed checkout the figures compiled by… oh look the Stellas.  

Flint offers nothing to back up her claim about the message being sent. Does she apply her funny logic to other disadvantaged groups like Indigenous Australians?  Does Flint, who I understand to have a Doctorate in Law not agree with Equal Opportunity Employment?  Because all of these rely on the concept that there is an inequity( sometimes overt, more often than not systemic)  that needs addressing, an understanding that there are biases that are difficult to combat in any other way than a structural one like a restricted field as per the Stella’s.

Sadly we can’t de-identify books authors and present them to the judges, sans covers and author information, there can be no blind test like the one some orchestras may use to eliminate gender bias in the selection of well performing musicians.

Once you get past the basics of how to write, structure a sentence and structure a novel, there is a fair bit that becomes subjective, prone to the Zeitgeist, to prevailing attitudes.  To suggest that there is some objective criteria that a work can be matched against and then be rewarded on its merits is quite, well, ridiculous. 

So that’s the context.  The Stella organisers are trying to combat the inequity in the way works are brought to the attention of the community, trying to broaden our scope for what should be considered good Australian writing. Quality on its own isn’t enough to sell a book.  Flint seems to have this funny idea that people judge books entirely by the work between the covers.  We should, but as anyone with a basic understanding of human psychology will understand, that’s not the way the world works.  If just quality writing resulted in reader’s attention publishers could save on their marketing budgets and newspapers wouldn’t have to employ lawyers to write clickbait.

To say to young women writers, that it’s a level playing field, that all you have got to do is write good fiction and you will be rewarded is selling them a lie.

Yes all you should do is concentrate on writing the best fiction you can, because it’s the one thing you have control over.  To say that it’s all that’s necessary, raises false expectations.  Opportunity, attention, base luck all play a huge part.

Implicit in a ‘‘women-only’’ prize is the suggestion that books should be judged by the gender of the author on their covers, not by what the author says on the pages within. This neatly detracts from an author’s skill and content; the things that really matter.


By removing the other gender possibility(and yes the concept of only two genders is quaint and old fashioned) you make it more about the writing, the skills, what is said on the page. The variable of gender is removed from the judgement on the smaller group of writers. The reality is that books are bought and read, marketed with gender as a consideration. 

Don’t believe me? Well Miles Franklin might have something to say about that.

It is interesting to note that Miles Franklin didn’t want to be known as a female writer, she knew full well that it would effect the reception of her book and it did when she was outed by Henry Lawson, who it appears lied about his knowledge of Franklin being a woman in his intro that outed her. 

It’s also interesting to note that another poster woman that Flint quotes in JK Rowling, initially used her first name (Joanne) but changed it on the request of her publisher, who thought young boys might not read Harry Potter, if they could figure out it was written by a woman and if you think that gender and perceptions of reading as a feminine activity aren’t already in place at age 5 you need to read the literature.

It’s also interesting to note that in criticising the Stellas,  Flint has used what I would call ultra successful genre authors:

Agatha Christie(Crime), Barbara Cartland(Romance), Danielle Steel(Romance), Enid Blyton (Children’s Adventure Stories), JK Rowling(Fantasy) and Jackie Collins(Romance/Crime)

While the Stella would be open to all Australian Women working in these genres, I don’t believe the Miles Franklin is - it’s open to “the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian life in any of its phases”.

Apparently Hannah Kent being one of Australia’s best selling women authors is an embarrassment to the Awards. I don’t quite follow Flint’s logic, but I gather she sees Kent’s best selling status as proof  that a good work always floats to the top.  Let’s put aside the fact that best selling in Australia isn’t a very high bar to achieve (I’d prefer to see figures).  Let’s look a little closer at Burial Rites. 

You have to remember that while Hannah did all the work in writing what would become Burial Rites, her success isn’t just the result of her just sitting down and writing and having the “skillz”.  Kent has talent and an education (not necessary, but certainly it is helpful to have people who focus on creative writing nudging you, testing you, pushing you to perform). Kent initially received a $10,000 award for the unpublished manuscript of Burial Rites and a mentorship with Pulitzer Prize winning Geraldine Brooks.    Can you see how this is coming together?

So yes Hannah still has to do the leg work, still provides something of herself that might make that work special but would Burial Rites have happened without the award, without Brooks there to encourage and challenge? Kent’s also been well supported in the Advertiser, being a South Australian and by the ABC.   There’s also been a hefty investment in the fiction (by way of advance), by her publisher.  The book’s good and has wide commercial appeal -she’s a good investment. 

The Stellas recognize good writing by Australian women across a range of genres. Internationally successful Australian fantasy writers like Kate Forsyth and Trudi Canavan will never be eligible for a Miles Franklin (unless they write Australian Literature), but they could win a Stella.

But one of Flint’s last lines is illustrative

Which brings us to the moral of the story. You can, like The Stella Prize, whinge about alleged inequality and reward people for the mere fact of their gender.

Or, like the Miles Franklin Award you can reward merit and ability, just as that great leveller the free market has rewarded authors like Agatha Christie and Hannah Kent.

It’s interesting but I rarely see the Stella folk whinging, in fact the only person who seems to be whinging is Flint.

Writing is a craft, a good writer is a product not only of their talent but their training, their access to networks and to mentors and a good measure of luck. 

If you start writing because you think your talent and hard work is going to be rewarded, choose another career, perhaps journalism- steadier pay and it looks like you can still make up things as you go.

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