Are 'women-only' prizes patronising?


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds


In 2011 female writers were locked out of the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Of course, this was nothing new. Since 1987 there have been four all-male shortlists and during its 55-year history, only 10 individual women have won the award.

But in 2011 when women in the arts furrowed their brows at the all-male line-up, two things changed. The first was our vocabulary, as some excellent new words were coined to describe all-male line-ups: sausage fest, cock forest and literary bucks night. The second was the Stella Prize.

With $50,000 prize money going to a female scribbler in fiction or non-fiction, the Stella Prize recently announced Carrie Tiffany and her novel Mateship with Birds, as the first winner.

But the Stella Prize, like the Orange Prize in Britain, has had its share of detractors. Nicolle Flint, a PhD student at Flinders University, claims the establishment of the prize communicates "clear messages that women still cannot compete on an intellectual basis with men".


Alternatively, critics have looked at this year's all-female shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, or at Hilary Mantel scooping every literary award in the galaxy and questioned whether a women-only award is still necessary.

To answer some of these questions, I asked Aviva Tuffield, chairwoman of the Stella Prize, for her thoughts.

Alecia: Besides the all-male shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award, what led to the establishment of the Stella Prize?

Aviva: Dreams of the Stella Prize emerged in early 2011 when a panel was arranged for International Women's Day in response to the release of VIDA's "The Count". VIDA, a US organisation dedicated to promoting women in literature, went through a number of prominent literary publications and counted the number of books reviewed by women, the number of female reviewers and of female contributors.

The results showed shocking levels of female under-representation and, sadly, little has changed. (See The Count for 2012).

Many of us had noticed a similar pattern in Australia. Consider the fiction component of the premiers' literary prizes: Queensland's has been won by a woman four out of 12 times; the NSW one 11 out of 31 times; the Victorian award eight out of 26 times. Similarly, The Age Book of the Year has been won by a woman only 14 out of 36 times.

The picture for reviewing is equally grim. In 2011, 70 per cent of books reviewed for The Weekend Australian were by men, for The Monthly 74 per cent and for The Australian Financial Review 79 per cent. The figures can be found here.

Alecia: What would you say to Nicolle Flint's assertion that the prize is patronising?

Aviva: Flint implicitly ascribes gender imbalance in prizes to the idea that men must be better writers than women, given that women publish just as many books as men – more in fiction. Whereas I would argue that the discrepancy is simply because women and men do not operate on a level playing field in the field of literature.

I am not arguing that there is some concerted campaign of discrimination against women writers – far from it. In any particular year, the "best book" in any category, as decided by a panel of judges (and these always comprise women and men) may certainly be a novel by a man. But when this happens repeatedly, then it suggests that there are unconscious and systematic prejudices at work.

Alecia: What are some of these prejudices? Is it because our criteria of literary significance is shaped by gender norms?

Aviva: I think there are two things at work here: one is gender, and one is genre/literary merit. Women and men don't write differently per se but they may be judged differently – hence some women using male pseudonyms and/or their initials (like J. K. Rowling) to hide their gender. Also, men and boys are simply less likely to read books written by women. A recent GQ article found that only 11 per cent of the fiction men read is by women.

Also, if women write about domestic life or families it's often categorised as "women's fiction". But if men do, such as Jonathan Franzen or Christos Tsiolkas, it's called great literature, a masterpiece of contemporary mores and relationships".

Genre is the other thing at play. While women and men might not write differently, they may write more often about different things. For example, men write more military history and women probably write more about families.

The problem is that our ideas about literary value and what makes a great work are gendered masculine and may mean that we value books about war more highly than a novel about contemporary family life.

Of course the book about family life may be packed full of political ideas but they're explored through a different lens. The words of Virginia Woolf in 1929 are still relevant today: "It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex . . . And these values are transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.

Alecia: What kinds of "real world" effects does this have upon female writers?

Aviva: Women's books are less likely than men's to win literary prizes and they're less likely to be reviewed in the literary pages and women are less likely to be used as reviewers.

And if women's books aren't being reviewed and aren't winning prizes, then people don't get to hear about them. This is detrimental to women writers' earnings.

An Australia Council survey recently found that writers' incomes have fallen significantly over the past decade, down from an average of $23,000 to just $11,000 by 2011. So prizes can be a very important source of income for them. In fact, Kate Grenville said that winning the Orange Prize was career changing for her.

Alecia: What does the Stella Prize hope to achieve?

Aviva: There is much evidence (particularly seen in political representation) that positive discrimination has beneficial, trickle-down effects to future generations.

So we hope that by celebrating Australian women writers, and devising a prize that recognises their work and makes sure that it doesn't get overlooked, this will have positive effects for new and emerging female writers here and now, and for the literary stars of the future.