The story of Stella

By Aviva Tuffield

Dreams of the Stella Prize emerged in early 2011 when a panel was arranged at Readings bookshop on International Women’s Day. The panel — organised by Chris Gordon, and featuring Sophie Cunningham, Louise Swinn, Jo Case, Monica Dux and Rebecca Starford — was partly in response to the release of VIDA’s ‘The Count’ for 2010. VIDA, a US-based organisation dedicated to promoting women in the literary arts, went through the pages of a number of prominent literary publications and looked at the number of books reviewed by women, the number of women reviewers and of women contributors. The results were really shocking, presented in these boldly coloured pie charts, and confirmed what many of us had suspected for a long time: that women were underrepresented in these publications in all these areas. (The Count for 2012 has just been released and the figures are little changed. You can find all of them here.)

Many of us had noticed a similar pattern of bias in the literary pages in Australia, and also in prize culture more generally and started to collect statistics. For example only 10 individual women have won the Miles Franklin Literary Award over its 55-year history, but this trend is evident across all the major prizes including the premier’s literary prizes. Consider the fiction component of these prizes: Queensland Premier’s Literary Award has been won by a woman 4 out of 12 times; NSW Premier’s Literary Award 11 out of 31 times; Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 8 out of 26 times. Similarly The Age Book of the Year has only been won 14 out of 36 times b y a woman.

(Sophie Cunningham’s article in Kill Your Darlings details many of the statistics for Australia , as does this round-up of Australian reviewing statistics.)

After the panel at Readings, a group of women met up to discuss what to do to support women writers and raise awareness of the issues that they faced, and to increase coverage of their work and their representation on the shortlists of major prizes. Ultimately we decided to launch a major prize for women writers, the Stella Prize, which would celebrate the best book by an Australian woman in the previous calendar year. The main goals of the Stella Prize would be to recognise and celebrate the achievements of Australian women writers, to bring more readers to more books by women, to provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers, and to reward one writer with a $50,000 prize. The prize is the symbolic part of the Stella Prize, but we also want to keep conversations about gender and representation to the fore all year round.

And thus began our very steep learning curve, as we tried to raise money for the prize and to build awareness of the underlying issues. We held panels at bookshops on International Women’s Day in 2012 on ‘Do women write differently from men?’ and we have had a number of fun Stella Prize Trivia Events at writers’ festivals around the country. Various generous donors gave us some seed funding so that we could get started with the planning while still seeking major donors. Fortuitously, we were introduced to Ellen Koshland, a supporter of education and the arts for many years, who shared our vision and passion for the Stella Prize. She became our Founding Patron. A number of key donors have subsequently come on board. (You can find all the Stella Prize’s invaluable donors here.)

We were able to hire a Prize Manager and launch the prize in October 2012. We appointed judges — respected critic and writer Kerryn Goldsworthy (chair), author Kate Grenville (author), actor Claudia Karvan, bookseller Fiona Stager and broadcaster Rafael Epstein — and put out a call for entries to the inaugural Stella Prize. We received almost 200 entries, and a longlist of 12 books was announced in February and a shortlist of 6 books in March.

Just over two years on from that panel at Readings bookstore, the first-ever winner of the Stella Prize will be announced on 16 April. We hope that the Stella Prize will become a permanent feature on the Australian literary landscape and that we can continue to celebrate Australian women’s writing for many years to come.