Making the case for women-only prizes

Robin McHugh

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when just a few years ago works by women made up only 10 per cent of writing prize shortlists. Kate Mosse, British author, broadcaster and co-founder of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, said facts help justify the need for women-only prizes. She said close to 66 per cent of book buyers are women, and while women novelists are more likely than men to have their novels published, recognition has not kept up.

Kate joined the speakers at A Prize of One’s Own, a Sydney Writers’ Festival event showcasing The Stella Prize. The Stella, named for Miles Franklin’s real name, is a new $50,000 Australian prize for women writers.

British author and broadcaster Kate Mosse

British author and broadcaster Kate Mosse

Aviva Tuffield, chair of The Stella Prize board, and form co-ordinator, pointed out that in some Australian newspapers and publications, only 20 per cent of book reviews cover works by women authors.  

If a work of literary fiction is not awarded a prize or otherwise noticed, it can be off bookshop shelves in six or eight weeks. Kate said women’s prizes are intended to raise attention for writers who deserve to become part of the literary canon.

Another speaker was the first Stella Prize-winner, Carrie Tiffany, author of Mateship With Birds, who also won the just-announced NSW Premier’s Award. In an unusual move, she generously gave back a portion of her Stella Prize money to be shared among the runners-up. Carrie said she had worked as a farm journalist in Victoria, and her novel grew out of the stories she heard while interviewing people about sheep and crop rotation. In spite of her book raising scientific themes, she said she was surprised when some newspapers pigeonholed the story as a “bush romance” and she was described as a “Mitcham Mum”.

Actor-producer Claudia Karvan, one of the Stella judges, said Mateship With Birds more than fulfilled the criteria of an “original, engaging, and excellent book”. She said her mother’s reaction to her sitting on the judging panel was, “In your career this is the best thing you’ve ever been involved in.” That’s saying a lot, considering her successful films and shows.

The Orange Prize (renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction) was hatched in a North London flat 20 years ago, after the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist contained no women. In defense of a gender-specific prize Kate said “prizes are discriminatory, that’s how they work”, whether excluding people by country, age or genre.

Another woman author, Marie Williams, was honoured on Friday, winning the $10,000 Finch Memoir Prize for life writing for Green Vanilla Tea. The prize was announced by Ita Buttrose, president of Alzheimer’s Australia, and publisher Rex Finch. The author said she had never thought of becoming a writer. She wrote the manuscript after discussing her husband’s illness with her teenage sons, as a way for them all to heal. The judges said her experience as a social worker informed her actions and the book could become a guide to life with a person with Alzheimer’s.