Dreams of the Stella Prize emerged in early 2011 out of a panel that was held at Readings, an independent Melbourne bookstore, on International Women’s Day. The panel was partly a discussion about the underrepresentation of women on the literary pages of the major Australian newspapers, both as reviewers and as authors of the books reviewed. For example, in 2011 70% of the books reviewed in The Weekend Australian’s books pages were written by men.
The panel also discussed the underrepresentation of women as winners of literary prizes. In early 2011, only 10 individual women had ever won the Miles Franklin Literary Award over its 54-year history. (Since the inception of the Stella Prize, the Miles Franklin has been awarded 5 times. Four of the winners were women, with 2013 featuring the first ever all-female shortlist.) But this trend is evident across all the major prizes. In general, women have won the fiction division of the various state Premier’s Literary Awards about a third of the time, even though fiction is an area that women are associated with as writers; the statistics for nonfiction are even worse.
After the panel at Readings, a group met to decide what to do next. (You can read some recollections from those who were involved with the Prize’s formation here.) The original organising committee decided it wanted to do something positive to raise the profile of women writers and address their underrepresentation in the literary world. And thus plans for the Stella Prize were born: a major prize for Australian women writers, along the lines of the UK’s very successful Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). The prize would celebrate the best book by an Australian woman, whether fiction or nonfiction, in the previous calendar year. For the prize’s name we reclaimed Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin’s first name for our purposes.
The Stella Prize board then began our journey up a steep learning curve. We were so lucky to meet with lots of kind people who offered us advice and/or seed funding. We were also blessed to be introduced to Ellen Koshland, a well-known educational and arts philanthropist, who shared our vision and passion immediately and became our Founding Patron. Ellen was instrumental in finding us some other key donors – and the rest, as they say, is history.
On 16 April 2013, just over two years after that International Women’s Day panel, the inaugural Stella Prize was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for her second novel, Mateship with Birds.
The winner of the 2014 Stella Prize was Clare Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.
The winner of the 2015 Stella Prize was Emily Bitto for The Strays.
The winner of the 2016 Stella Prize was Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things.
The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize was Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love.
Each year the Stella Prize is committed to recognising the best books by Australian women, both fiction and nonfiction. Our judging terms are that the winning book be: excellent, original and engaging. By raising the profile of women writers, and celebrating their achievements, we hope to erode the self-perpetuating cycle of underrepresentation that confronts all women writers – not least nonfiction writers. We believe that the best way to achieve this is to seek out and popularise excellence in women’s writing. We want the full range of women’s stories and women’s ideas to be valued and heard. We want women’s commentary on politics and their historical research to be rewarded.
In recent years, the boundary between fiction and nonfiction has become more permeable. Indeed, women’s writing is often distinguished by a refusal to fall into categories. We want to celebrate this. Our decision to judge fiction and nonfiction together is informed by the tradition of Australian women writers who use both these techniques in their work: Helen Garner, Drusilla Modjeska, Anna Funder, Chloe Hooper and Anna Krien, to name just a few.
Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chair of the Stella Prize Judging Panel 2013-2015, on judging fiction and nonfiction
‘One of the many questions that people ask about the Stella Prize is the one that goes ‘How do you compare fiction with nonfiction? Isn’t it like comparing apples with oranges?’
But as anyone who’s ever tried to do it knows, even just comparing one novel with another novel is in itself a bit like comparing apples with oranges. There’s no question about it: judging literary prizes is hard. But the answer lies in the Stella Prize criteria: the guidelines say ‘The winning book will be excellent, original and engaging.’
This combination of qualities is what the judges are looking for. And when you look at the entries through that particular lens, it becomes much easier to compare any given book with any other. What the judges have to decide is which of the entries, whatever genre or form they may take, combines those three qualities most successfully.
This can involve a high degree of difficulty for writers. If you are writing, say, a contemporary realist novel, then true originality of either style or subject matter can be quite hard to achieve. And if you’re writing in a genre like history or biography that requires scrupulous scholarship and close attention to detail, it can sometimes be difficult to be consistently engaging. Excellence, of course, is achievable in any form and any field, but by definition, excellence can be pretty elusive as well.’