Stories of Silenced Women: The Stella Prize at Digital Writers Festival

This week, Stella Prize board member Sophie Cunningham and four of the Stella Prize shortlisted authors for 2014 came together to talk about the prize, their work and women’s writing, in a special Digital Writers Festival online-only event.

Sophie Cunningham said that the Stella Prize is already impacting on the sales of the shortlisted titles, and getting the authors' names known - which was always the key agenda of the prize.

‘We wanted to generate more engagement with high quality women’s writing.’

The lives and stories of silenced women

A Twitter audience member commented on the fact that this year’s Stella shortlist follows a strong theme. - all the books, in various ways, explore the lives and stories of silenced women. She asked if the judges had chosen the books with this in mind.

Sophie speculated that the theme was no coincidence, but nor was it deliberate, or a result of specific briefing by the prize’s organisers. She said that while ‘board members try to keep away from the judges’, the judges who are interested in being involved with the Stella Prize are also likely to be interested in those themes. Last year, the shortlist was more thematically diverse; judges are not told what to look for when making their selections.

‘The dick table’

Clare Wright’s shared joke with her publicist became a public (and somewhat controversial) observation after a recent interview. While touring chain bookshops, airports and independent bookshops all over Australia to promote The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka late last year, she noticed that the tables at the front of bookshops, with the most prominent displays, largely consisted of books by and about men. ‘It was like every day was Father’s Day,’ she said. ‘The dick table’ became a private joke between her and her publicist. She said that some booksellers had been offended by her observation; they said that they know what sells and where to place titles.

Clare pointed out in her Stella chat that the value we place on writers (and the topics writers put their energy into) are very much influenced by how books are retailed; that these things matter.

‘Lots of bookshops have Stella tables now,’ she said.

Men and the great American novel

Kristina Olsson, author of Boy, Lost, said that she loves the Stella, though she wishes that we lived in a world where we wouldn’t need it to draw attention to women’s writing.

‘Certain subjects written about by men will be seen one way,’ she said, ‘and if written by women they’re seen another way.’ She particularly focused on the way domestic or romantic novels are viewed (and accorded respect) very differently according to the gender of the writer, using Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing as one example.

Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest, is currently working out of LA. She observed that in America, writers are very invested in the idea of the Great American Novel, that novel that takes in the idea of America, and is typically a novel of ideas with a strong domestic aspect. (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was an example.) ‘There’s a self-consciously macho race to be the best. It’s men writing the world.’

She was frustrated by the idea that a writer like Marilynne Robinson is not one of the names that automatically comes up in conversations about ‘great American writers’. That whole conversation, she said, is ‘very masculine’.

‘An important award’: Alexis Wright

Sophie asked Alexis Wright, as an Indigenous writer, how she feels about the Stella’s focus on increasing representation of women writers, when the problem of Indigenous writers' representation is also a problem.

‘We have our issues as Indigenous people,’ said Alexis, whose novel The Swan Book is shortlisted for the Stella Prize. ‘We also have difficulty publishing and having our work recognised. Indigenous rights across the board are everyday issues for us.’

‘The Stella Prize is a wonderful award. It has raised the profile of women writers. And it gives bookshops the opportunity to find something else to market. There’s a struggle all round in the writing and publishing world; bookshops are struggling too.’

‘It’s an important award.’

In Conversation: 2014 Stella Prize shortlist

Above: You can watch the Stella Prize’s Digital Writers Festival event in full.

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