10 years of the Stella: how Australia’s women’s writing prize changed a nation’s literature
On International Women’s Day in 2011, a group of Australian women writers and editors appeared at a literary salon and spoke about their frustration at the male-dominated books industry. The following month, when the Miles Franklin shortlist was released featuring only male authors, those women decided it wasn’t enough to just talk about the gender disparity they saw – they needed to do something.
A decade later, and the Stella prize, its title a reclamation of Miles Franklin’s first name, has become a heavyweight in Australian literature. Open to fiction and nonfiction since awarding its first prize in 2013 – and since expanding to include non-binary identifying authors and, as of this year, single-author poetry collections – the Stella now has a profound effect on Australia’s literary landscape.
“It wasn’t just a prize about women writers, it was actually a prize that sells books,” Louise Sherwin-Stark, CEO of Hachette Australia, tells Guardian Australia. “It connected those books with readers effectively. From a publisher’s perspective, the Stella has become increasingly important for us.”
Jane Palfreyman, a publisher at Allen & Unwin, agrees. “The Stella and the Miles Franklin are the two prizes that turn books into bestsellers, and the Stella did that basically from its very first year, so that’s a huge achievement,” she says.
Stark and Palfreyman’s comments are backed up by data provided to Guardian Australia by Nielsen BookScan Australia. Across the nine winners of the Stella prize since its inception, an average volume sales lift of 875% was recorded in the week of the winner’s announcement compared with the week prior. For Claire Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text Publishing), which won the Stella in 2014, sales grew by more than 1,800% in one week.
Compared with other winners, Charlotte Wood was already selling on average four times the number of copies of her 2015 book, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin), in the week prior to her win. In the week of the announcement, sales grew a further 235%. To date, the book has now sold more than 51,000 copies, more than 10 times Wood’s previous bestseller. Her 2019 follow-up novel, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin), has sold 58,000 copies to date.
Palfreyman believes the success of the Stella prize has also had a flow-on effect for other literary prizes.
“The whole prize landscape has completely opened up since the start of the Stella,” she says. “Until 2011 there were 39 men who’d won the Miles Franklin and 11 women. And after 2011, two men have won it and nine women. That’s a fantastic example of what a prize like Stella can do to encourage other prizes to think about equity, of how they judge their prizes.”
Cate Blake, a publisher at Pan Macmillan Australia, says although the Stella prize is the most high-profile aspect of the organisation’s work, it has also carried out other activities that have contributed to a greater diversity in Australian literature in the past decade.
“Stella is going into schools, they’re working on things like the Stella Count, which takes into account the diversity of book reviews and newspaper coverage. Stella set itself a mission and I would say they’re achieving it.”
Palfreyman says the Stella Count has been a driving force in persuading literary editors to review more books written by women and to commission more women reviewers.
An ongoing study by Vida, a US-based organisation established to champion women in literature, found that although women buy two-thirds of books, reviews in American and British journals and newspapers still centre overwhelmingly on male authors and male critics.
The London Review of Books, for example, featured 527 male authors and critics in 2014, compared with just 151 women.
In Australia the statistics are less grim. When the first Stella Count was published in 2012, 40% of all reviews surveyed were of books written by women. By 2018, the survey across 12 national, metropolitan and regional publications, both print and online, found the figure had risen to 49%.
The 2018 Stella Count also found that eight of these 12 publications published more reviews by women than by men.
The 2019 and 2020 data is due for release later this year, and will be the first count to assess the effect of Covid-19 on the issue.
Natalie Kon-yu, one of the Stella counters and a lecturer in creative writing, literature and gender studies at Victoria University, tells Guardian Australia she would be surprised if the numbers have shifted with any significance since a 2015 Macquarie University study found that 65.2% of literary fiction writers and 76.2% of genre fiction writers were female.
“Australian women have been well-represented for quite some time – they just weren’t well-represented in the prize culture or the review culture,” Kon-yu says. “The thing that Stella has done really well is raise the profile of women and non-binary writers, and raise the awareness of their work.”
According to Nielsen data, 40% of Australian writers in the Top 50 adult fiction bestsellers in 2011 were male, and 60% female.
In 2020, 31% of volume sales were by male authors and 69% were by female authors.
The most profound change Kon-yu says she has observed in the Australian publishing industry in the past decade is the increased awareness of writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
This has yet, however, to translate into adequate representation of people of colour and First Nations writers in the literary prize culture, she says.
“Our whole system, the way in which we evaluate literature, is outdated,” she says. “We come from an English canonical idea of literary fiction which is narrow … and I don’t think there might be as many entries [in literary awards] by culturally and linguistically diverse or First Nations writers as there are [by] white writers.
“When I sat on the judging panel of the VPLA [Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards] unpublished manuscripts prize, I was looking avidly for work by diverse writers and it just wasn’t there … and that kind of broke my heart.”
• The Stella prize will mark the anniversary of its establishment on Thursday with a free Zoom forum featuring co-founder Chris Gordon in conversation with Carrie Tiffany (winner of the inaugural prize in 2013 for Mateship with Birds), Emily Bitto (winner of the 2015 prize for The Strays), and Claire G Coleman (shortlisted in 2018 for Terra Nullius).