The shortlist for the 2016 Stella Prize was announced on 10 March, with the winner due to be named on next week. As has been the trend (if that word applies to a prize with such a short lifespan to date), the shortlist is an interesting mix, with two stand-outs. A review of the first three years of the prize’s operation, however, leads me to the view that neither of the two “best” books will win. The Stella has a puzzling history of fixating on the weakest title on a strong shortlist to gift the honours and the, in Australian terms, hefty prize money ($50,000 AUD, which is more than many writers will make in three years of hard work on their fiction).
The Stella Prize was established in 2013 as a major literary award to celebrate writing by Australian women, and encourage increased gender diversity in the literary fiction community as a whole. It’s name for the birth name of one of Australia’s best-known male-pseudonymous writers, Stella “Miles” Franklin, the author of My Brilliant Career. It’s a double dig at the Australian literary scene’s male-dominated landscape, as Australia’s richest literary prize overall is called the Miles Franklin — named after the male pen name of a writer whom many Australians still don’t realise was in fact a woman.
Unlike many literary prizes, the Stella is not restricted to fiction — essay collections, biographies, histories, and other non-fiction forms have appeared on every longlist since the prize’s inception, and the 2014 prize was actually won by a history text, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (about the role of women in the famed Australian goldfields rebellion). It does not allow poetry collections or multi-writer anthologies, however, which is an understandable, if sometimes disappointing, limitation.
This year’s shortlist includes two short story collections, one essay collection, and three novels, which is reasonably typical of this prize. The shortlisted books are all contenders, but there are stronger titles and books with more apparent flaws.
The Natural Way of Things stuns with its exploration of misogyny and culture
At this late stage before the announcement, the crowd and critical favourite is clearly Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. This brutal dystopia shines a light on modern misogyny in a manner reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, although Wood’s writing is much sparer, and more embedded in Australian idiom, than Atwood’s. The central idea, which is spoken and hinted at and pivotal to the action of the book, is that women’s sexuality is a matter for punishment — that sexual transgression (affairs with married colleagues, flings with people who are not appropriate partners, and so forth) is always the fault and responsibility of the woman, and that it is she who ought to be penalised for it.
The book packs a powerful punch through its deliberate amplification and distortion of modern social norms and rherotic around “fallen women”, but the reason it is so uncanny and potent is the deft way it picks up and echoes actual real-world dialogues about women. One of the characters, Yolanda, whose “crime” was to speak up vociferously about her gang rape at the hands of a group of beloved Australian footballers, reflects the real discourse that polluted Australian media and commentary when several such real cases were on foot over the past few years. (Australian football has a deservedly poor reputation for the sexual behaviour of its players and the weak, victim-blaming response of its administration and fans).
By taking the cultural assumption of womens’ corruption and fault and combining it with older narratives about the punitive value of Australia as a prison island, Wood manages to play these ideas out to their ultimate, horrific conclusion: that women should, deserve to, suffer when they diverge from rigid boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour is the underlying premise of everything done to the 10 girls, and the realisation that leads the two main protagonists, Yolanda and Verla, to a final understanding of why they are being tortured and how inevitable their ongoing degradation will be back in the world. It is a book that deserves to be more widely read than it probably will be, with its brutality a disincentive for some kinds of readers and its frank feminist disgust at misogyny a precluder for others (probably those who most need to read it, truth be told).
An accidental theme: Communes and beyond
The shortlist also features two other novels, Hope Farm by Peggy Frew and The World Without Us by Mireille Jucheau. With the curious syncroncity that often seems to happen in both the literary and film world, these books, although stylistically dissimilar, share an organising theme and plot device — both are set in rural locations and feature main characters whose lives are shaped by their involvement in childhood hippy-style communes. Australia still has a number of commune-type settlements in parts of rural New South Wales and Victoria, although, as a model for life, it has not proven to be very robust over time (as both these novels explore). Until this year’s Stella list, however, I had never read a work of Australian fiction that dealt with these communities, and now I’ve read two.
The World Without Us is primarily a novel about loss, and how its impact is felt and reflected in ways that might not be expected or apparent. Given its subject matter, I found it a surprisingly cool, gentle book in many ways, stirring only a muted emotional response while posing some interesting intellectual questions. It’s not the easiest book stylistically — the prose is clear and uncomplicated, but the pacing is a bit wonky and I did not much like the long, dreamy passages where nothing happens and no one does anything. (Description is not my strongest suit as a reader or a writer.) It’s a good book, but not, to my mind, in the same class as The Natural Way of Things.
Hope Farm picks up on a strong recent trend in Australian literary fiction, which is to write novels for adults with a child or adolescent narrator. (The winner of last year’s Miles Franklin, The Eye of the Sheep, is a great exemplar of this). Unlike The World Without Us, Hope Farm’s ashram / commune is in the present — the everyday reality of the misunderstood and maligned 13-year-old protagonist, Silver. I enjoyed this book, although I thought the plotting was a little sloppy. It’s no mean feat to imbue a book about a basically dysfunctional world with warmth and optimism, but Frew pulls it off.
Essays and short stories have their day in the sun
The two short story collections, Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett and A Few Days in the Country (And Other Stories) by Elizabeth Harrower, are reported to be polar opposites in terms of themes and style. I have dipped into Harrower’s collection, finding it to be sharp, sly and often wicked, but I have yet to attempt Bennett’s. Bennett’s book is getting good press, and it’s worth noting that it’s the only work of fiction on this year’s shortlist that engages with an urban / suburban Australian aesthetic — as is depressingly common for serious literary fiction in this country, most of these books feature rural or bush / outback landscapes. The fact that many writers seem to see rural or bush locations as essential to underline their Australianness is puzzling and disheartening to me, given how primarily urban / suburbanised contemporary Australia really is.
The final book on the shortlist is the other serious contender for the prize (therefore, by the law of contraries I expressed earlier, also won’t win). It’s Fiona Wright’s essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance, which interweaves the dissection of her lifelong battle with anorexia with stories of travel, maturity and literary criticism. Wright is an accomplished essayist, and this book never palls, with is not something that can be said of most non-fiction collections. It is an important book in a similar way to The Natural Way of Things, telling some uncomfortable truths to power about the roots of dysfunction and the heavy hand of misogyny on the world.
All in all, it’s a strong shortlist — there’s no book on it that has occasioned any outraged howls of whhhhhhyyyyy, which is not uncommon in literary award land. I think — should win, and the current odds agree with me (yes, Australians bet on literary awards, as on everything else in the world — we are, unfortunately, a nation of gamblers). However, given the track record of this prize, I also will not be surprised to be surprised by a different outcome.
Photo: Sam/Creative Commons