The judges of the Stella Prize are currently trawling through 190 manuscripts in order to determine the winning female author of the new $50,000 Australian literary award, established to combat unconscious bias in literary recognition and prizes.
The award, announced on International Women's Day, will be presented in April 2013 and comes alongside a number of initiatives created in 2012 in order to tackle gender bias in the publishing industry, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog series.
Women have long been underrepresented in literary awards such as the Miles Franklin Awards – of which a woman has only won 14 times since its inception in 1957 (one of these, Thea Astley, won it four times). According to Stella Prize board chair and Scribe publisher Aviva Tuffield, such awards often go to stories that are "masculine, historical, bush life".
Tuffield tells Women's Agenda the goal of the Stella Prize is to celebrate and promote Australian women writers.
"This award is a celebration, not a combative thing," she says. "We're not attacking the other prizes. We've got our own agenda. We're running our own race
"We see the Stella Prize as an organisation for the promotion of women in the arts, specifically the literary arts. The award is symbolic, but we're also focused on an outreach program. For us, the announcements of the shortlist and the winner are only the beginning."
The outreach program will include events at writers' festivals, working with corporates and book club networks, and getting women authors into schools to deal with assumptions as early as possible. "Girls are expected to, and do read books with male or female heroes. Boys, not so much. It starts very, very young," says Tuffield.
She says the team were thrilled to receive 190 nominations, having only expected around 100 based on their experience with other literary prizes. About two thirds are fiction entries, and one third non-fiction. "This reflects what's been published and written by women in the last year," Tuffield says.
Non-fiction books were included in the award criteria in order to better engage male readers, says Tuffield. "It's true that men read less fiction than women. But non-fiction books, such as Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man is exactly the kind of well-researched, social, political, literary non-fiction books that men read."
The award has been funded by a range of private donors, and principally by philanthropist Ellen Koshland. It's managed by a voluntary board of publishers and literary organisers who juggle managing the awards with their regular jobs.
Tackling bias is never easy, but Tuffied is confident the Stella Prize has been launched at the right time.
"I'm really optimistic. 2012 has been really eye-opening. I'm not just talking about all the women involved in the 'destroying the joint' movement. I know a lot of men who are appalled by the comments that sparked that movement, " she says.
"We're seeing more shared parenting, and more men have been facing up to the fact that life is a juggle."
The shortlist for the award will be announced in March.
Rose Powell is a journalist with Women's Agenda sister publication StartUpSmart.
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