By Hannah Wootton
Heather Rose won the 2017 Stella Prize for her intricate and thought-provoking novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Established in 2013, the Stella aims to encourage and celebrate the writing of women. In reality, it does this and much more.
Women Who Write
Firstly, it provides tangible and much-needed funds to female writers. Most authors do not earn enough to comfortably live off, and literary prizes can help lessen that burden. Benjamin Law, one of the Prize’s judges this year, wrote that winning prizes does not make writers rich, but rather just means that they can continue working.
The financial difficulties faced by authors are exacerbated for female writers. A man having higher chances of success is as real a problem in writing as in any other profession. It is well known, for example, that JK Rowling released Harry Potter using her initials, rather than her full name, so as not to risk people not buying it because it was by a woman.
It is also telling that only 34 per cent of winners of the Booker Prize have been women.
An additional strain faced by female writers is the increased demands on their time. Rose believes that one of the most important requirements of writing a book is having space to think alone. This is harder for women, who often have more commitments outside work to balance.
“It’s incredibly difficult as a mother and as a woman to find that solitary thinking time,” she said.
“I think men and women equally work incredibly hard at their books, but I think that there’s more demanded of a woman’s time generally than there is of a man’s.”
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
With prize money of $50,000 and an invitation to a three-week writer’s retreat, the Stella provides female writers with just that.
Secondly, it is important that we continue to tackle negative perceptions of women who enjoy success and power.
“It’s hard to feel success as a woman and possibly even harder if you are an Australian woman,” Rose astutely observes
“With success comes a perception of power. And power in women is something we have yet to wholeheartedly welcome and embrace in Australia.”
A prize that specifically celebrates the abilities of women, and publicly treats them as successful, helps challenge the biases that make Rose’s observations sadly true.
By repeatedly doing this, in everything from the arts and politics to media and medicine, we can continue to work towards greater equality and acknowledgement.
Accolades In The Arts
It is particularly pertinent that this happens in the arts, where women have often struggled to be treated with the same respect as their male counterparts. In making a prize that is specifically for women, the Stella founders are loudly and vitally saying that the creative work of women is as worthy of money, accolades and attention as that of men.
Thirdly, it is imperative that the voices of women are heard. In a post-Trump world, where women are increasingly not being granted space, we need to get our stories and concerns into public conversation in any way that we can. Literature, and the arts more generally, is a powerful medium through which to personally communicate with people about the issues that matter.
In her keynote address at the Stella Prize Award Night, Dr Susan Carland spoke of how it is through writing that women can stand up.
“She riots, not with placards and marches and crowds, but with ink and paper,” Carland said.
“The traffic doesn’t stop for these riots, but we do. Individual people, men, and particularly women, boys, and particularly girls, around the country, pause and read her words and we know that something is very wrong.”
Rose also passionately believes that her role as a writer is to riot in this way, arguing, “in a world where, I believe, the pen is still mightier than the AK-47, it remains, no matter the challenges, our task to tell our stories.”
The Stella draws attention to these stories. It gives women the money to write them, the creative freedom and space that that money can buy, and the acknowledgement that may make people listen to them.
In this, the benefits of the Stella extend far beyond just the woman to whom it is awarded.
Make sure you check out Tharunka’s Women’s Issue, out on stands around campus tomorrow.