Carrie tiffany wins a stella prize of her own

The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000.

stella-logo-largeThe Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.

It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany – who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds – looks set to do.

Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award – a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” – which is yet to release a shortlist.

It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.

Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.

When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:

  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

The Conversation

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The Vogel: what’s age got to do with it?

Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday. As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”. At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

4857101224_614d21aecdMost writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.

As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.

At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.

Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.

Annie Proulx – of Shipping News fame – was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.

Other late bloomers include Anthony Burgess, 39, for Time for a Tiger (A Clockwork Orange appeared when he was 45); William Burroughs, 39, for Junky; and Henry Miller, 44, for Tropic of Cancer. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51 years of age.

And so the list of great authors who would have been unable to satisfy the Vogel’s eligibility requirements (era and citizenship notwithstanding) goes on.

To be fair, a good number of Australia’s leading novelists did manage to meet the deadline and kick-start their career with a Vogel win: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Mandy Sayer, Andrew McGahan, to name just a few.

And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.

The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.

Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?

Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin – who has since turned 35 – could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.

The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.

(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)

But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.

The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?

There’s a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.

“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”

Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.

But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel – and a good story can be told at any age.

The Conversation

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