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)

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Nancy huston scoops a bad sex award

I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth: “He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”. But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered. At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

31299_3I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth:

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”.

But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered.

At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

The judges were impressed by Huston’s alliterative descriptions of the human body, such as ‘flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ or ‘my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water’ or this passage which reminds readers (or not) that the brain is the largest sex organ:

When our bodies unite for the third time we leave all theatres behind. What happens then has as little to do with the libertinage prized by the French (oh the blasphemers, the precious precocious ejaculators, the nasty naughty boys, the cruel fouteurs and fouetteurs) as with the healthy, egalitarian intercourse championed by Americans (who hand out bachelors degrees in G-points, masters in masturbation and Ph.Ds in endorphines).

The undaunted might like to read a more graphic excerpt at the Guardian. Huston, who now lives in Paris, did not cross the channel to collect her award, but she did send a brief acceptance speech:

I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.

The plural possessive apostrophe, I’m told, is not an error.

Huston – whose accolades include France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, and a shortlisting for the 2010 Orange Prize – is only the third woman to win the Bad Sex prize since its inception in 1993.

The Conversation

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XX chromosomes returned to the Miles Franklin

439628-anna-funderJust because it’s the debate we had to have, didn’t mean it wasn’t going to hurt.

The fracas began in 2011 when the Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, unveiled its all-male shortlist.

The gender imbalance might have gone unnoticed, if it hadn’t coincided with the latest VIDA research that revealed an alarming under-representation of female authors and critics in international literary pages.

Back in Australia, female authors were horrified to find VIDA’s inequities replicated in Australian publications. In sharp response, Sophie Cunningham and a handful of writers, publishers and commentators decided to do something about the lack of profile accorded female authors.

The result is a $50,000 literary prize for a book in any genre by a female Australian author: The Stella Prize. The eponymous award retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin believed she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

Forwarding a year, Professor Gillian Whitlock announced, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney today, a very different Miles Franklin shortlist for 2012:

Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Whitlock framed the shortlist in terms experience rather than gender: “The breadth of the shortlist includes well-known and loved Australian authors, as well as featuring two wonderful first-time novelists.”

She also highlighted the power of historical fiction (Funder and Moore) and an observable turn to trauma narratives and childhood (Birch, Mears and Parrett).

Debates on gender – along with the concurrent debate on the invisibility of Australian literature – are useful and will lead to greater understanding of our literary milieu. But it would be a travesty if these conversations were to throw doubt over the merits of the female authors shortlisted amid the uproar.

Frank Moorhouse is the heavy hitter on the list, but from what I hear the contest is still very much alive. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane on 20 June.

The Conversation

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Mateship with birds: you have to push in

Review of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland. Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love.

066558-carrie-tiffanyEveryman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland.

Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love. He has his eye on Betty Reynolds, the unmarried mother of Michael and Little Hazel, who rents a small house next door. Betty is forty-five; for eight years Harry has watched her body age: ‘When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth.’ The air around them is thick with reticence. If there is sexual tension between them, it is buried deep. There doesn’t seem to be much need for talk, the narrator observes, but sometimes they talk about bunions.

Given its title – borrowed from A.H. Chisholm’s 1922 book of bird notes – a reader could be forgiven for thinking Tiffany’s novel is about ornithology. To a small degree it is. Harry observes a family of kookaburras that roost on his farm, and records his notes in poetry. Harry’s first poem, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, is written for Betty’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael. It begins:

The day starts in their throats.
Dad first, then Mum,
Tiny and Club-Toe.
The form of them in the red gum
by the dairy.
As regular as clockwork
they make their request for air.

Clichés aside (‘regular as clockwork’), at times the poems deliver a pleasing turn of phrase. Harry doesn’t pretend to be a poet, so there is not much use in applying a critical eye to his work. But given that his six poems span almost forty pages (approximately twenty per cent of the novel), Tiffany might have been wiser to submit Harry’s ramblings to a severe pruning. By any standard, the poems are too long, reliant on generalities, and painfully repetitive. How many times, for instance, can a reader encounter the likes of this without being tempted to skip ahead: ‘They come at dusk, / one by one. / Mum, Dad, / Club-Toe / and Bub.’

But poetry is not all that Harry is inspired to write. One day, after a morning spent artificially inseminating heifers, Harry stumbles upon Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which – along with the courtship rituals of spiders – presents a series of case studies detailing the sexual histories of ordinary men and women.

In the evenings, armed with a cup of Milo, a sharpened pencil, and several sheets of Basildon Bond, Harry sits down to write his own intimate disclosures. He begins with his earliest memories of sexual arousal at age four or five, moves through various teen gratifications, and concludes with the pleasures and problems of his former conjugal bed. Harry addresses his letters to Michael in an effort to save the boy from the sexual ignorance Harry himself had experienced.

But Harry is not content to restrict his tutelage to theory. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the novel – and it must be said, there are many – Harry takes Michael behind the dairy to where the phalaris grass has gone to seed. Michael looks on as Harry clips the seed heads and prunes the clump. Harry clears his throat:

Strong and wiry, Michael, the female pubic bush. Coarse. Nothing like the soft hair of the head. I’ve always thought of it more as fur than hair. Similar colouring can be expected. Dark hair, dark bush; mousy hair, mousy bush and so on, and it’ll all go to grey in the end with senile decay. Not that you have to worry about that for a while, eh?

Harry takes Michael’s hand and places it on top of the phalaris. ‘Don’t be tempted to stay on the surface,’ he instructs, ‘you have to push in.’ Still holding Michael’s hand, Harry concludes: ‘The pubic bush. A bloody miracle. And it has no sense of gravity. Despite being stuck halfway up in the air most of the time, from what I can see it doesn’t droop.’

It is not clear what Michael – or the reader for that matter – is to make of these ‘lessons’, but needless to say when Betty learns of the sexual tutelage Harry has given her son, she is not happy. Worryingly, the novel’s easy resolution invites the reader to disregard Harry’s actions rather than see them as, at minimum, outrageously misguided and – it must be said – a little icky.

Conceivably an exploration of 1950s sexuality might have made a fascinating study, but ultimately Tiffany’s new novel offers little insight into the most fundamental of human desires. Her characters, uniformly doleful, remain opaque throughout, and the narrative fails to achieve lift off. Perhaps Tiffany would have done better to cast her material as a short story and save her second novel for one more fitting of the talent promised by her impressive first.

This article was originally published under the title ‘Dubious Lessons’ in Australian Book Review 338 (Feb 2012): 27.