a pair of ragged claws
In the six years since the “sausagefest” brouhaha over the all-male shortlist for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 65 writers have been longlisted for the nation’s most important book prize. The gender breakdown of the 2010-15 longlists is 36 women and 29 men. That slight margin carried to the shortlists, with 14 women and 11 men in final contention between 2010 and last year. The trend will continue when this year’s shortlist is announced on Monday, given the longlist contains eight novels by women and two by men. If one of the men — Craig Sherborne or Omar Musa — can defy the odds to go all the way, he will be the first male Miles Franklin winner since Kim Scott for That Deadman Dance in 2011.
A 55-50 per cent gender split on a literary prize should be unremarkable — but in the long history of the Miles Franklin it has been unusual, with male writers dominating since Patrick White won the inaugural award for Voss in 1957. In recent years that historical imbalance has started to correct. I say started because in the life of the award there have been 12 individual female winners and 27 male. So the only way balance could be achieved is if women were to monopolise proceedings in coming years.
This is where I find the recent statistics interesting. The “sausagefest” made headlines, but the next year, 2010, the longlist comprised nine men and three women, the shortlist four men and two women and the winner was Peter Temple for Truth. In 2011, the longlist had six men and three women, the shortlist three men and no women, and the winner was Scott. The judging panels in 2009 to 2011, which produced two all-male shortlists, consisted of three women and two men (some of the judges changed in this time, but that ratio did not).
It was at this time, 2011, that discussions started about setting up a rival prize for Australian women writers. There was a groundswell of support and the Stella Prize (cannily named for Stella Miles Franklin) made its debut in 2013. In just three years it has established itself on the literary scene. And it is here, in what I’ll call the post-Stella period, that the Miles Franklin starts to look different.
In 2012, with the Stella gathering steam, the Miles longlist and shortlist were more or less balanced and the winner in a split decision was Anna Funder for All That I Am. This was the final year in which women outnumbered men on the judging panel. In 2013, when the Stella awarded its first prize to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship With
Birds, the Miles longlist had eight women and two men and the shortlist was ... well, I daren’t guess at the female equivalent of sausagefest, but there were five women and no men. Last year, the longlist had seven women and four men and this year it has eight women and two men. The 2013-15 judging panels have each been composed of three men and two women.
So since the Stella came into being, the Miles longlist has strongly favoured women over men. Is it possible the Stella, and the general gender debate, has been on the judges’ minds? Or that in the past three years our male novelists simply have not produced the goods? Or the more men on a judging panel the more women in contention? Anything is possible, they say. The 10 writers vying for Monday’s shortlist are: Sherborne ( Tree Palace), Musa ( Here Come the Dogs), Elizabeth Harrower ( In
Certain Circles), Sonya Hartnett ( Golden Boys),
Sofie Laguna ( The Eye of the Sheep), Joan London ( The Golden Age), Suzanne McCourt ( The Lost Child), Favel Parrett ( When the Night Comes), Christine Piper ( After Darkness) and Inga Simpson ( Nest). Good luck to all.
Quote of the week: “The internet doesn’t just offer opportunities for misogynistic abuse, you know. Penis enlargers can also be bought discreetly.’’ JK Rowling, on Twitter, KOs a troll who calls her “JK bitchface” and a “Labor c..t” in response to her tweets on the British elections.