Some brief, provisional and (I’m sure) clumsy thoughts on the 2016 Stella Prize longlist …
I like that the chair of the Stella Prize judging panel, Brenda Walker, has chosen to publish some broad-ranging comments about the Stella longlist. It’s particularly interesing (for me, anyway) that she has chosen to emphasise that ‘Many of the works on the longlist are set in the countryside, adding to a tradition in Austrralian literature that offers both idyllic and unsettling accounts of rural life’. A tempting first response to this is, ‘Ahrrrrrr, not more gum trees’ – and I do feel that way to some extent. But ‘Ahrrrrrr’ by itself isn’t much of a response. For one thing, these books might simply, so far as the judges are collectively concerned, best embody the judging criteria. Fair enough, given the limits and compromises that afflict all judging panels. Still, Walker’s comments invite further discussion. Do Australian writers – in this case, Australian women writers – write stories about the rural better than the urban? And are Australian women fiction writers writing better books – or, to follow the Stella Prize’s criteria, more ‘excellent, original and engaging’ books – than non-fiction writers? I say ‘no’ and ‘no’ to these two questions, but there are no correct answers: it’s a matter of opinion for individual readers (or judges). And answers will differ over time, and certainly from year to year. (As a side question, what does ‘engaging’ actually mean?)
In the meantime, it’s not like all these rural-themed or rural-set books are all exactly the same. Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds, set on the fringe of a town and featuring cows as well as people, is one of my favourite Australian novels of the last decade (it won the inaugural Stella Prize, and it was a surprise to me – just personally – that it didn’t also win the Miles Franklin Literary Award). From this year’s longlist, Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, a book I reviewed and enjoyed, is set mostly on a farm, but Frew’s focus on hippy lifestyle and culture gives it a distinctive, almost other-wordly feel.
The debate about the relative merits, and the hierarchy, of rural and urban stories in Australian writing is very well-worn. It’s a debate, for example, that has dogged the Miles Franklin Literary Award for years. But part of that discussion about the Miles Franklin involves the historical privileging of male novelists (and, so often, men-centric stories) as well as non-urban stories. But it is intriguing – and, again, it’s a conversation that I think Walker invites – to se the the rural-urban discussion popping up re the Stella too.