At the risk of never eating lunch in this town again or at least not making invitation lists for future Davitt Awards and Stella Prize, I’m going to weigh into the debate about gender bias in Australian crime writing awards recently reignited by Tara Moss and suggest that maybe, just maybe, gender alone does not determine who wins what.
Before you shoot me down in flames, stab me in the back or lace my latte with poison, I don’t deny the overwhelming evidence that women’s writing is less likely to be reviewed and nominated for awards—sadly, even when the reviewers and judges themselves are women. I find it woeful that years go by where no women writers are shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, a prize founded by a feminist who felt she had to publish under a man’s name. And it sucks that in ten years, only one woman has won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction.
But I find it interesting on the rare occasions when there is a level playing field, the outcomes vary wildly.
In 2001, the Sisters in Crime Australia founded the national Davitt Awards for women’s crime fiction, named in honour of Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) who wrote Australia’s first mystery novel, Force and Fraud in 1865. By 2001, the Ned Kelly Awards run by the Crime Writers Association of Australia and named for an infamous criminal had been running for five years. Of the 18 prizes awarded in all categories during that time, only three had gone to women. Not surprising that the Sisters in Crime took matters into their own hands.
Both awards are offered for crime writing by Australian authors and works are nominated each year by publishers. The Davitts are exclusively for women, all relevant books written by Australian women are eligible, and there are no short lists. Books nominated for the Neddies are shortlisted a month out from the awards night.
The Davitts are awarded in the categories of Best Adult Fiction, Best Young Adult Fiction, Readers’ Choice and, since 2007, True Crime.
The Neddies are awarded in the categories of Best Fiction, Best First Fiction, Best True Crime, Lifetime Achievement Award and, since 2009, a Short Story Prize named in honour of writer and journalist SD (Sandra) Harvey. A short-lived Readers’ Vote was awarded in 2001 and 2002, to Lindy Cameron and Bunty Avieson respectively.
The only categories that really lend themselves to comparison across the two awards are those for Best Fiction/Best Adult Fiction and Best True Crime.
Andrew Nette notes that between 2002-2011, unlike the category of Best Fiction, in the category of True Crime, the results of the Ned Kelly Awards are evenly split. Five women have won it (a tie between two women in 2007) and five men (a tie between two men in 2002).
Women writers have won the Ned Kelly True Crime award four times since the same category was introduced into the Davitt Awards five years ago. But only once during this time has judges’ choice coincided: in 2009 for Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man.
None of the other four women who have won a Ned Kelly Award for True Crime have won a Davitt Award in the same category.
Two books by women were shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for True Crime in 2011, with Geesche Jacobsen winning for Abandoned – The Sad Death of Dianne Brimble. Neither of the shortlisted books won the Davitt, which went to Colleen Egan for Murderer No More.
No gender bias in these results, just difference of opinion. And perhaps different selection criteria.
While Gabrielle Lord pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning a Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction for Death Delights in 2002, she did not win the Davitt that year. The Davitt prize for Adult Fiction went to Carolyn Morwood for A Simple Death. (Lord shared the Davitt the following year with Alex Palmer).
In the last five years, not only have no women won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction, only two women have been shortlisted: Dorothy Porter for El Dorado in 2008, and myself for The Half-Child in 2011. The Davitt Awards for Best Adult Fiction were won both years by Katherine Howell for Frantic and Cold Justice respectively.
Bottom line is the awarding of literary prizes will always be subject to bias of one kind or another. It’s the nature of the beast. Literary prizes can’t be awarded like sporting trophies to the one who comes first, run fastest, jumps furthest or scores the most points. Somewhere along the line issues like taste, personal preference, zeitgeist are bound to come into play—even when you account for gender bias.
I have no doubt bias worked in my favour when my manuscript for a crime novel won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2004: at least one judge on the panel that year was an award winning (male) crime fiction writer.
As someone who juggles a demanding, underpaid job in the community sector with being a writer, partner and parent, I wholeheartedly welcome the advent of more literary prizes—such as the Stella—for which my work might be eligible. And I eagerly await more information on what criteria will govern the awarding of the Stella Prize(s).
But will winning prizes bring me closer to my goal of making a living from writing fiction? There are plenty of authors on bestseller lists who don’t win literary awards. And plenty of award winning authors whose books don’t sell.
Best I can do is keep trying to write more and write better books, thankful to be a published author; and also to support writers who I believe deserve more attention from publishers, reviewers and judges.
At least in my opinion.