The Stella Prize and its 2017 winner

By Isobel Blackthorn

Could there ever be enough literary prizes to satisfy the ambition of authors? For a very small literary market, Australia has a healthy complement, from the most lucrative Miles Franklin Award through to the State Premier and Prime Minister’s awards. Criteria differ, although many prizes have an appetite for distinctly Australian works and each year the short lists predictably contain many well-known literary favourites.

Mirroring the UK’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Stella Prize differs from the rest by celebrating works composed by women. The prize encompasses both fiction and nonfiction and is awarded to works that make a significant contribution to literature. The Stella Prize – the name itself is a reference to Miles Franklin, whose first name was Stella – has its genesis at a panel held at Melbourne’s prestigious independent bookstore, Readings, on International Women’s Day, 2011. Those present expressed concern that most literary prizes in Australia were awarded more frequently to male authors, which seemed to indicate an undervaluing of women writers, an undervaluing also reflected in numbers of book reviews, earnings and sales. A group of dedicated founders, representing the finest in the literary editorial and publishing milieu, drew inspiration from the UK and set about securing seed funding. The prize soon benefitted from the patronage of arts philanthropist Ellen Koshland.

Recently, the prize celebrated its fifth anniversary with Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction, or faction, based on the life of performance artist, Marina Abramovíc. Perhaps the term ‘faction’ carries disparaging connotations, yet it accurately defines a trend in modern literature as authors turn to the lives of real individuals and choose to depict them in fiction rather than biography. Historical fiction is where most faction can be found, and receives not inconsiderable critique from those offended by the trend, those who prefer their facts presented in nonfictional works, leaving fiction to make believe. That the Stella Prize has chosen to endorse such a work may serve to hush those voices.

All literary prizes should alert the international community to the quality of prose coming out of a particular territory. The Stella Prize is no exception. The inaugural prize, awarded to Carrie Tiffany in 2013 for Mateship with Birds, set the tone for winners to come by singling out a work that serves as an antidote to the traditional rural romance, a work that through its dark themes and harsh realism harkens back to Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright. Consequently, Mateship with Birds does not fall into the category of popular page turner. The second prize winner was Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a work of nonfiction focussing on one of Australia’s numerous dark stories of history, the real lives of those on the goldfields. Other winners are Emily Bitto’s The Strays, a study of the fortunes, for better, for worse, of an imaginary artistic commune in 1930s Melbourne and loosely based on the real Heide circle; and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, a work that perhaps best depicts the essence of the Stella Prize, through its exploration of the nature of being female in contemporary Western society, with all of the associated frustrations.

Undeniably the 2017 winner, The Museum of Modern Love is one of those books judges are looking for, one that makes the mind tingle, a work of pure literary fiction pertaining to art and the creative process. The story depicts performance artist Marina Abramovíc through her installation ‘The Artist is Present’ at MOMA, New York, and explores the nature of art and creativity through the eyes of her onlookers, notably composer Arky Levin and art teacher Jane Miller. The Museum of Modern Love is a thoughtful, considered work that is impossible to pass over, requiring appreciation as it appreciates, at every turn, the phenomenon of the artist as their own composition. Through her troubled characters, Rose explores the theme of pain, in the first instance pondering the real physical pain of sitting completely still all day for seventy-five days and the endurance required to sustain it.

It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.

In the second, the emotional pain of loss and grief and the determination required to transcend it.

He’d been six foot four and always well-built. Still, all of it, in the end, every scrap of weight and muscle and even some of his height, fell away, leaving him a Giacometti man, all lean purpose against the wind of death.

In fine prose, Rose exploits interior intimacy to its full, the result an introspective and slow-paced work that will delight lovers of literature, even as it will inevitably fail to appeal to the popular market.

Each year, the Stella Prize identifies a work that helps to elevate not only high quality writing, but Australian art, culture and history, works that in some fashion break stereotypes and identify Australia as a country steeped in its own creative traditions, and not a nation littered with cans of beer, kangaroos and Vegemite sandwiches. Through its study of a Serbian artist with tenuous and controversial associations with Australia, The Museum of Modern Love deviates from the other winners, providing domestic readers with a refreshing shift of focus away from our own shores, revealing perhaps the Stella Prize’s determination to transcend provincial limitations, and attain for its winners global recognition for excellence.

Isobel Blackthorn is a novelist and book reviewer. You can find more of her writing on her website , or find her on Twitter @IBlackthorn  

Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, 2016). 978 1760291860, 296pp., paperback.

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