Monday, April 02, 2007

New prize for writers: the Barbara Jefferis Award (part 1)

From Susan Wyndham in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald:

'... the Barbara Jefferis Award ... is launched today by the Australian Society of Authors.

Offering prizemoney of "at least $35,000", the award will be given annually from next year to "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. The novel may be in any genre and it is not necessary for it to be set in Australia."

Among the country's most generous book awards, it is funded by a $1 million bequest from Jefferis's husband, John Hinde, the ABC film critic who died last year. Hinde has also funded a new film script award for the Australian Writers' Guild.

Rosalind Hinde, a Sydney biologist, said her father established the Jefferis Award in his will with "the very clear and strong intention to honour my mother's writing, her feminism and her devotion to other writers".'

I'd hoped to have a long, considered post about this award up at this site before I went to bed last night, but the more I think about it, the more worms -- big fat wriggly ones -- I realise there are in this particular can. Here are a few of them:

What is an Australian author? What does 'positive' mean, and what 'empowers'? What is a level playing field, and why do we need one? How are women currently represented in Australian fiction, how were they in the past, and why is it more complicated than a simple 'for women only' literary prize? Why do people think it's their right to condemn and interfere with what other people choose to do in their wills with their own money?

So I am working on a long post trying to tease out all the different strands of our assumptions about writing and writers, about essentialism and feminism, about nationalism and whatever the other thing is, that are woven tighly up in this new award and the discussion about it. But I may, as Captain Oates remarked, be some time.


missv said...

You might be interested in this article from the Independent, following recent comments by the chair of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thanks very much for that link. I read those comments when they were first made, and my immediate reaction was that it isn't gender-specific. Something quite weird has happened to fiction writers' imaginations in the last decade or so. My theory is that we no longer expect to be told the truth even by the media, much less by the governments, so we have turned elsewhere -- to reading magazines, books, websites and blogs -- in the hope of not being lied to. I think this has done something very strange to our idea of what fiction is supposed to be.

elsewhere said...

I'll look forward to your longer piece. Great to know there is a new prize, and one that puts a priority on women's issues, but the criteria sound a little mysterious -- or dare I say dated? As if they're harking back to the old days of the 'images of women' feminist critique. I think the fiction about women I enjoy the most is that which shows women's lives in all their problematic glory rather than showing 'positive role models.' (I'm having irreverent jungfrau visions at this moment.)

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yeah -- there are various pieces round the online traps giving bits and pieces of information. No mention in the will is made of 'role models' --according to the ASA President it's more subtle and more open than that -- meant, rather, to exclude the sorts of novels that either relegate women to the role of object, construct them in a negative light, or exclude them altogether.

For example, the two books that sprang to my mind immediately were, as an ideal potential winner, Frank Moorhouse's Grand Days, and, as one I would personally count as ineligible, Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, whose heroine is sixteen to her romantic hero-lover's 32, and whose positive qualities insofar as she has any seem entirely due to her having been educated by her brother, her brother's gay tutor, and her lover. The lover loves her precisely because she is such a blank page upon which to write, though I'm sure Ms Hazzard would object to my putting it quite liike that. Elizabeth Costello is an obvious yes; The Riders is an obvious no.

(Actually since the award specifies 'an Australian writer' I hope that either the will or the ASA implements a clear non-negotiable definition of same, ie a Australian citizen, which would make Coetzee eligible but might rule out Hazzard.)

Jungfrau (is that what you meant, or am I over-reading here??) would be a shoo-in winner, in my estimation, because of the way all those girls have agency and energy and struggle actively against their times, and it's a good book.

Having said all that, I'd add for good measure that just because the 'images of women' thing was an early and comparatively simple form of feminist critique, it doesn't make it a bad, worthless or discredited one. God knows it's still an applicable and relevant approach to the movies.

dany le roux said...

How can you "empower" "status"?I think you could only "empower" a person and perhaps enhance that person's "status".
We at the Masculist Lit. Soc. decided long ago to avoid using the buzz words of the feminists because they had been so overused that they almost totally lost their meaning.

Ralph said...

Another award, possibly of interest, is the R. Carson Gold Short Story Competition, administered by FAWQ and worth a thousand dollars first prize - it's had a long history of questioning of its conditions for entry as laid down in the [Carson?] will. [Entrants must be born in Australia and the story must be set in Australia or adjacent islands].

Ali Jane Smith said...

By endowing this prize, John Hinde has pretty much guaranteed an annual discussion of feminism and women's status in Australia - a discussion that might even go beyond the phony work versus family argument.

I think it is beaut thing to do, and a great way to remember Barbara Jefferis.