Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Stella Prize Longlist 2016

The longlist for the 2016 Stella Prize has been announced, and it's as follows:

The Women’s Pages by Debra Adelaide
The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig
Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower
A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones
The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
A Short History of Richard Kline by Amanda Lohrey
Anchor Point by Alice Robinson
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

That's 8 novels, 3 short story / novella collections, and 1 essay collection, which is a less self-consciously egalitarian spread than in previous years, with their dutiful inclusions of non-fiction, history and biography titles that probably didn't really belong there. Perhaps this signals a maturation of the prize selection process, which would be no bad thing.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Stella. I've followed it with interest since its inception in 2013, and have discovered some truly amazing books through my annual attempt to read the shortlist (Margo Lanigan's Sea Hearts, Lisa Jacobson's The Sunlit Zone, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites and of course Sofie Laguna's unforgettable The Eye of the Sheep spring immediately to mind). I'm on board with the need for, and value of, a prize that celebrates writing by Australian women, and I like the fact that it is genre-agnostic, although not at the expense of quality.

That said, in my opinion, the prize has a 100% batting record for picking the wrong book to win, and in at least two of the three years, I would argue they actually chose the weakest book on the shortlist. 2013's winner, Mateship with Birds, was ... OK, I guess ... but honestly not a patch on either Sea Hearts or The Sunlit Zone, or even the over-long but still interesting Questions of Travel. Clare Wright's Eureka history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won in 2014, was frankly dull. Emily Bitto's The Strays, that took the prize in 2015, was a pretty interesting read but not close to as good as the mind-blowing The Eye of the Sheep.

So I will be approaching this year's longlist with caution (also born of the fact that I have Much to Do over the coming month other than read books, alas!) I've already started The World Without Us, which I am enjoying, so I'll finish that and review it before shortlist day on 10 March, and I will probably succumb to peer pressure and read A Guide to Berlin to satisfy all those raving about it. I'm unlikely to do more than those two before shortlist day, but I will make my usual valiant effort to do the shortlist before prize day if at all feasible.

As always with prize-list reading, I expect there to be some gems and some turkeys. I'm just crossing my fingers that the judges break the streak of picking weak winners this year.

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