The Stella Prize 2014 award night
Keynote speech by Annabel Crabb 8 May 2014
In the last six months, I have slept with more than 160 women. It sounds exhausting, because it is. But I do mean it quite literally. I have fallen asleep with my face in biographies, historical adaptations, and with bold new voices in fiction lending fierce, yet tautly compelling, narratives to my dreams. I have curled up with feminist polemics, and graphic novels. My bedside table is a tottering tribute to my promiscuity. For months, I read, and read, and read, with an appetite verging on the goatish. But at some point each night, usually with my forefinger marking the page and the bedside lamp lightly tanning my eyelids, I inevitably dropped off.
I have learned many things. I have learned, for instance, that the very best thing about reading a great book is the same as the very worst thing about reading a bad book; the deep and unshakeable secret suspicion that perhaps if I wrote a book, it would turn out like this one.
When you read as normal human beings read, you are guided by all sorts of unseen forces. You choose things you think you'll like. You avoid things you just know you're going to hate. You read things you have to read. And necessarily, it means that you miss out. Increasingly, in recent decades, I have read for business rather than specifically for pleasure. The stack of porky political memoirs, essays, policy tomes, biographies, forensic accounts of the rise of this person and the fall of that one never seems to get any smaller. I should read them all, and I try to, so to take any time out at all to read anything outside of politics, has over the years – and this has got worse with every baby – started to feel like an indulgence. So I cut back on all those other genres: Fiction. Fantasy. Exercise and diet books. Self-help. Horror. Travel writing. Apart from, of course, Bob Carr's memoir, which is – happily – all of those things.
So when I signed up for Stella, it was with the inexpressibly sick strategy that if I turned the reading of other books into an actual obligation, I could then enjoy them guilt-free. And it worked like a charm.
Reading as a judge is a completely different sort of experience. Instead of picking your own weird little goat-track through the books published in any given year, all of a sudden you're reading all of them. This gives you a perspective unavailable to just about anyone else, with the possible exception of certain parts of the publishing industry, a tiny slice of the OCD community, and a hardy band of retired English teachers.
All of a sudden, you start to see patterns. A rash of "Every Mother's Nightmare" books. A strong contingent of emotionally-knotty adventures set in tropical, exotic or distant climes. I blame the artificially depressed price of international airline travel for these, plus the ghostly hand of Michelle de Kretser, who in her Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel did what countless thousands of Australians before her have impotently aspired to do, which is to write a superb novel about backpacking. I am reminded of 1991, when Andrew McGahan's Praise won the Vogel, and everyone I knew at university – myself included – sat down to write our own gritty works incorporating filthy share houses, doomed love affairs and stoned misadventures. I would like personally to express my sympathy for any subsequent Vogel judge who had to weather that derivative wave of dirty realism.
Folded inside every great novel are the countless spores of its illegitimate children; now there's a depressing thought.
But I must say for all the rough stuff I encountered on the way, my Stella reading was a chasteningly good experience. Chasteningly, because when I sat down to read such a vast cross-section of the books written by Australian women in the last year, I realised how much good stuff I've missed from not doing so every year.
So many stories, so many ideas, so many insights. I miss them because I read predominantly for work. Others might miss them every year for all sorts of reasons; because they're not up the front at bookshops, or because they're not reviewed in the paper. That's the beating heart of the Stella idea, I suppose; it's a bid not to create quality, but to remind you, by means of a discreet little bookshop cough, where you might easily find it. We all need a little push.
Let me tell you a little about the judging process. I should mention, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Stella bylaws, that the Prize mandates the appointment of five judges. Four are to be experts. One judging post is to be reserved for a high-profile person who is not known primarily as an author. That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Of the judges on the panel, I alone courageously represent the voice of inexpert Australia. And it's a responsibility I do not wear lightly, I assure you.
The actual expertise was supplied by our chair, Kerryn Goldsworthy, and her colleagues Brenda Walker, Tony Birch and Fiona Stager. At our all-day judging session – sort of like the best-ever English literature tutorial, without the annoying Kerouac groupie – we agreed of our shortlist that all of us could live with any one of those six books winning. In one way, of course, that made it harder. But in another, it was a blessed release. I can assure you there was none of that stomping and huffing you hear about from time to time, and I would like to thank my fellow judges for their wisdom and good humour.
And we ended up with a pearler of a shortlist. Three nonfiction and three fiction, which was a complete accident, but a terrifically nice one. It's all about Wrights and Nights, of course, which was also – I promise – an accident, but which makes us extremely at home in this first term of the Abbott Government.
It's not necessary for Stella books to be about women, but it's something I love very much about this shortlist that every single book on it tells us a hidden woman's story.
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites has been a huge success, and rightly so. How extraordinary that a 200-year-old Icelandic murderess could be exhumed from her freezing grave, a shriveled packet of unreadable old passions, a Scandinavian bog-woman, and so tenderly have the life breathed back into her by a young Adelaide writer. Hannah Kent's technical skills are so obvious that they hardly need me to point them out, but to bring deep suspense to a story whose ending is clear from the very beginning; quite an achievement. A very hard book to stop reading.
Anna Krien is one of Australia's most compelling long-form journalists. Her toughness and persistence is evident all the way through Night Games, the story of a rape case involving a shifting number of AFL footy players, depending on whether you were part of the jury or not. The amazing thing about Krien is that her toughness is combined with this incredible sensitivity, which is what makes this such a special book. As a reporter, she's covered with nerve endings, and that's a hard way to be, especially in the cops and footy areas. You can feel the intellectual and emotional work she's put into this book on every page.
Fiona McFarlane is a baffling proposition; a young woman, a first-time novelist, who has written, in The Night Guest, about an old woman with such assurance and panache that by the half-way mark I wanted to requisition her birth certificate. Who are the most hidden women in literature? Old women, and this book is hugely sharp, funny, sexy and all those other things that books about old women hardly ever are. It made me laugh out loud, and I've circled the exact places where, Fiona, just in case you're anything like me and always want to know.
Kristina Olsson's book Boy, Lost is a mesmerising reminder that sometimes the person closest to you in the world can be a hidden person. To write about the suffering of others is an unavoidably intimate thing to do. To write about the suffering of one's own mother is unbearable, especially if it's news to you, and yet somehow Olsson manages to keep it together. I don't know how, God knows I didn't, I was a mess reading it. A snatched child. A lifetime of missed chances at reunion. It's a work of love, miraculous in its sheer emotional stamina, its faith, so like that of a child.
Alexis Wright's The Swan Book is literally about a hidden woman; a girl who hides in a hollow tree while the world disintegrates around her. But nothing else about The Swan Book is literal; of all the things I learned from this book, the most profound was a new way of reading, the discipline of patience it instills in a reader, the value of simply sitting still and listening to a raucous, cacophonic, elliptical display of rage and beauty. Reading this book is like sitting through the most extraordinary electrical storm. For a while, you fight against your powerlessness in the face of it. And after a bit, it dawns on you that that's the point.
And finally, Clare Wright's The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Over ten years, Clare Wright took to the nation's well-known portrait of the Eureka rebellion with all the care of a conservator, dabbing away it and revealing, stroke by stroke, the women who had silently been there all along. It's hard to imagine a more exciting work of history, and indeed this brick of a book is thrilling from the very first page, demonstrating that even the events we think we know so well can harbour vast and teeming secret lives.
I recommend all six of these books to you tonight. I hope I have adequately preserved the last secret – which of them has won the Stella Prize – for the last final agonising minutes of my life in which I am formally required to do so. I am a journalist, so discretion is not my strongest point. My mother-in-law, a retired English teacher who read all of the long list, has been at me like you wouldn't believe. I have a text message to her ready to go, as soon as Kerryn is out of her chair.
At this moment, each one of those six books is a contender. And for us as judges, they always were.
– Annabel Crabb, 2014 Stella Prize judge
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