The Stella Prize – the next, bold iteration

Friday, December 11, 2015
By: 
Angela Serrano

A figure from the 2014 Stella Count
A figure from the 2014 Stella Count

In 2016, the Stella Prize will release its inaugural Diversity Count. Modelled after the annual Stella Count, which tallies the publication and review of women’s fiction and non-fiction books, the Diversity Count will look to statistically collect ‘data about race, disability, non-binary gender identification, and sexual orientation’. Inspired by the VIDA Women of Color Count, which documents the number of publications by self-identified women writers of colour, the methodology of the Stella Prize’s Diversity Count is still being developed, but is likely to solicit data from reviewed book authors who self-identify as being from ‘diverse’ backgrounds.

For many, this is a welcome, pioneering initiative. Statistics are a valuable addition to diverse writers’ lived experiences. They help identify what can be done to address the barriers that prevent the publication and review of quality work by diverse writers. These statistics could potentially remove the burden of exposing unequal representation and unfair industry practices from the shoulders of writers from diverse backgrounds, making the diversification of the publishing scene every culture-making Australian’s responsibility.

It is a daunting task. There will always be things that can be done better, that might only become obvious after much work has been done. The collection of evidence will be hard enough, but the consequent task will be much harder: the task of making cultural production and reception more representative of publics that seek cultivation, who seek stories that resonate with their experiences, hopes, and fears. Nevertheless, early contributions from relevant parties can help identify problems that are best resolved in the initial stages. The comments below are given in the spirit of collaboration, and it is hoped they are received in kind.

What does ‘diversity’ mean?

Who gets to be considered ‘diverse’ in Australia today? Besides those who identify as Indigenous, all others might be considered ‘settlers’ or ‘migrants’. Yet various settler and migrant groups have experienced barriers to cultural production at different stages in Australian history. At what point does someone from a migrant background become part of the majority?

The question then becomes, are there specific ethnic backgrounds that should be considered ‘diverse’ for the purposes of the Stella Diversity Count? In the 2014 VIDA Women of Color Count, race identification was based on a self-selected set of boxes to tick based on US census categories. The only category for those who do not identify as belonging to several categories of ‘Asian’, ‘Black’, ‘Latin/Spanish Hispanic’, and various combinations of mixed-race options, is ‘white’ – a category that many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern writers in Australia might find problematic. The question then is, what kind of ‘white’ should constitute the majority standard of ‘whiteness’ against which ethnic diversity should be counted?

Religious identification is absent from the early formulation of the Diversity Count. Freedom of worship, respect for human rights, and upholding multiculturalism within a secular state, are relevant issues in contemporary public life. The prevalence of anti-Islamic sentiment in the light of recent global events indicates that some religions are associated with particular values, and individuals who practice these religions are often subject to street, school and employment discrimination based on behaviour and values perceived to be associated with religion. Whether religious identification should or shouldn’t be included in the inaugural Count is worth considering.

Questions of publication choices and reviewing opportunities

The Diversity Count intends to survey Australian books published and reviewed in 2015. Results may show that non-white, and/or non-binary-gender-identifying, and/or non-heterosexual, and/or people with disabilities, have not published much reviewed work. Books published and reviewed in 2015 is a difficult baseline for assessing the range of diverse publications in this or any year. The choice of what kind of work will be counted excludes quality work in other types of publications, or works that have not yet been reviewed.

The small networks of self-identified writers of colour make it harder to find independent, qualified reviewers of colour with the time and willingness to take on reviewing tasks. It would be helpful to track who reviews diverse work. Just as the previous Stella Counts tracked how often, and who, reviews women’s work, the Diversity Count would show whether writers of colour review each other’s work, or white writers’ work, and whether white writers review the work of writers of colour.

The problem of making visual comparisons

The visual representation of data requires clearly distinct variables. The need for clarity makes it necessary to consider how to depict the intersections of various categories of diversity. For instance, trends involving the work of men of colour might be different to trends for women of colour; disparate trends might also be observed in the work of queer men and queer women, and in the work of men and women living with disabilities, and so on. All of this would then have to be referenced against a range of independent variables, which might include white men (vis-à-vis everyone else), white women (vis-à-vis women of colour, queer women of colour, etc.), heterosexual-identified whitefellas, able-bodied writers, and the list goes on. Many more pie charts might be needed to map out the nuances of representation issues in Australian book publishing and reviewing.

I wonder if a resulting data overload might reduce the framing of the problem and proposed solutions to a mere numbers game. What do we risk losing if the priority becomes changing the annual show of numbers, rather than taking stock of how we can do cultural production differently, and more democratically?

All this said, I wish the Stella Diversity Count team all the best in their efforts to undertake this large and complex challenge. I look forward to seeing their data. Statistics will be a helpful foundation for checking if Australian publishing is as diverse as the Australian public, and if it has truly given a fair go to this diverse Australian public. I hope, however, that the end-goal is not merely data generation but an improved quality of public debate, and increased efforts to encourage the publishing and reviewing of diverse writing. I hope the Diversity Count encourages readers to reflect on their book-reading and book-buying habits, book club organisers to consider diverse work for their groups, librarians to make diverse work accessible to their visitors, booksellers to stock more diverse work on their shelves, educators to add more diverse work to their curricula. Just as publishers and reviewers have a say in what books contribute to enhancing Australia’s cultural output, so too do readers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and teachers. This is our collective Australian culture, after all. We are thus all invested.

About Angela Serrano

Angela Serrano is a freelance writer and visual arts entrepreneur living and working in Melbourne. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 at the Ateneo de Manila University. She tweets almost everyday at @angelita_serra and blogs less frequently on http://angelitamaldita.tumblr.com

This commission was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and edited by Peril Magazine.