Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary awards’ judging panels

Alexis Wright, TrackerIn my Stella Awards post last week, I shared an excerpt from winner Alexis Wright’s acceptance speech in which she applauded the diversity in this year’s shortlist, noting that it included “Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as two Aboriginal writers.” In that post, I also quoted Stella’s Executive Director, Aviva Tuffield, as saying Stella still has work to do “in terms of diversity”. That’s true – for all of us – but Stella has made a good start.

Now, I’m not going to do thorough research here of the achievements regarding diversity in our recent awards. For a start, just defining diversity is tricky enough. There’s gender, sexual identity, ethnicity and indigeneity, disabilities (or different abilities) of all sorts, and much more to consider. Then, there’s the issue of measurement. An easy measure would be percentage of representation in the population versus percentage of being listed for or winning awards. With gender, we know that women are roughly half the population, so you would think that they should comprise, over a reasonable time period, roughly half the listed and winning authors for awards. But, is this the most appropriate measure, and can we easily measure it for all diversities?

Regardless, we would accept, I think, that diversity, however we measure it, still has a way to go. What methods, then, can we use to improve it. Special awards, like the Stella, is one approach – and there are many others – but in this post, I’d like to consider the composition of the judging panels. First though, I need to clarify that I recognise that while we want to increase diversity, the downside is that to do this we need to label – and not everyone wants to be labelled. So, I won’t get my discussion here completely right I think, and further, I apologise if I offend anyone. It’s not my intention to do so.

Now, to look at some panels …

The Stella Prize does a reasonable job. Because it is an award for women writers, its five-person judging panels tend to be dominated by women with, admittedly, anglo-women tending to predominate. But in 2018 there was a man, critic James Ley, and the women included an Australian-born woman of Chinese-Malaysian heritage, Julie Koh, and a gay indigenous writer, Ellen van Neerven. In 2017, the man was, author and broadcaster, Benjamin Law, who happens to also be gay and of Malaysian background, and the women included an indigenous woman, the academic and editor, Sandra Phillips. Similarly in 2016, the panel included a man, critic Georgie Williamson, a woman Alice Pung, whose parents were Cambodian refugees, and another woman, Suzy Wilson, not indigenous as far as I know, but the founder of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

By contrast, the 2017 Fiction and Poetry panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards looks all anglo to me, albeit the five-person panel was strong on women members, with four women and one man. Their previous panels are similar, except the gender balance has favoured men. Similarly the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award’s five-person panel looks all anglo too, with two men and three women, albeit of diverse professions – academics, a journalist, a bookseller and the mandated Mitchell Library librarian!

On the other hand, there’s the panel for the 2018 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a large one comprising 16 people. Presumably subsets of these judge different categories of the awards, so it’s difficult to identify who will judge the Christina Stead Award for Fiction which, for comparative purposes, is the one I’m interested in. However, let’s just look at the 16. It includes seven men and nine women. Of the men, at least one is indigenous, the journalist and broadcaster Daniel Browning, and the others include a man from an Indian background, and a Muslim. Of the women, at least one is indigenous, the author Melissa Lucashenko, and another is the Singaporean-born poet Eileen Chong. So, some attempt at diversity here.

The page for the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which have already been announced, provides panel breakdowns for the main categories. The fiction panel comprised four people, all women, and included the indigenous author, Jeanine Leane, and reviewer Thuy On whose name suggests an Asian background, but I don’t know for a fact.

So, overall, looking at these very few recent examples, women are certainly well represented on the panels, but from the information I have (as bios aren’t readily available for all judges and where they are they don’t always provide the “labelling” information needed for my post), other “sorts” of diversity is more hit-and-miss.

This is, obviously, a very brief and patchy survey. There’s a major research project here, looking at panel composition, comparing them against their choices, and so on – but this is not something I can commit to. My aim is simply to raise the issue, than argue a definitive case. I don’t want to denigrate all the hard-working judges out there – a job I, for one, would hate. But, we do need to consider that no matter how qualified the judges are, no matter how fair they try to be, diversity of background and experience is needed to mitigate the problem (or appearance, even) of unconscious bias. I would, therefore, love to see more diversity on the panels.

Interestingly, I didn’t, in my brief research, find a lot of commentary about the composition of judging panels, from a diversity point of view. However, I did find one, regarding the ages of the judges, from the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily on last year’s Miles Franklin shortlist. Another diversity issue to consider:

The book is beautifully written. Its emotional terrain will register most effectively with older readers. A younger judging panel would look elsewhere for a winner. But this is a judging panel in which four of the five judges are over 50.

So grumpy Fred is in with a chance.

Just for the record, Grumpy Fred (Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions) did indeed win.

Do you have any experience or knowledge you can add to the discussion – and, anyhow, what do you think? Is this issue important?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary awards’ judging panels

  1. This was refreshing, fascinating, and a bit hilarious. Perhaps next the awards will need judging panels to judge the judging panels. Complex business, awards.

    • Oh I’m glad Carmel that it’s a bit hilarious … in a good way I hope. I was nervous writing it!

      And you’re right, awards certainly are … there’s something about being “seen” to be diverse I think.

  2. Hmm, interesting…
    A while ago I set up a ‘diversity’ page on my blog (see but I promptly realised that I didn’t want to do the labelling you refer to in the beginning of this post. So I ended up confining myself to ‘ethnicity’ and even then I struck problems. People who are on about diversity don’t mean people of British heritage (except if they’re people of colour) but it seemed to me that it was a kind of inverse racism to deny the so-called Anglo heritage of Australian authors of English, Scots, Welsh or Irish heritage, so I included them. I put USA heritage in too, though they tend to be mushed in with ‘Anglos’ as well.
    But now I find that I’m just as uncomfortable about the labelling of ethnicity. As you say with Thuy On, we can’t judge by names, which can refer as much to 5th generation Chinese as to German-Jews or Croats with anglicised names. And who’s to say that ‘ethnic’ judges don’t have bias too? Just having an ethnic identity, whatever that might be, doesn’t necessarily confer an openness to diversity among authors or even an understanding of ‘the migrant experience’.
    Yes, all aspects of Australian life ought to be inclusive, whether it’s board representation or the people in ads on TV or running our sporting and arts organisations, but we need to be clear about why that is. It ought not to be tokenism, or (as you say to Carmel) ‘being seen to be diverse’. It ought to be because all Australians have equal opportunity no matter their colour or origins. No one is angst-ridden about the cultural diversity of Australian doctors any more because the children of migrants are everywhere in the medical profession, often achieving it in the space of a generation.
    When all’s said and done, IMO, what matters is not the composition of the panel but their expertise in *judging literature*. Today, in multicultural Australia, that expertise ought to include an awareness of potential bias, and a knowledge of world literature, its styles and concerns. That is what really matters, IMO.
    After all, if you take the case of Bendigo-born Eva Hornung (formerly Sallis) her expertise with the representation of other cultures is remarkable. Her early work is notable for her familiarity with Arabic culture and Yemen in particular, from there she wrote about Moscow as if she were a native, and her latest book is so realistic about German culture in rural South Australia you’d swear it was autobiographical. Or Eleanor Limprecht who has a thoroughly modern international identity. As it says on her website, the word ‘raised’ giving a clue to her time in the US, she was ‘born and raised in the US, Germany and Pakistan but now lives in Sydney, Australia’. I’ve located her as an author from the US, but that was an arbitrary decision that she may well not agree with.

    • Yes, I basically agree with all you say Lisa – particularly in a general, logical sense. As you say, anyone can be biased, and anyone, too, can work hard to avoid bias which I’m sure most judging panels work hard to do, because they are usually there because they love literature. I know that you and I, for example, would like to think we are broad/open-minded in our assessments/appreciation of what we read, and I think we generally are.

      However, there IS the issue of unconscious bias that enough research now, I think, has proven to be at play, and this is where actively looking to diversify panels has a role. It should never, ever be tokenism, I agree, and, looking at such accomplished people as Ellen van Neerven on the Stella panel for example, and Jeanine Leane on this year’s Victorian panel, I would say it doesn’t have to be. It can’t hurt to diversify – the expertise is there I believe – and it would further develop expertise beyond the usual suspects.

      (PS I’m keeping my identification of “diversity” on my blog to the minimum – though I’m still doing it broadly – for the very “labelling” reasons I know you discovered when you tried it. Categoristion, as we librarians know, is fraught at the best of times. In fact, I’ve stopped identifying indigenous writers’ specific backgrounds because it’s not simple, and can be got wrong, so mostly I’m just going to leave it at the broad description of indigenous Australian. Even then, I feel anxious, about the implications of separating people out, but …)

  3. Excellent analysis, thoughtfully reflective – on issues of identity, ethnicity – the hidden aspects – on assumptions – not always correct – brava, Lisa H. >

  4. It’s definitely important, everyone has preconceived notions, no matter how much they would try to tell you otherwise, and your own background is often formative in these. Are you sure you don’t want to take on this research project? Quite sure?

  5. Definitely important. And if a panel of old white men said they could speak for you, could speak for Tony Mundine, could speak for Lily Brett, would you believe them? Of course not. You have to have had the experience to understand. Colin Roderick thought he could judge Miles Franklin and Rosa Praed and look what a hash he.made of that and yet his word was gospel for 50 years. So yes! Judging panels must be seen to be diverse!

    • Thanks Bill – glad you agree. Though I’d like to think that Colin Roderick is an extreme example of narrow-minded opinion (from what I’ve read). I also think you can understand lives without having had the experience – otherwise why do we read? But yes, a panel of only old white men is definitely not a good thing, or a good look. (Anymore than a panel of all twenty-something young women would be.)

  6. It may well be impossible to create the “perfectly balanced” panel. I therefore suggest a gamers approach:
    Drawup tables showing the spread you consider representative, for example, for gender, ethnicity, religion. Then use random numbers to work out the attributes you want this year. One year is definitely not representative, but over many years, they are.
    Pity we can’t use this for parliament!

    • Haha Neil, I like it. And as you say, you can’t get the perfect balance, whatever that is, in any one year, but getting a spread over the longer term should be a goal. Love your comment re parliament. Good idea!

  7. A thoughtful and thought provoking post. And just as I was going to say to say something about the difficulties of getting a balance in any one year, but at least trying to ensure its on a rolling basis over the longer term – you beat me to the punch. As always, you’re one step ahead!

    • Well Neil started it, Michelle! But it’s certainly something that was on my mind, because there are too many variables, too many things to consider, to expect anything else aren’t there.

        • Exactly, but it can be expected to have some variety … not ALL white Anglo or European Australians, given the our multicultural make up. It’s possible that such make-ups work as disincentives for some writers to even submit, but of course I don’t know that. Who submits and why is probably another research project! Not to mention the value of submitting …

  8. Great post. As you mention, diversity is an important issue. Eliminating or at least compensating for bias is so important. I will just add that diversity does more then that. It brings different points of view and experiences into play. It really adds something positive.

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