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?