Last night I was out and about in bookish circles for the first time in months (such things are possible now my PhD is off my desk). It was thrilling to be at the Opera House on a sultry Sydney evening for the 2016 Stella Prize announcement. The room was absolutely packed and full of love for the Stella Prize and all those involved with it, especially the winning author Charlotte Wood and the five shortlisted authors, as well as the Stella’s incomparable MC Julia Zemiro (who said among other things: ‘Sharing our stories is to my atheist mind the meaning of life’), Executive Director Aviva Tuffield, guest speaker Claudia Karvan, and judges Brenda Walker, Emily Maguire, Alice Pung, Geordie Williamson and Suzy Wilson.
Charlotte Wood won the fourth Stella Prize for her universally acclaimed novel The Natural Way of Things. The shortlisted books were Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight; Hope Farm by Peggy Frew; A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower; The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau; and Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright. Charlotte has called her fifth novel ‘a dark, bleak book about girls imprisoned and trapped and reviled’. The Natural Way of Things was described in this week’s Guardian as a ‘feminist, rage-filled novel‘. I’ve not yet read it (PhD) but I’ve read all Charlotte’s other novels and she’s an extraordinary writer, her words ring true, and a profound thinker. All of which was evident in her rousing and characteristically generous acceptance speech, a rallying call for writers and artists in ‘a new dark age’. Particularly moving was her declaration that she would be keeping all her $50,000 prize money and the reasons for it (see below). Everyone who cares about art – and perhaps especially those who don’t much value art and the people who make it – should read Charlotte’s speech. Among other things she said:
‘But all this measuring and grading, in any case, is not an artist’s job. Our energies must be dedicated, purely and simply, to the work itself – returning again and again to the writing room and the blank page, defying the cold logic that says you are only worth what you earn, or what others think of you. Showing up to that blank space with curiosity and courage is an exercise in the greatest freedom we can know – intellectual freedom, to explore your obsession with something nobody but you cares about, to pursue your own strange thoughts and dreams, to climb right inside your own dark wormhole of fascination and stay there.’
She gave a list of five reasons to write, including: ‘To make something beautiful. Beauty does not have to mean prettiness, but can emerge from the scope of one’s imagination, the precision of one’s words, the steadiness and honesty of one’s gaze.’
And in this new dark age into which she often feels we’ve entered, ‘we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness; it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know. Art declares that we contain multitudes, that more than one thing can be true at once. And it gives us a breathing space – a space in which we can listen more than talk, where we can attentively question our own beliefs, a place to find stillness in a chaotic world. I hope that my novel has provided some of those things: provocation, yes, but also beauty and stillness.’
She concluded: ‘As you also know, some recent winners of various literary prizes have also shown extraordinary individual generosity, in publicly donating portions of their prize money to crucially important social causes – a move I admire and absolutely respect. But tonight I will not be following in those footsteps. I’m going to keep this prize money. Not just because it will afford me the only thing every writer really wants, time and mental space to work, but because I want to stake a claim for literature as an essential social benefit, in and of itself. I would like all writers – especially those here tonight and most especially women, who so often put their need to make art behind the needs of others – to remember what I rediscovered on that bleak day I mentioned earlier: to create art is itself an act of enlargement, of enrichment and affirmation. To write well is to light that candle in the darkness, offering solace, illumination – and maybe even the possibility of transformation – not just for the writer but for the reader, and for our society itself.’
Given I’ve spent most of my time since 2008 reading, writing and thinking about crude economic measurements and their failure to consider the things that really count, being in a room of bookish people was an absolute joy and Charlotte’s words pierced me down to my soul. THANK YOU Charlotte Wood. THANK YOU Stella Prize and all involved with it. It’s good to be back here.