Charlotte Wood has won the fourth annual Stella Prize for The Natural Way of Things, a dark and dangerous book shot through with a kind of feminist rage that – after decades of anti-feminist backlash – is long overdue.
In breaking with a nascent tradition of Stella award-winners donating their prize money to charity, Wood also raises the question of whether benevolence of this sort might be an unconscious by-product of the kind of guilt-ridden sense of inferiority suffered by many women writers.
Kate Grenville, for example, has often said that despite her many dazzling books – and her earliest works are among her best – she never considered herself to be a “proper writer” until she won the Orange Prize for fiction.
Wood told her audience, to great applause, that in a world in which the incomes of writers have plummeted to an unliveable degree that she would keep the kudos and the cash.
The money, Wood later told the Guardian, was “not just symbolic, and not just a gesture, but serious, practical and powerful.”
Wood’s book occupies a risky, dystopian terrain. Ten young women – all of them linked by media-hyped sex scandals involving powerful men – have been kidnapped and incarcerated on an isolated, broken down rural property, run by a mysterious security corporation.
They are kept in “dog boxes” behind electric fences by prison guards who preside over a brutal regime of re-education involving shaved heads, coarse gowns, semi-starvation and hard labour in the searing heat.
Wood’s novel deals with misogyny and the abuse of power. It is especially powerful in the way it deals with internalised misogyny of the kind that is habitually and unconsciously forged through women’s daily encounters with sexism.
It is particularly urgent in the way it conjures up the ghosts of contemporary sex scandals for which women have been both blamed and shamed – hyper-mediated scandals regularly consumed as cheap entertainment including those in the military, politics, football clubs, and in social media. It draws attention to the fact of violence against women, which it presents as both a cause and effect of sexual inequality.
The novel is unsentimental in its treatment of the female characters, and yet they must gradually assert themselves, and look to each other for survival.
The Stella judges said,
The Natural Way of Things is a novel of – and for – our times, explosive yet written with artful, incisive coolness. It parodies, with steely seriousness, the state of being visible and female in contemporary Western society…
The novel provokes serious and important conversations … [It] is a riveting and necessary act of critique … With an unflinching eye and audacious imagination, Charlotte Wood carries us from a nightmare of helplessness and despair to a fantasy of revenge and reckoning.
The A$50,000 annual Stella award recognises the excellence of women’s contribution to Australian literature.
Works shortlisted for the 2016 prize include Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms, a collection of short stories about teenage worlds, which is riveting for its intensity and reality; Fiona Wright’s startling series of essays on anorexia, Small Acts of Disappearance; Peggy Frew’s novel Hope Farm which explores the emotional fallout of the communal experiment through the eyes of a child; Elizabeth Harrower’s dark and complicated constellations of human behaviour mapped out in her short story collection, A Few Days in the Country; and Mireille Juchau’s searing novel about grief, loss and the aftermath of a young girl’s death from cancer, The World Without Us.
Wood’s decision to keep all her prize money also reflects the values of the Stella, which is designed not only to celebrate Australian women writers and to provide role models for aspiring female writers, but also in a practical way to bring more readers to women, thereby increase their sales, and through prizes provide,
[The] money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing.
In this, Wood and the Stella follow the still provocative words of Virginia Woolf, who was, famously, one day greeted by two pieces of news. The first was that women were finally to get the vote. The second was that her aunt had died, leaving her an annual income.
Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.
For, wrote Woolf:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.