The 2024 Stella Prize Chair of Judges, Beejay Silcox, gave an inspiring speech about the judging process and the winning book at the 2024 Stella Prize Award Night in Melbourne on the evening of  2 May. Read it in full below.

2024 judging panel
Photo credit: Samantha Meuleman

What happens in the judging room, stays in the judging room. That is the first rule of literary prizes. The cardinal rule. The sacred pact of the locked door (otherwise known as the mutually assured destruction of unbridled honesty).

But tonight, with the permission of my fellow judges, I am going to break that rule. This year was an extraordinary year for women and non-binary writers – and something extraordinary happened behind our locked door.

Heading in to our final deliberations, we resolved that passion rather than denigration would drive our final decision. We were determined to finish our Stella year with full hearts rather than bloody knuckles.

And so we used our time to consider every book on our shortlist as if it were the winner. A process of rigorous exultation.

We indulged our enthusiasms. We luxuriated in sentence craft, and the elaborate mechanics of plot. We analysed and contextualised. We imagined the conversations each book might start, and the doors it might open for new readers. We asked hard and mighty questions: of the books, and ourselves, and our country. We talked about how the books had reached us, seen us, changed us, shaken us, bruised and healed us. And we read our favourite passages aloud – held the words in our mouths.

And then we did it again. Six books. Six winners. Six hours of deliberation, and not a disparaging word. It was our abiding hope that our Stella winner would emerge from these discussions organically, by virtue of its accomplishments. And it did. At the end of our six hours, I said: “The winner of the 2024 Stella Prize is…” and we finished that sentence together. Unanimously. It was a moment of communal joy.

We are so rarely given the chance – the time – to have smart, unbounded conversations about storytelling, art-making and the big, wild world. My profound thanks to Stella Prize team for making that conversation possible. And to our magnificent shortlist of authors who fuelled our conversational fire:

Thank you Katia Ariel, for The Swift Dark Tide. What a deep pleasure it was to surrender to the sensory richness of your memoir, and to its inter-generational compassion.

Thank you Katherine Brabon for Body Friend. You gave voice to things we had felt in our bones, but never known how to say.

Thank you Emily O’Grady for Feast. How we revelled in the menace of your book – the delicious discomfort. The moral murk.

Thank you Sanya Rushdi for the candour and grace of Hospital. It was a privilege – and a quiet revelation – to sit with your narrator, and share her mind. Thank you too, to Arunava Sinha for your potent translation. Together you have enriched Australian letters.

Thank you Hayley Singer for Abandon Every Hope. We read your pages in astonishment: every sentence, every paragraph, every essay. You shook our ethical cages, but also our art-making brains.  

And thank you Alexis Wright for Praiseworthy. What a book you have made. Expansive, soul-rattling, life-affirming, history-making and so deeply funny.

I owe my greatest thanks to my panel: Eleanor Jackson, Bram Presser, Yves Rees and Cheryl Leavy.  Thank you for your generosity, your intelligence, your care, and your friendship.

I think our decision should be announced in the manner it which it was made. And so I’d like to invite my fellow Stella readers to join me on stage.

The winner of the 2024 Stella Prize is: Praiseworthy, by Alexis Wright.

Praiseworthy is a canon-crusher. It both demands and defies comparison. Ulysses. Don Quixote. Moby Dick. Crime and Punishment. The Iliad. These are the kinds of colossal, towering texts that come to mind when considering the literary heft and accomplishment of Alexis Wright’s fourth novel, but Praiseworthy leaves them all sputtering in the Anthropocene dust. For starters, it has better jokes.

Praiseworthy is mighty in every conceivable way: mighty of scope, mighty of fury, mighty of craft, mighty of humour, mighty of language, mighty of heart. Praiseworthy is not only a great Australian novel – perhaps the great Australian novel – it is also a great Waanyi novel. And it is written in the wild hope that, one day, all Australian readers might understand just what that means. I do not understand. Not yet. But I can feel history calling to me in these pages. Calling to all of us. Imagine if we listened.

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