Judging literary awards is never an easy business, but when the prize is open to the whole gamut of writing by Australian women, you have to feel for those making the difficult final decisions.

The five judges of this year’s $ 50,000 Stella Prize have produced a longlist of 12 books from more than 160 entries that is split equally between works of fiction and non-fiction.

Unlike last year, when the prize was won by Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship With Birds, there is no poetry. The list includes two first novels – by Hannah Kent and Fiona McFarlane – the latest from Miles Franklin winner Alexis Wright, a controversial book looking at the issues surrounding a footballer and his trial for rape, an examination of the progress of gender equality in Australia and a history of the women involved in the Eureka stockade. There are also short stories, literary and family memoirs and biographies.

The chairwoman of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, said most of the fiction ventured beyond the restrictions of what Patrick White called ”dun-coloured realism” into the realms of the quirky, the surreal, the dystopian or the Gothic.

”Most of the non-fiction titles focus on a particular person but range far beyond that in their implications and themes: in telling one story, they speak for many.”

The other judges are journalist Annabel Crabb, writer Brenda Walker, bookseller Fiona Stager and author Tony Birch. The shortlist will be announced on March 20 and the winner on April 29.