January has been choking with deadlines, and I’m relieved that I had a holiday to recharge my batteries over Christmas and New Year, otherwise I’d be staggering from pillar to post to get them done. As it is, I’ve written up two conference papers, abstracts for another two conferences, an essay proposal, two wrap-ups for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and I still have a non-fiction book proposal to do and a short story to tidy up before the month is out. My sense of humour has somehow remained intact, though I have been on fun rations in order to get everything done. Bring on February, I say!
Right now, with storms clashing against the old gums outside my flat, and the tennis on mute, I’m also about to start reviewing again for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. This challenge was established by Elizabeth Lhuede last year, when she became aware of the bias towards reviewing books written by men in major newspapers.
The tendency was highlighted by Sophie Cunningham in her essay, ‘A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests and Dreams of a Common Language,’ published in the journal Kill Your Darlings in July 2011. The essay is crammed with depressing statistics on the predominance of male reviewers, and of reviews of books by men, in major newspapers. The stats for 2011 can be seen at this VIDA chart. These are international figures. In Australia, between 1st January and 22nd May 2011, 41% of books reviewed and 38% of the reviews themselves in The Age were written by women; at the Australian Literary Review, these stats were 18% and 16% respectively, while at The Australian, they were 32% and 30%. The Australian Book Review fared slightly better: over 2010, 43% of books reviewed were written by women, while the number of reviewers was fairly even (see p. 13, Iss 6. July 2011).
Meanwhile, the shortlist for the Miles Franklin in 2009 and 2011 was completely void of women writers, although this year, thankfully, we fared much better, as noted by Paula Grunseit in her wrap-up of literary awards. If you feel like you really need an excuse for another glass of Scotch, you can take a look at these stats about the imbalance in other awards around the country.
Sophie identified two issues which contributed to women’s underrepresentation in reviewing. One was their lack of confidence, in that women were not as good at vaunting themselves or pushing for commissions. This is something, Sophie notes, ‘women need to take responsibility for’ (14), although I would also argue that some women writers, especially those with families, are often too busy to promote themselves on top of everything else. However, it is a problem that, in the larger scheme of things, can be changed with relative ease (as opposed to effecting change at a cultural level, which might take generations, though I certainly hope it doesn’t take that long). Here is a brilliant talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, that explains how it might be done.
The other problem Sophie identified was the marketing of men and women’s books, with men’s writing being promoted as more serious, or weightier. For example, as she writes, ‘when Alex Miller writes a wonderfully romantic novel, such as Conditions of Faith (2000), it’s seen as literary. But if a woman covers similar territory – longing, forbidden sex, exotic locations – this is called a “romance”’ (15).
Another obvious difficulty is the hostility of suggesting cultural change which, of course, feminists have faced down for centuries. When Tara Moss highlighted these statistics in her blog, she was accused of ‘privileged whinging’ by The Age arts critic Cameron Woodhead, who, after some heated debate, concluded that ‘Arguing with children is beneath my dignity, and it’s beneath yours to imitate one.’ Well, I thought, that might be construed as the tone of a little boy stamping his foot.
What to do? Sophie asks. One extremely positive outcome has been the establishment of the Stella Prize for women writers (on which I have written here), the shortlist of which is to be announced shortly. Sophie also cites Alison Croggon, writing on The Drum: ‘One thing is certain: passively assuming women are equal and will gradually work their way to equal status doesn’t work. We need some different tools’ (17). Sophie makes three suggestions: women need to push themselves out of their comfort zones, publishers need to stop insisting on ‘twee covers’ for women’s books, and literary editors need to review more books by women and publish more reviews written by women (18).
Print media is suffering, with data from the 2011 census showing a loss of 4000 jobs and a contraction of 2% in the publishing industry. However, there is very strong growth in digital publishing, which grew at a cumulative annual rate of 14% between 2006 and 2011.
Cue, then, Elizabeth Lhuede and the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Elizabeth, as I mentioned, set up the challenge to counter the obvious bias in reviewing (you can read her motivations for doing so, & the process she followed, here). While there might be less space in traditional newspapers for reviews (which is NOT an excuse for unfair representation of women, I’m only indicating that as there is less space, the situation for women writers is made even more difficult), online reviews by book bloggers are exploding. In the 2012 Challenge, there were more than 1500 reviews of books by women. Over 350 people signed up, and already this year we have 326 people committed to the challenge. As the project grew so large, Elizabeth also brought on board a group of book-bloggers, and over January we posted round-ups of the books reviewed in our fields. We’ll also be doing monthly wrap-ups throughout the year.
As our politicians love to remind us, particularly around Australia Day, Australia is the land of the ‘fair go’ (and I will refrain from going into the irony that it was entirely unfair to build a nation on dispossession). Clearly, given the above statistics, the pollies are straying from the truth. What is obvious is that Australian women writers are producing an astonishing number and range of books, and they deserve to find their readers, and be reviewed. So, if you’re stuck for something to read, particularly if you’re housebound in Brisbane due to incessant rain* check out the links below. You can also sign up to the 2013 Challenge here.
* And in this instance I’m unable to refrain from elaborating on the irony that, on Twitter, Campbell Newman recommended the following storm strategies: ‘Please stay at home, watch tv [sic], read a book and be prepared.’ This suggestion, that one ought to read, is from the man who, despite being an Ambassador for the National Year of Reading, canned the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards so as to save every Queenslander 20 cents.
This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.