The real challenge: taking AWW into 2013

It has been a great year for the Australian Women Writers challenge, and a great year for Australian women’s writing – or has it?

For the challenge, certainly.

More than 370 people signed up to read and review books by Australian women throughout 2012. Word started getting out to bookshops – Abbey’s in Sydney created a window display for International Women’s Day. Reviews rolled in and continued all year. So far over 1350 reviews have been linked to the challenge, with more coming every day as people wrap up their year’s reading.

The challenge was so successful, the system broke down – there were too many reviews to read. The over-stretched “Mr Linky” system made it difficult to see new ones, or to find books in genres that readers were looking for.

A few months ago a team of book bloggers joined me to create an AWW team with the aim of making improvements and continuing the challenge into 2013. We shifted to a new website, changed the way review links were uploaded, found help to write code to create a more user-friendly “review listings” website. The site now features titles sorted by genre and a page of recent releases. Behind the scenes, we’ve been busy working to make this process as automatic as possible for next year.

Then something happened. Or maybe it had been happening all year, and I didn’t notice. The AWW challenge started getting serious attention.

Huffington Post Books invited me to write a blog on Australian women’s writing. Then last week on Overland journal, Jane Gleeson-White announced 2012 as The Year of Australian Women Writers – thanks to the Stella Prize and the AWW challenge. A journalist from Women’s Agenda rang me for an interview. Bookseller & Publisher on Twitter invited me to report to them on the impact of Australian women’s writing. I created a survey to collect some stats which so far has attracted over 550 respondents. (If you haven’t yet taken it, please do: it’s open to anyone and only takes 2 minutes.) On Friday night Tara Moss featured on Radio National Drive’s Twitterati segment with Julian Morrow and mentioned the challenge.

And now this: Daily Life’s Clementine Ford has included the AWW challenge as one of The 20 greatest moments for women in 2012. The challenge is in great company!

So that makes for a great year for Australian women writers and their work, right?

If you take a look at what First Tuesday Book Club came up with as a list of the Top 50 books by Australians this year, you’d have to wonder.

First Tuesday Book Club's Top 50 Aussie Books 2012

First Tuesday Book Club’s Top 50 Aussie Books 2012

James Tierney kindly created this pie chart to show the results. Of the 50 books listed, only 16 are by women. Of the 15 female authors (Christina Stead is mentioned twice), 10 of the writers are dead. That compares to 34 male writers – 20 living of whom are living.

Four times as many living Australian male writers than female writers appear on First Tuesday Book Club’s list of Top 50 Aussie reads.

Voted by the general public.

After over a year dedicated to reading books by Australian women, I can state the lack of awareness exemplified by this result isn’t due to the quality of Australian women’s writing. Before last year, I couldn’t have been certain about that. Now I am. Fantastic books by Australian women are out there – the AWW challenge has proved that. They are quality books in all genres – including romance, crime, fantasy, as well as literary, nonfiction, history, memoir and biography. They are books for children and adults. There are prize-winners and light holiday reads. These books represent countless hours of the efforts of very talented women who deserve to be well known and loved by readers in their own country.

The problem is awareness. It’s the same issue as I faced in mid 2011 when I went to my local library, asked for books by Australian women and the library staff on duty couldn’t come up with the name of one living author.

So what can we do?

First you can sign up for AWW 2013 challenge and encourage your friends to do so. Even if you don’t review books, there’s a “read only” option. Check out the review listings and the 1350+ reviews of books read already for the challenge, find something that looks interesting. Participate in the challenge by recommending them to your book group, chat about them via social media (on Twitter use the #aww2013 hashtag), or on the AWW Facebook page. Comment on the reviewers’ blogs and show them there’s a community of readers who are interested in Australian women writers and what they have to say. Talk to your local librarians, book shops and English teachers. If they’re not familiar with books by Australian women, get them to check out the challenge website.

This is the real challenge for 2013. Getting the word out there.

Such activism can and will have positive results. Last year Readings Bookshop reviewed 72 crime novels, only 15 of which were by women and only 2 of which were by Australian women. I contacted them behind the scenes and was horrified to discover the people in charge of the reviewing were women. This year, they’ve just put out their own list of Top 50: 50 Great Books By Australian Women. What a difference a year can make when we actively set out to challenge our gender bias – our gender bias, men and women’s.

Let’s hope next time Tuesday Book Club – or anyone else – asks for a Top 50 list of Aussie Reads, books by living Australian women writers will be among the first to spring to readers’ minds.

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12 Comments

  1. You and all the participants have done a fantastic job and you are so right in suggesting that it requires a certain activism to change the status quo. People only suggest what’s been put in front of them and there is so much good work being created that is crying out to be known, sounds like you’ve hit a tipping point in helping to generate that awareness. You’re creating a fantastic resource. Good luck with the 2013 challenge, I’m looking forward to seeing what great books by living female authors it will highlight.

    • Thanks, Claire. And the next stage might be encouraging online “conversations” via on bookblogs, not only writing reviews. So thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s great to know people are paying attention and AWW bookbloggers’ effort is contributing to creating something larger.

  2. Online conversations and books blogs is a great idea. Book reviews can be intimidating :)

  3. seantheblogonaut

     /  December 13, 2012

    I had a casual glance at the books – I don’t think I have read any on that list.

    Which made me think about audiences or book communities. I think there is a certain kind of community around the book show, people that are likely to vote, be aware of the survey ie very literary/contemporary in make up, a group that also perhaps has a view on what sort of books should be on that list whether or not they have read them.

    I also can’t find with a quick look how people voted on these books, was it from a pre-set checklist? Perhaps next year the AWW Challenge could do an end of year top 50 books and publish the participant numbers, then we’d get a better idea?

    The concern I think is that the book show has a national platform and yet it services a very small set of readers.

    So I think keep going with what you’re doing, then make comparisons with the book show net year.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sean. I think your observations are spot on. There are different reading communities and TBC has a national platform, but services a small set of readers.

      Where I’m guessing TBC’s influence may be important is in the realm of what gets taken up for review in traditional media. (I might be wrong about that: the reviews may come first.) What is reviewed in traditional media certainly influences what gets purchased for libraries, which then filters through to the general reader looking for a good book to read. And, I’m guessing, too, the reviewers for Bookseller & Publisher and for the literary pages may well be among the “very small set of readers” who tune in to TBC. Speculation, sure. I’d have to watch more of TBC’s Twitter feed and Facebook pages comments to start to get an idea of the make-up of the audience (which I’m not presently volunteering to do!).

      Whichever way the influence flows, it would be nice to think that some of these readers might begin to break out of their present confines. Let’s hope so.

  4. Fascinating article! Thank you. It’s the same with the Miles Franklin. A couple of years ago there wasn’t a single woman nominated. Stella would have been horrified!

    • She would have been, I agree. The Stella Prize was set up to address exactly that issue with the Miles Franklin, and the AWW challenge is more or less a spin-off from that, too. Things may be slow to change, but we can help it along.

  5. Joe Conran

     /  December 14, 2012

    Yes, there is a embedded problem with male v’s female authors. Remember why J K Rowling didn’t put Joanna Rowling on her books, because she was told it’s harder to sell female’s to the general public. Her book was rejected by 5 + publishers before getting accepted & even then I remember reading that the publisher that finally accepted Harry Potter only did so after his secretary convinced him to reconsider after he had rejected the book first up. So if this can happen to J K Rowling (one of the most successful ever) How many other great female authors are being rejected simply for being female ????

    • Thanks for your comment, Joe. You’re right. Would Harry Potter have been so successful if instead of “J K” they’d put “Joanna”? It’d be interesting to pop over into an alternative universe and see. :)

  6. I have been paying close attention to this challenge a lot throughout 2012, thanks to bloggers like Bree (All the Books I Can Read) and Shelleyrae (Book’d Out), and have been chaffing at the bit, so to speak, over all the great books everyone’s been reading that I can’t get here (I’m from Tassie but I’ve been living in Toronto for the last 7 years – moving back home in September and can’t wait to get access to all the great Aussie fiction I’ve been missing out on! Though I do have to sacrifice my access to great Canadian fiction, which suffers from the same problems…).

    I’m tempted to sign up for the challenge, but I’m not sure yet how many books I have here that are by AWW’s. I have a few I think. Jaclyn Moriarty and Ruth Park and Marlina Marchetta and Margo Lanagan and Miles Franklin, and some romance e-books that I’m enjoying. But like you say, it’s the awareness that’s so important, and the celebration of AWW, and I’d love to do what I can to help spread the word – especially from another country. (I always notice how few Nobel prize winners are women, and Pulitzer, and how few women authors in general are on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die lists – always makes me feel a bit depressed to be honest.)

    Despite those disheartening poll stats I think your results and all the attention you’ve garnered with your hard work is awesome, and y’know, things may start small but they don’t have to end small. :) You’ve done a fantastic job with this, Elizabeth. My hat’s off to you!

    • Thanks for such an encouraging response, Shannon. I hope you do sign up for the challenge. There are lots of books by Australian women that are available as ebooks now, from ReadCloud and Bookish, among other providers. I think they distribute internationally (but maybe there are still terrritorial rights which restrict them to Australia?). The authors you mention sound worth reading. I can highly recommend Margo Lanagan for one, and I’m looking forward to discovering Melina Marchetta about whose work I’ve read great things.

      Even if you don’t sign to review, you can still sign up to read and participate by commenting on reviews and discussing books in social media. It would be great to have more Canadian readers aware of the challenge – or even a reciprocal challenge for Canadian women writers? Now there’s a thought!

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