An All-male Australian Writers Challenge?

Establishing an Australian Male Writers Challenge to help overcome gender bias? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?

First some background about the Australian Women Writers Challenge for those who may be coming across this initiative for the first time.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) was established in 2012 to draw attention to the gender imbalance of reviewing in Australia’s literary pages and to do something towards redressing this imbalance. It caused a social media sensation by generating links to over 1500 reviews, and attracting national and international attention. It has now entered its second year, with a team of 15 book bloggers curating it. While the original objective of helping to overcome gender bias remains, it also now seeks actively to support and promote books by Australian women.

Although the challenge was a great success, feedback to a recent survey suggests its approach had shortcomings. At least one (male) participant commented that he wouldn’t be signing up for the challenge again, principally because it had – according to him – become an exercise of “ignoring” books written by Australian men. Others, only recently hearing about the challenge, claimed they wouldn’t be signing up because they are male. (It’s only for women, right?) This perception is obviously widely held: stats show AWW participants are, overwhelmingly, female.

How do we attract more male readers and reviewers? How do we overcome the belief, held by some, that the challenge is for women, by women, or – worse – that it’s anti-male?

Far from AWW being about ignoring books by men, its longer term aim is to make itself redundant, to help create an atmosphere of reading and reviewing equality in which positive discrimination for either gender is unnecessary.  The willingness of some participants to create this equal space is evident in various 2012 wrap up posts; several female participants have noted that the challenge has made them more aware of the need to promote and support all Australian writers, not just women. Historian Yvonne Perkins from Stumbling Through the Past has declared her support for all Australian writers of histories; Shaheen of Speculating on Speculative Fiction aims to read and review an equal number of male and female writers in 2013; while Tsana Dolichva from Tsana Reads wants to promote more Australian Horror and Science Fiction, regardless of gender.

Could there be room for another challenge – a “male writers challenge” – one that makes “male” a visible category rather than the norm?

Last night on Twitter when I put this idea forward for discussion, I could almost hear the gasps of protest. Wouldn’t such a challenge be, at best, a step back to the gender-imbalanced status quo; at worst, a capitulation, pandering to male readers, writers and reviewers whose noses are out of joint at AWW’s success, allowing them to make the challenge about them? Why would I support – let alone establish – such a challenge? Doesn’t it go against my original premise?

I can understand those fears. And I acknowledge it would be a gamble. But, for me, marginalisation of women’s writing in Australia is not only due to gender bias, and overcoming gender bias in male reviewers is more complex than simply issuing an invitation to read – or coercing them into reading – more books by women.

The lack of visibility of women writers in Australian literary review pages has to do with genre as well as gender. If the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 is anything to judge by, the books women are reading, and reviewing online – and probably buying and borrowing from the library – are overwhelmingly Fantasy, Romance, commercial popular fiction, Young Adult fiction and Children’s fiction, along with some – but not many – well-known crime or thriller authors. In most of these genres, women are doing well; yet they don’t all make it to the literary review pages, or First Tuesday Book Club discussions, for example, or Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily. Nor are these genres, I’d hazard, that the Stella Prize committee seeks to champion (even though it is ostensibly open to all genres). The Stella Prize was established to counteract the bias that favoured men in recent Miles Franklin Awards: it aims for fair recognition and acknowledgement for female literary writers, the best of the best, the “finest” writing (which, in Australia, hasn’t always meant a very readable “story”). Participants in the Australian Women Writers Challenge have helped the Stella’s aims by creating a community of readers who read and review lots of books by women, regardless of genre, with many literary books thrown in: not by focusing on the “literary”. The men who participated in the 2012 challenge, with a couple of exceptions (including the disgruntled one), didn’t read literary books, for the most part: they read Speculative Fiction and some crime, with one brave reviewer throwing in some Romance, almost as a dare. They read the books whose stories they thought they’d enjoy, given their reading preferences.

My thought is this: rather than fight against male readers’ lack of interest in reading books by Australian women, why not work with it? First find the readers via a challenge that attracts them, see what they enjoy – whether its genre fiction or something more literary. Then, include them among a broader social media reading community, and recommend good books by women, great stories that suit their tastes. At the same time, we’d be helping to support and promote male Australian genre writers who, it could be argued, also suffer genre bias against their work. By helping to create an Australian Male Writers reading and reviewing challenge – and perhaps a tandem “Australian Writers” challenge that promotes reviewing of an equal number of books by men and women – we could find future potential participants for AWW.

This strategy – perhaps as ambitious and unlikely to succeed as some AWW participants on Twitter decried it to be – might also help to address another problem, one that Cameron Woodhead raised on Tara Moss’ blog back in 2011. It was his comment on Moss’s now-famous post, in which she recapped a recent Sisters In Crime conference, that led indirectly to the creation of the AWW challenge. When Moss mentioned the issue of gender bias in reviewing, and Women in Literary Arts’ VIDA count, Woodhead remarked, “According to latest ABS data, women are 4% more likely than men to have sufficient prose literacy to cope with life in a knowledge-based economy.” After someone (male) criticised him for calling Moss’s stance “privileged whining”, Woodhead went on, “If you’re educated enough to understand and in a position to care about this subject, you’re privileged by definition. Unlike the 4% more Australian men than women who can’t even read a book.” Burying himself even deeper, as far as most of the other commentators were concerned, Woodhead declared: “Am I to deduce that you care more about the underrepresentation of female authors in literary awards than you do about the preponderance of illiteracy among Australian males?”

These are actually (dare I say it?) fair points, although misappropriate and offensive appearing in the context of Moss’s blog. But what if the two are connected: the marginalisation of women writers and Australian males’ comparatively poor literacy? What if adult males’ poorer literacy is in part due to a lack of awareness of books that appeal to them? Books with easy-to-read good stories which are aimed at adults, not children. Books like… genre fiction. By promoting – and valuing – genre fiction, might we not encourage both male and female children to keep reading into adulthood, rather than coming to see reading as a “worthy pursuit” which they rarely, if ever do, but which they associate with the kind of reading they had to do in high school, Capital “L”, “Literature”? I’m speaking, by the way, as an ex-tutor of creative writing at tertiary level, who heard one student admit not to having read a book since Looking for Alibrandi when she was 14. Literary books didn’t interest her, fair enough – but to enter adulthood with no reading? Instead, such students opted to spend their leisure seeing movies, playing computer games, or hanging out on social media; if they did read, it was magazines.

And the consequence? They were inundated by images and storylines that weren’t a reflection of their own lived experience, or the experience of Australian lives around them, or created by the imagination of their fellow Australians of all backgrounds and gendered positions. By combating genre bias, in addition to gender bias, we could help to capitalise on the success of last year’s National Year of Reading and prevent this kind of abandonment of reading from happening to a future generation, and perhaps influence for the better adult males’ poorer literacy. We could help to build an adult Australian reading community which loves reading books, good stories, because they’re as interesting and exciting to read as anything they read as kids. (That such a strategy might also help the literacy levels of Indigenous readers, those of a lower socio-economic background or limited schooling, or children and adults with a first language other than English is also important, but not my focus here.)

Would such an endeavour detract from the aims of The Stella Prize and the original premise of the Australian Women Writers challenge? I don’t think so. Fine writing, combined with a riveting story, won’t be overlooked – such books may even attract more mainstream attention.

The alternative?

At best, the Australian Women Writers Challenge will have a positive impact, helping books by Australian women receive the attention they deserve. At worst, it will be more of the same. Literary books that may or may not attract reviews by male reviewers. Women (and a few men) reading books by women; both men and women reading books by men. And publishing houses like Random House Australia listing at the top of their “Top 10 Australian Bestsellers 2012″ two books by Americans: Deborah Rodriguez and James Patterson. Why? Why else? Unless our own fine genre writers are comparatively invisible. Genre bias – as well as gender bias – is alive and well in Australia, and it doesn’t impact only on women.

So what do you think? Is there room for another Australian reading and reviewing challenge?

random-house-bestsellers-2012

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.

Crowdsource request: help spread the AWW database word to Aussie libraries on Facebook

Today Shoalhaven Libraries blog, The Readers’ Haven, posted their AWW completion page. In it, they wrote:

Here at Nowra Library we displayed and promoted books written by Aussie women for most of 2012, with great success. Loans and circulation of these books increased noticeably throughout the year and it was great to see a wide range of borrowers walk out the door with newly discovered Australian reads.

How many libraries could boost circulation of books by Australian women with such a simple promotion?

After seeing The Readers’ Haven’s post, I challenged some libraries on Twitter to visit the new AWW list of reviews . The City of Boroondara Library responded with a link to their Facebook page where they posted the link to the new AWW site and asked their followers to pick their favourite reads from the AWW lists.

That’s fantastic. They’re willing to do their bit. But, as of the time of writing this blog post, nobody has commented on their link.

The kind social media contact at Boroondara Library also posted an array of book covers of recent releases by authors Paddy O’Reilly, Emily Maguire, Mary-Rose MacColl, Bronwyn Parry, Lisa Walker, Hannah Richell, Deborah O’Brien and Jo Spurrier. The library is obviously keen to promote books by Australian women. And if they’re keen, maybe other libraries would be too – if they knew about the challenge and the list of reviews?

The problem is, how do we get the word out about this fantastic new resource – 1300+ reviews of books by Australian women – and help overcome the problem of gender bias in Australia’s literary review pages?

The answer? Crowdsourcing. Together, we can show the libraries that there’s a whole, vibrant online community of reviewers and readers (and users of Facebook) who are passionate about supporting home-grown writers.

So here’s the call: AWW participants and writers on Facebook, could you please visit City of Boroondara Library’s Facebook page and tell them some of your favourite AWW reads for 2012. Show them we enjoy local writers and appreciate librarians who support and promote them. And while you’re there, how about sharing the new link with one or more of the many libraries on Facebook?

The following list gives the Facebook links to libraries around Australia gleaned from AWW’s Aussie Libraries Facebook page. (I knew this information would come in handy one day.) If someone has posted the link on the library page before you, please make a comment – or “Like” their page, if they’re local to you. You can post either a link to the AWW Blog summary of genres page, or to one of the pages on the new Weebly site e.g. 2012 releases or Children’s fiction page. If you do take leave a link, let others know by mentioning it in the comments below. Between us, we should be able to spread the word.

If you know of any more libraries on Facebook, please leave the links in the comments below.

Women Writers in a Man’s World: A reply to Tara Moss

The following post was written in October 2011 and intended as a reply to a post by Tara Moss, “Are our Sisters in Crime (still) fighting against a male literary world?” It was lost when I transferred from Blogger. The response to this post was overwhelming – mostly because Tara provided a link to it on her blog – and it led directly to the creation of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. Because three years later, the challenge is still going strong, I’m republishing the original post here. I’ve tried to back-date this entry to reflect the original date of publication, but I don’t know if that will work – Elizabeth Lhuede, August 2014.

Thanks Tara for your blog entry and for allowing this thread to develop. As Bernadette writes, “not bad for a humble blog post”. And I agree with Kate Forster: I’m sorry this argument still needs to be had.

I’d like to take up the crucial point that Kerryn Goldsworthy has raised, that “most women share the values of the dominant culture”, “values most people wrongly think are universal and gender-neutral”. That certainly was true for me. It’s worth considering how much women readers unconsciously contribute to the marginalisation of women writers, how this unconscious bias arises and what can be done to change it.

It took me years to realise that I had been educated to privilege men’s writing over women’s. Like a lot of girls educated in the seventies and eighties, I grew up reading a canon of “great literature” written by men (and, primarily, for men). At school we read almost exclusively male writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Dickens, Sophocles, Patrick White, Kenneth Slessor, AD Hope, Bruce Dawe and Ray Lawler. Our one woman author was Jane Austen (three different novels read in different years).

At uni, the trend continued, though the number of women authors studied expanded to include Mary Shelley, the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, as well as modernists such as Djuna Barnes and HD. Most of my tutors were male, and most championed such “great” literary critics as FR Leavis and Northrope Frye, and later Barthes, Derrida and Raymond Williams. Without realising it, I was being educated into the view that “good” writing focused on something other than (what were then primarily) women’s interests and concerns – relationships, domesticity and “feelings”. Such subject matter was regarded as trivial, ephemeral – even sentimental (like the worst of poet Percy Shelley and Dickens). While it was obvious that literary fashions and tastes changed over time, “good” literature could combine adventure, history, politics, spirituality, ironic views of the court and society, nature… When women writers wrote of those realms and did it well (or happened to be Jane Austen), they were included in the canon. The exclusion of the majority of women authors wasn’t deliberate, I was told. It was just a matter of “quality”: no women wrote as well as men, wasn’t it obvious?

This not-so-subtle indoctrination wasn’t restricted to our appreciation of the great “classics” of literature, produced in an age when women weren’t as educated as men: it was at work in the formation of contemporary literary canons. My chosen area of study was Australian poetry, but it took most of my PhD for me to realise that my choice of subject matter (the “new Australian poetry” of the 60s, 70s and 80s) was predicated on the values I’d absorbed through my male-dominated (in every sense) education. And, guess what? The majority of poets whose work I “chose” to study were men.

Yes, I’m privileged – I’m lucky to have had an education: but what kind of education was it? I had been educated to the point that I was unconsciously reproducing in my own reading and studying habits a gender bias which meant that I was actively contributing to marginalising talented women poets of that time. These poets’ work was actively being written out of what was considered “worthy” or “valuable” in terms of literary history by male editors of anthologies which disproportionately represented men over women, editors who unashamedly made their selections based on a seemingly value-neutral notion of “quality”. (The publication of Kate Jennings’ anthology of Australian women’s poetry, Mother I’m Rooted, and later, the Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing, showed there was no shortage of poetry written by women: but the majority of this work simply wasn’t considered “good” enough to be included in the anthologies.)

As Sean has pointed out in his response, Anne Summers and others, including Jennings, were decrying this situation in the 70s. It’s 2011 and we’re still in the same debate…

So how can things change?

Today we have a pool of extremely talented and articulate Australian women who are able to identify and question their own biases, who acknowledge and decry the lack of recognition given to Australian women writers, and who are active in doing something to redress the imbalance. By repeating the statistics which so clearly demonstrate the injustice, blogs such as yours, Tara – probably intended to be ephemeral – make a welcome contribution to a much broader and ongoing cultural project. It also takes grace and courage not to be cowed by some who don’t – can’t? – know the depth and breadth of the injustices faced by many successive generations of women writers. So thank you for your example.

As for The Stella Prize, it may be that the “best” women writers will be judged according to an aesthetic which reflects the values of a dominant (presently male-dominated) culture; the prize may simply serve to make these women authors more visible, and attract for them the attention and rewards necessary to hold their own against comparative male writers, be feted and interviewed, invited to appear on festival panels, sell more books and survive. Or it may be that an alternative aesthetic will gradually develop as we turn our attention to what we judge as “great” in women’s writing, an aesthetic which might better reflect the breadth and diversity of Australian women’s lived experiences, cultures and values.

Whatever happens, it will happen because women readers, critics, reviewers and writers take each other’s work seriously, and treat each other with the respect owed to professionals. It will also be because we continue to develop and question the basis of our own tastes and preferences, as well as actively seek out writing by women which we can champion and enjoy. If some male reviewers, critics, judges and readers also find something of value in such works, great. If they don’t, who cares?

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