What inspired the Australian Women Writers Challenge?

awwbadge_2013Do you know the background to the Australian Women Writers Challenge?

if:book Australia, the think tank associated with the Queensland Writers Centre, asked me to write an article about how I came to establish the challenge in the National Year of Reading, and they’ve published it as part their N00bz series.

You can read the full story here.

By the way, apologies for the long gaps between posts. I’ve been busy reading and writing, but I’m way behind on my reviews.

Stella Prize Longlist Announced

stella-logo-largeThe longlist for Australia’s first women’s literary prize, The Stella Prize, has been announced.*

From almost 200 original entries, the Stella Prize judges — writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy, author Kate Grenville, actor and creator Claudia Karvan, bookseller Fiona Stager and broadcaster Rafael Epstein — have selected 12 books for the longlist.

In alphabetical order, they are:

  • Floundering by Romy Ash (Text Publishing)
  • Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman (UQP)
  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny (Penguin/Viking)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth (Scribe Publications)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller (UQP)
  • An Opening by Stephanie Radok (Wakefield Press)
  • Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Pan Macmillan/Picador)

Criteria for The Stella Prize are that the works be “original, excellent and engaging.” It is an “eclectic longlist,” according to the judges, one “that reflects the breadth of imagination, knowledge and skill in contemporary Australian women’s writing.” The longlist includes works of several genres, including short stories, speculative fiction in verse, fantasy and nonfiction: “stories from the past and from the future; stories of children at risk, of racial tension, of world travel, and of unimaginable danger and loss.” (You can read more about books on the longlist on The Stella Prize website).

Given the interest in books by Australian women by participants in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it’s surprising to discover that only six out of the 12 books on the Stella Prize longlist have been reviewed for the challenge. (Paula Grunseit gave a wrap-up of some of those reviews on the AWW blog.)

Longlisted books still to be reviewed are:

  • Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman which won the David Unaipon Award in 2011#
  • Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2009#
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson which was shortlisted for the same prize that year#
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
  • The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller and
  • An Opening by Stephanie Radok.

#Source: AustLit News

For the Stella Prize judges, these books are “reading treasures,” books that represent the best of the best Australian women’s writing. Their absence from AWW’s review lists suggests that quality books by Australian women still aren’t coming to the attention of readers — even avid readers, like the hundreds of bookbloggers participating in the AWW challenge, readers strongly motivated to discover new works by Australian women.

The Stella Prize aims to help to change that.

The shortlist will be announced on Wednesday March 20, and the prize itself will be awarded in Melbourne on the evening of Tuesday April 16.

Book giveaway: Scribe Publications, in conjunction with AWW, is giving readers a chance to win books by several Scribe authors, including two authors longlisted for the Stella Prize, Cate Kennedy and Amy Espeseth. Details can be found on the Australian Women Writers blog. Entries close on February 28.

*Note: This is a modified version of a blog post which first appeared on HuffPost Books.

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.

Australian Women Writers Challenge makes the HuffPo

What a day to be out of town!

Some time ago on Twitter, I saw that @HuffPostBooks was trying to get more followers to reach 55,555. I tweeted a reply from my @auswomenwriters account saying I’d follow – if they’d consider posting more pieces on books by Australian women.

The next thing I knew, I had a Twitter invitation from the HuffPo Books blog editor to write something for their blog about Australian women writers. I immediately deflected attention to both Sophie Cunningham and Kirsten Tranter, saying either of them might be interested. When neither of those authors responded to the tweet, I took a deep breath. Maybe I could write something?

After consulting the AWW team of book bloggers and exchanging emails with the editor over the angle I should take, I chose the obvious one: the news that the inaugural Stella Prize would be awarded next April. I decided to link the news with a survey of books published this year which have been reviewed for the AWW challenge, since these books – in theory – should be eligible for the prize. They cover a wide variety of genres that don’t normally get reviewed in literary pages, and include titles which, because of either their setting or subject matter, wouldn’t be eligible for the Miles Franklin. I wrote the piece and sent it off.

Then yesterday morning I received word that my piece had been posted. I took a look, and the first thing I noticed was a formatting error. (Most book titles were italicised; some weren’t.) Isn’t that always the way? I had to remind myself that I’d asked another book blogger to look over a draft copy of the article and she didn’t notice. How important are italics anyway?

I tweeted the link to everyone I could think of and posted it on Facebook, then felt a wave of nerves as I waited for the response. Is what I’ve written crap? It’s just a survey. There’s no substance. Bla, bla, bla. The committee of critics in my head started chattering.

Maybe fortuitously, I was up in Katoomba, getting ready to go bush walking with guests from the UK. We piled in the car and travelled the 18 km dirt road out to the ancient Grose Valley escarpment at Mount Hay. A sea haze had drifted in from the coast over the Cumberland Plains, obscuring the sun and sharpening the definition of the hills in a way I’d never seen at this time of year. Many tiny wildflowers were in bloom, as well as Flannel Flowers, my bush favourites. For a few hours, I forgot about books and writing.

When I got back to town last night and a proper internet connection, however, the first thing I did was to run through email, Twitter and Facebook. There were dozens of comments in response to the HuffPo piece – too many to reply to personally – and lots of notifications that people had retweeted the link. It didn’t really matter what I’d written. The important thing was that Huffington Post Books blog had given a great big shout to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and The Stella Prize, as well as to dozens of books published this year by a host of talented Australian women.

This morning, I received an email query from the HuffPo Books blog editor about a possible correction to my piece – is Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth’s first novel written for an adult audience, or were her earlier books, The Witches of Eilaenan and Ride of Rhiannon series, also for adults? I’d read the Witches series years ago, and thought it was for Young Adults, but I checked with Kate. They are for adults, she told me; but she wasn’t worried – she was just happy to be included in the piece. (The error has been corrected, though.)

I emailed the editor back with a clarification – and cheekily asked if I might be able to write a follow-up post on The Stella Prize longlist or even the occasional author interview or review. The answer came back in the form of information about logging in as a contributor and the message, “Looking forward to reading future posts!”

That’s it! I’m now a HuffPo book blogger.

You can read yesterday’s Huffington Post piece – “Want a book by an Aussie woman in Australia? Try looking for a kangaroo on the spine” – here.

This is where we were yesterday.

AWW’s new list of reviews

I haven’t had much time to read or write reviews this week. I’ve been busy creating a database of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge. This is to complement the new look AWW blog.

I’d have preferred to host the database and blog on the same site, but WordPress – for security reasons, they say – won’t allow me to use the necessary code.

What does the code do? Technically, when participants enter their review links in the Google form, it goes to a spreadsheet; the code enables the database to automatically read items from the sheet and upload these as entries – a kind of “reading list” – with links not only to the reviewers’ websites, but also to the World Catalog which shows library holdings around the world.

If that sounds like too much information, let me just say the new database will make it a whole lot better easier to find reviews than the Mr Linky boxes which the challenge started with this time last year. Special thanks is owed to digital librarian Jason Clark for writing the code.

You can take a look at the new database here. What do you think?

Aussie Author Challenge 2012

At the beginning of the year, while still a blogging novice, I joined up to more than one reading and reviewing challenge. Then, in March, I suffered the great computer crash and lost a good portion of my data, not retrieved until June.

Luckily, I’d already finished the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, but I never made my way back to the other challenge. Instead, I continued to read books by Australian women, and posted sporadic reviews on GoodReads.

Earlier this week I rediscovered the Aussie Author Challenge 2012, the site which prompted me to use Mr Linky for the AWW challenge. It has inspired me to post some more reviews, including some from my GoodReads page. I’ve started with a recent one, Y A Erkine’s The Betrayal.

My goal is “DINKY-DI – Read and review 12 books by at least 6 different Australian authors.”

1. Y A Erskine, The Betrayal.

2. Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts.

3. Meg Mundell, Black Glass.

4. P M Newton, The Old School.

5. Angela Savage, The Half-Child.

6.Emily Maguire, Fishing for Tigers.

7. Toni Jordan, Fall Girl.

8. Lisa Heidke, Stella Makes Good.

9. Lynne Leonhardt, Finding Jasper.

10. Caroline Overington, Sisters of Mercy.

11. Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper.

12. Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens.

Warning: heavy weather and wonky posts

I’m a novice at blogging on WordPress.

Last week I tried importing old posts from my old Blogger site, not realising that these could end up broadcast to followers. (I thought I was creating an archive.)

It was only when I started to do the same for the new Australian Women Writers challenge page that I realised what could happen.

So, apologies to anyone following this blog if you were recently inundated with a list of old – blank or badly formatted – posts. I’ve been trying to get on top of things, but so far the technology continues to baffle me.

The following photo – which I also posted on the new AWW draft site – has no relevance to the content of this update, but it did inspire my title.

Adaminaby, August 2012
(photo by Rodney Weidland, used with permission)

AWW’s 1000+ reviews: Where to from here?

Cross-posted from Blogger

The other day I mentioned that a good part of my time this year has been taken up hosting and participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for the National Year of Reading. This week, the challenge reached a milestone. Over 1000 reviews have been posted to the site, and the blog has attracted over 50 000 views.

This represents a fantastic, collective effort from the readers who have responded for my call to help address the problem of gender bias in our literary review pages, and to raise the profile of The Stella Prize.

For me personally, the effort of hosting the challenge has been rewarding. I’ve met many bookbloggers and booksellers, people who devote their lives to reading, and who are happy to promote the best of what they read. It has introduced me to extraordinary books by talented writers – books like Dog Boy by Eva Hornung- that I didn’t know existed a year ago. While I finished the reviewing part of the challenge back in February, I have kept reading books by Australian women in the months since – books like M J Hyland’s Carry Me Down, Charlotte Woods’ Animal People, Honey Brown’s The Red Queen, Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, Virginia Lloyd’s Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement, Wendy James’ The Mistake, and Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. And they are just the most memorable of a great selection of reading.

The drawback is it has taken me away from my writing.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to assemble a team of bookbloggers and readers who will continue to support and promote Australian women writers. With their help, I’ll be able to run the challenge again in 2013, but without the same time commitment.

We’re building a new challenge page on WordPress which will have a lot more user-friendly features. It’s only in draft form yet, but should be fully functioning well in advance of the new year.

It won’t be just the AWW challenge shifting to WordPress. I’m so impressed with the new site and what it has to offer that I’ve decided to shift my personal blog as well. I already have a WordPress site for book reviews. Combining blogs will mean having one spot for all my interests, personal posts, reflective essays, book reviews and perhaps a new category of writing tips. Readers will be able to subscribe by RSS and email to the separate categories. That will prevent anyone’s inbox being inundated with posts that don’t interest them.

To say goodbye to Blogger, I want to share with you this photo. It was taken up in far north New South Wales last week by a wonderful photographer whose way of seeing the world always makes my heart soar. Hope it does the same for you.

Taking flight, Rodney Weidland 2012 (used with permission)
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