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.

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