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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