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

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34 Comments

  1. annabelsmith

     /  January 7, 2013

    This is such a complex subject. I’m sure many people will argue against it. But looking at the bigger picture, I feel that any initiative that brings more people to reading is a good thing. More people reading has to lead in the long term, to more people reading AWW.

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  2. I would prefer to have ONE challenge for ALL. That way there is ONE website to go to, the gender of the author is optional, increasing the likelihood of completing the challenge, and updating the website is simple and straightforward, rather than having two separate lists. My thoughts in an expanded form are here http://www.darkmatterfanzine.com/dmf/australian-male-writers-challenge/

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    • Thanks for the reply, and your post. I think the one website idea is a bit further down the track, Nalini. But it’s certainly something to aim for.

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  3. seantheblogonaut

     /  January 7, 2013

    I don’t agree with Tony, on the challenge being an exercise in ignoring men, but he’s entitled to feel that way. I still think that its been an extremely positive event that may have gone someway to redressing the imbalance that exists in reviewing and general awareness.

    In my own reading I read 9 Australian Male readers this year versus 11 last year. So i am not sure that doing the challenge has had a significant impact on my own reading and promoting of Australian male writers.

    I think there is an argument for promoting all Aussie writers to Australian audiences because we have world class writers, and I can certainly see an argument for pushing for more genre reviews, the more literary aussie male writers are well supported I think via Tuesday Bookclub and RN.

    The issue of men not signing up because they think its for women is I think a problem that may be fixed by greater awareness/advertising.

    In my experience the Bookblogging community is about 90% female. The number of men we have in the challenge might already be a reasonably good number considering that.

    I think for the AWWC being open and being loud about that openness to male readers and reviewers is the best thing, all you can do is be welcoming.

    The questions I ask myself is: Is their a need to have an AMWC? Is their an imbalance that needs to be redressed? Is a male challenge the way to do it?

    There seem to be two things that we are looking at

    1) Promoting Male Australian writers of genre
    2) Getting men interested in and involved in reading and writing about it

    I do 1) as the central premise of blog so year I’m all for it but think maybe a genre challenge with a commitment to equality might be better 2) I am not sure that’s something in our power to do.

    You have got me thinking and remembering that I need to move on some of the things we have discussed.

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    • I’m sure you’re right, Sean. My view is it’s good to have a Australian Male Writers Challenge and an Australian Writers Gender-balanced reviewing challenge just so people don’t feel excluded by default. I think the emphasis, energy and attention will remain on AWW.

      What you write about the percentage of male book bloggers is fascinating. Here I was just thinking I hadn’t done my research well enough. Are there really so few?

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      • seantheblogonaut

         /  January 7, 2013

        That’s anecdotal of course but yes in my experience vastly more women involved in book blogging.

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        • Timothy

           /  January 8, 2013

          As a male book blogger, I’d like to comment that I think that’s not true, although I think male book bloggers tend to work in teams more. I mean, how many book bloggers are there reviewing graphic novels on sites like CBR? They are majority male. I myself work in a team (although mine’s a library blog and librarians are 92% female in Australia, so…I’m not a good example.)

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          • seantheblogonaut

             /  January 8, 2013

            Timothy, I d like to hope that there are more blokes out there book blogging. I consider book bloggers to be people who maintain their own blog( my definition, we can broaden it if you like), not necessarily people who contribute to a site though.

            Your mention of CBR raises and interesting point though, it may come down to the type/genre of “book” being reviewed too.

            I am a member the Australian Book Bloggers Directory and that is majority female members. Out of 109 blogs, 7 of those are by men, which works out to roughly 6% male membership. Sure some of that 109 are joint blogs where its hard to ascertain quickly what gender they are but by the same token 3 out of the 7 male bloggers are actually bookshop owners and not really what I would define as book bloggers.

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            • Timothy

               /  January 8, 2013

              See, Sean, under that definition I’m not a book blogger, because I’m paid to blog about books by my employer. I helped rebuild the site a few times, and I’ve presented about book club blogging at Wordcamp, so I feel I’m a blogger. Do you think it needs to have a sort of DIY ethos to it to count?

              As to the Australian book blogger directory – their homepage hasn’t had a new article in over six months (iof you mean the one on blogspot?). We’ve never tried registering with it because it looks dead.

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              • seantheblogonaut

                 /  January 8, 2013

                Like I said we can define it how ever we want? But we need to draw the line somewhere obviously. How do you define book bloggers? Anyone who writes articles on books online? Or does it relate to the format ie articles/posts in chronological order that allow for commentary and community?

                So if I propose the following:

                *must regularly post in the same location(s) (where regular is 12= times a year)
                *can be paid or unpaid
                *posts chronologically
                *platform allows for and encourages participation in post commentary and formation of community

                Under this someone such as yourself and Joel Naoum would be considered a bookblogger, Jon from Pages, some authors too, especially if they are engaged in building community , reviewing or talking about books other than there own ie Rowena Cory Daniells, Marianne De Pierres.

                Do we include small press publishers who use blogging software to keep customers updated?

                The Australian Book Blogger directory is more of an index than a blog, ie it doesn’t so much more than collate book blogs, that being said most of the blogs on it are active and its only 6 months out of date, by your reckoning.

                Feel free to add anything to list above. Like I said in my experience which the directory seems to back up the majority of people who would fit under those loose requirements would be women, maybe not 90% certainly a majority.

                By all means if you can point me towards some papers or stats, or if you have them at hand I’m happy to read them. I think it would be interesting for the Challenge organisers to have that information ie where to find engaged male book bloggers.

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  4. seantheblogonaut

     /  January 7, 2013

    I think getting people to read Genre books, to discover the joy of reading is not something a AMWC is going to target especially well. ie a challenge is for pretty motivated readers

    Though I do like the idea of a resource that new readers can stumble on to. I am also in favour of breaking down the walls between Literary and genre fiction – everything is genre 😀

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    • Yes, well, I did say “ambitious”, didn’t I? As in Sir Humphrey’s version of ambition, perhaps. And if new readers do stumble on it (via a website, for example, that doesn’t want to promote women writers to the exclusion of men) we may get more participants in AWW. Win-win. Always good to have your ideas.

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  5. I really feel that men’s poor literacy is a definite factor. I was lucky to find that Tomaree (through encouragement and myself pointing out that one of the narrative threads was the voice of a male and a soldier at that) attracted a few male readers. Knowing that most men I know barely read a novel I was pleased with this.

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    • There are quite a few AWW novels with strong male protagonists: Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows, Annabel Smith’s Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot, Anna Funder’s All that I Am, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People, Kirsten Tranter’s A Common Loss, Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. Not to say men might not like books with female protagonists, but, as you say, they may not know these books have male characters they might identify with. So much is about education, isn’t it?

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      • It is exactly. I’m afraid its up to us girls to steer the men in our lives towards good fiction written by women with, as you say male characters they can identify with.

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        • Timothy

           /  January 8, 2013

          I think the mistake you are making here is guiding them toward fiction. Men in Australia tend to read non-fiction more than women, and to be bettter readers than women when reading non-fiction (note, the converse is true for women reading prose and health information except at the very highest levels where you might be striking a job selection bias.).

          Here’s a note from the Australian Beureau of Statistics for their 2006 Australian literacy study:

          “SEX

          A higher proportion of females attained literacy scores of Level 3 or above on the prose (56%) and health (41%) literacy scales compared to males (52% and 40% respectively). There was a higher proportion of males attaining scores of Level 3 or above on the document (55%) and numeracy (53%) scales compared to 51% and 42% respectively for females. On the problem solving scale, 30% of males and females attained literacy scores of Level 3 or above (table 1).

          There was a higher proportion of females than males at Level 4/5 for most age groups on the prose scale, with the exception of the 55 to 74 year age group, where 10% of males were at Level 4/5 compared with 7% of females. On the document scale, there was a higher proportion of males at Level 4/5 for all age groups with the exception of 15 to 19 year olds. On the numeracy scale, a larger proportion of males attained scores at Level 4/5 for all age groups with almost twice as many males at Level 4/5 than females. There was little difference in the proportion of males and females at Level 4/5 on the problem solving and health literacy scales (table 1).

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  6. Interesting post and questions, Elizabeth.

    I wonder with the apparent imbalance in the gender of book bloggers whether the way men and women discover new authors and new stories is very different. AWWC has been responsible for introducing me to quite a few new authors this year. I do read book review blogs and follow up on recommendations from reviewers I feel share similar tastes. So reviews and challenges work for me, but do they work for male readers or will I simply find more authors to follow if there’s an AMWC?

    My husband is not a prolific reader. Bless him for persevering, but my first drafts can be the only story he reads in a year. He recently discovered the joy of popular fiction audio books – he’s hooked.

    And that all leads back to the literacy issue. My husband is mildly dyslexic so would a challenge make him read more books by Australian Male Writers? The answer would be only if they were audio books… He’s adamant he wouldn’t sign up for a challenge either…

    So for my money? Long live the AWWC. Reassess at the end of this year and check out the lie of the land. You’ve achieved so much in creating an on-line community and that army may well be ready to march for a new cause next year.

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    • Timothy

       /  January 8, 2013

      If your local library has Bolinda digital downloads, then getting Australian authors in audio won’t be much of a problem. If you haven’t asked, you might like to check it out.

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    • Hi Helene, Thanks for replying. Considering all the feedback, I’m not going to run with this idea. I’m looking forward to see what Sean and others may have in mind for attracting more male readers. Timothy’s idea of chasing up the digital books sounds like it might be a great resource for your husband.

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      • Thanks TImothy, my husband has discovered the library downloads and they are great. His only complaint is that he can only borrow two every thirteen days. When I asked my librarians a couple of weeks ago they said that won’t change until they have more stock. Lucky for GW he can borrow on my card and his own so he’s gone from a non-reader to a four books every two weeks kind of guy 🙂

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        • Timothy

           /  January 13, 2013

          Here are some other sources of legal downloads:

          Librivox has free, legal downloads of many classic works. “Classic” in this sense being authors who died before 1923. There are just over 5 000 books in the Librivox site and you can download as many of them as you like for as long as you like. The volunteers who comprise Librivox also record books on request. For example I recorded “On War” by Clausewitz for someone recently.

          In some States, your state library or adjoining large library service can give youi more. I’m not sure where you are, but if you lived in say Scenic Rim in Queensland, you can be a reciprocal member in any or all of Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Logan and Redlands. Now, just the GoldCcoast would let you take 10 Overdirve and 5 Bolinda downloads. I think Brisbane’s much the same…and since they are digital downloads you don’t need to travel to pick them up.

          (Legalese: not representing my employer. At home, in my PJs.)

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        • How wonderful for your husband to have discovered these resources, Helene. (Thanks, Timothy.)

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  7. Timothy

     /  January 8, 2013

    Anout the top 10 from Random House: James Patterson has an Aussie resident as a co-author for Private Oz. He’s even on the cover although he fades out if you have it at thumbnail size. Can’t see a justification for Debbie Rodriguez, though. She’s clearly American, and proudly so.

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    • Thanks, Timothy – and for your helpful comments on the other thread (which has run out of space!). I did wonder about the James Patterson co-author being Australian. (‘d bet he wouldn’t have got a look-in without the JP brand, though. 🙂

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      • Timothy

         /  January 8, 2013

        Most of James patterson’s books now are co-written things. I’m not sure if he does a plot outline and they do the legwork, or he does the plot and they do local colour. I’m not sure if Michael White is an Australian or a resident Brit.

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  8. I must admit I did arch my own eyebrows when I realised how few male Aussie writers I had read last year in comparison to books by women and I too resolved to match the figures this year (20 of each).

    Ignoring the broader question of getting men to read for a moment and just focussing on the men who do already read regularly (because let’s face it the bulk of participants in AWW were people already pre-disposed to regular reading) I’m not sure that men would respond to the same sorts of ‘marketing’ that has worked so well for the AWW challenge – they’re not hainging out in the book blogosphere in nearly the same numbers as women (Sean and Timothy above are the exceptions that prove the rule), they’re not as heavy users of libraries, they’re not members of book clubs. About the only time I have seen a roughly equal number of men and women involved in a literary pursuit is at writer’s week in Adelaide, though the mixture of talks they go to is quite different.

    For a reading challenge to encourage men to read I think there would need to be different strategies and I don’t know enough about what they might be.. Somehow getting a bunch of sportsmen to be photographed reading books and/or talking about their reading would be a start (you may think I jest but not really, a good friend of mine had not read a book since school until Peter Fitzsimmons (ex rugby player) started writing his popular non-fiction – my friend actually said he thought writing and reading was really for women until that point).

    And maybe make the challenge a more competitive thing???

    And maybe acknowledge that the publishing industry has bought into the whole “men don’t read”thing in a big way and so there IS less product that would appeal to men and to change this will take time – I remember an article Jason Pinter wrote on the “why men don’t read”subject a couple of years ago – it was fascinating and there’s a lot of truth to it though I’m not sure I agree with him entirely I think http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/why-men-dont-read-how-pub_b_549491.html – while I don’t buy into the notion that there are or should be subjects which are only of interest to individual genders I do think that different writing styles and approaches to storytelling are needed to appeal to a broader cross section of readers and potential readers and perhaps the kinds of styles that might appeal more to men are avoided by publishing types because they believe men don’t read (it’s a vicious cycle kind of thing I suppose)

    However, I should make it clear, I’m not opposed to the idea of such a challenge nor of broadly trying to promote writing by Australians of any gender at all – I think that can only be a good thing – surely we can ditch the cultural cringe in 2013?

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    • That’s really interesting, Bernadette, thank you, and I’ll chase up that link. I think a few of us, independently of AWW, will probably up our reading of male Aussie authors, just because our focus for 2012 was so intensely on writing by women. I’ve discovered there are those signing up to AWW for the first time, however, who were disappointed to think we might be shifting our strategy, so I decided to drop the idea for now. And we can always join Jo from Booklover Book Review’s Aussie Author Challenge if we want to do our bit for gender-balance: http://www.bookloverbookreviews.com/reading-challenges/2013-aussie-author-challenge

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    • Timothy

       /  January 8, 2013

      I’d just like to note that Australian men and American men are profoundly different in their literacy profiles and reading volumes. Australians read more books per head of population than anyone else in the world. We really and truly aren’t Americans, and research done there really does not reflect on us. (Australians are mad-keen early adopters of any and every communication technology, and that included, and still includes, the book.)

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  9. seantheblogonaut

     /  January 8, 2013

    I have been sourcing responses on Twitter. The general feedback is that yes the majority of book bloggers (however that term is understood, by the twitter flock) are women. Rose Powell who was heavily involved in collating the Australian Best Blogs competition for 2011 and 2012 said that far more women than men entered the book blogger category and that the skew towards female bloggers was also reflected in participants in general.

    There were some other comments that indicated that people felt it could be tied to what genre the read Romance bloggers being predominantly women for example.

    It would be interesting to tease out some of the nuances though. Perhaps as Timothy suggests, more men are involved in team blogs. Perhaps more men are paid to blog and are unable to enter into competitions?

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    • Thanks, Sean. Great to have Rose’s input. Your last point is an interesting one, too! It would be great to ferret out these team blogs – however numerous they are – and see if any would consider joining AWW.

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  1. Australian Male Writers' Challenge

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