BY ELIZABETH LUHEDE
A year ago, in Overland online literary journal, Jane Gleeson-White wrote that 2012 was the Year of Australian Women Writers. She attributed this in part to a reading and reviewing challenge I’d established, along with the newly-created Stella Prize. A year before that, I’d never heard of Gleeson-White, or many other Australian women writers. Nor was I alone. When I’d visited my local library and asked for recommendations of books by Australian women, neither of the two library workers I approached could name one living, female Australian author. I was told to ‘look for the kangaroo on the spine’. What the…?
In October 2011, a writer friend on Facebook urged me to check out a ‘stoush’ in the comments section of Tara Moss’s blog. In a wrap-up of a Melbourne Sisters in Crime conference, Moss had quoted the US-based VIDA count: statistics detailing the poor number of reviews of books by women appearing in prominent literary journals. The post attracted the attention of literary reviewer for The Age, Cameron Woodhead, who accused Moss of ‘privileged whining’.
Sure, gender bias in literary reviewing can seem like a First World Problem. But what does it mean when three women in a library have trouble naming any Australian women authors – their contemporaries? It got me thinking. Could the lack of attention given to women writers be symptomatic of a deeper malaise, an inequality which, in Australia, sees women still as primary victims of violence, earning significantly less than men, and underrepresented on corporate boards and, most recently, in ministerial cabinets? Is it an issue of social justice? Or are books by Australian women simply not good enough to deserve reviewers’ attention?
I had good reason to be suspicious of notions of literary meritocracy.
After an undergraduate degree composed almost exclusively of Literature courses, my shelves were full of books by men, from Homer and Ovid, to Shakespeare and Milton, to Wallace Stevens, Ted Hughes and Les Murray. Unwittingly, I chose as an area of focus for my PhD a movement in Australian poetry known as the ‘Generation of ’68’, whose flagship anthology was composed almost entirely of male poets. It was only after years of research that I began to question why and how I made that choice. The implicit gender bias had, until then, been invisible to me. I began to see how critical attention, in the form of reviews, anthologies, prizes and self-promotion, had helped to shape and inform our literary history: in the case of the ‘generation of ’68’, it worked towards marginalising the many female poets who had published in ‘little’ magazines during the 70s and 80s. In effect, it helped to silence them. My own research consolidated that silence, threatening to write those female poets out of history.
By the time I read Moss’s blog, I’d long since given away academic research in favour of learning how to write. Yet, in the years following my degree, I had unwittingly continued my gender-biased reading, this time in fiction. I’d assumed that the books by well-known authors on my shelves were the ‘good’ books. Good books were what reviewers paid attention to. If few of the books were written by women, that was because women were writing fewer good books. ‘Quality rises to the top’, right?
Or does it?
In the light of the VIDA count, and the buzz around the newly established Stella Prize, I decided to do an experiment. For 2012, the National Year of Reading, I aimed to read and review books by Australian women, and find out for myself whether my lack of awareness reflected a lack of quality. Having recently established my own blog, I joined Twitter, where I found book bloggers signing up for reading challenges, pledging to read a number of books in a particular genre, or from a certain country, or from their ‘To Be Read’ piles. I volunteered to host a challenge dedicated to reading and reviewing books by Australian women. The idea tapped a pent-up demand and, before long, hundreds of bloggers and tweeps had signed up to the newly established Australian Women Writers challenge.
Throughout 2012 links to reviews poured in, reviews of contemporary and historical fiction; nonfiction, histories and biographies; books for adults, young adults and children; books by multi-published authors such as Wendy James, Charlotte Wood, Honey Brown, Eva Hornung and Gail Jones; debut authors such as P M Newton, Kirsty Eagar, Kelly Gardiner and Lynne Leonhardt; and many, many other authors of horror, crime, fantasy, sci-fi and romance. By the end of 2012, nearly 1500 reviews had been linked to the challenge, and the enthusiasm hadn’t waned. What participants had discovered, along with me, is Australian women’s writing doesn’t lack quality. Many of the fifty or so books I read that year were outstanding.
A group of us were inspired to continue the challenge into 2013. Fifteen book bloggers formed a team, volunteering to write monthly round-ups of reviews in all genres for the AWW blog. By mid-year, over 500 separate titles of books by Australian women had been reviewed; the number of reviews was set to surpass the 2012 total. The 2013 challenge was every bit as successful as the 2012 one had been.
Or was it?
Through the AWW blog, on Twitter, via dedicated Facebook and Google+ pages, as well as the AWW group in Goodreads, the challenge has helped to foster an online reading community. Along with the Stella Prize and this year’s all-female Miles Franklin shortlist, AWW appears to have helped to attract readers’ attention to books by Australian women. According to at least one author, without the challenge her book might not have been reviewed at all. But the challenge has also attracted criticism, mostly, as it happens, from literary writers.
Early on, one writer criticised the rhetoric associated with the challenge, claiming the project was in danger of being ‘essentialist’ and promoting female gender stereotypes. Another derided the inclusion of genres such as romance. A third protested because her work had been labelled ‘women’s fiction’. Most recently one – prize-winning – author expressed concern over the poor quality of some reviews, the ‘kneejerk tweets’, and the fact that anyone, regardless of credentials, could put up her hand to read and review.
Who does that author think should review her work? Literary reviewers for TheAge?
Both the VIDA count and the Stella Prize have always been about trying to get more – especially male – reviewers to read and review literary books by women. If literary reviewers working for the main media outlets still act as gate-keepers, if they have the power to influence whose books are picked up by book sellers and prize-givers, when literary authors’ livelihoods and reputations are perceived to be dependent on such reviewers’ notice – for prizes, grants and university teaching posts – getting such attention can be a career-maker or -breaker.
In terms of influencing the influencers, the challenge has made little, if any, difference. In September 2013, the Stella Prize published a count, similar to the VIDA statistics, of literary reviews in major Australian media outlets throughout 2012: it shows the number of reviews is still heavily weighted in favour of books by men.
Yet the AWW challenge hasn’t just – or even primarily – been for writers. It’s also been for readers: readers who, like me, have had difficulty finding books by Australian women, literary or commercial. It’s for those two library workers, and for the book blogger who tweeted recently that, before the challenge, she’d no idea how many good Aussie women writers there were. And by ‘good’, I think she meant readable, challenging and entertaining – not necessarily literary.
The reviews linked to the challenge can’t hope to make up for the lack of attention given to Australian women writers in literary review pages, but they have made a difference to those of us who have participated. Seeing the title of a book come up again and again on both book blogs and tweets, as I did throughout 2012 with Margo Lanagan’s exceptional novel Sea Hearts,and again earlier this year with Dawn Barker’s debut novel Fractured, gives me confidence that these books are worthy of my attention: they’ve touched the hearts and minds of other book bloggers enough to inspire them to write a response. Both, as it turns out, are very good reads. Lanagan’s novel has since earned a huge number of prizes and accolades. It’ll be interesting to see whether Barker’s book, being much more commercial, attracts anywhere near the same critical attention. In the case of these writers, the challenge has demonstrated that ‘quality can rise to the top’ – but, for that to happen, books have to be discovered and read in the first place. Without the challenge, how many of the other wonderful books reviewed for AWW would have come to our attention? If it were up to literary reviewers in mainstream media, very few indeed.
Elizabeth Lhuede is a creative writing tutor with TAFE (Oten), formerly a tutor and researcher at Macquarie University. She is currently writing a psychological thriller and her work is represented by literary agent Virginia Lloyd. She created the Australian Women Writers challenge in 2012, the National Year of Reading.
The Australian Women Writers Challenge blog is available at http://australianwomenwriters.com/