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Monday musings on Australian literature: Where are our women writers?

May 30, 2011
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Miles Franklin, 1902, by H.Y. Dorner (Presumed Public Domain, from the State Library of New South Wales)

It might be just me, but it seems that women writers (I know the adjective should be female but it just doesn’t feel right in this context where “women writers” is short-hand for “women who are writers” or “writers who are women”) are somewhat thin on the ground in Australia at present, at least in terms of major visibility on the literary scene. There have been two, I think, significant flowerings of women’s writing in Australia in the last century. The first occurred in the first three to four decades of the twentieth century, and the second from the 1970s to 1990s.

My simplistic – read, not thoroughly researched but off the top of my head – explanation for these two bubbles is that they represent responses to the two major phases in the women’s movement of the last century – the suffrage movement of the late ninetheenth-early twentieth century, and the second wave of feminism which occurred in the 1960s-1970s. Certainly, in Australia, women writers were highly visible in the 1920s to 1940s, with writers such as Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard, Eleanor Dark,  and Christina Stead. And again, in the 1970s to 1990s, we had Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Jessica Anderson, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, to name a few. These women were all highly visible in literary circles and they managed to win some of the prizes going. In the last decade or so, though, women seem to have fallen behind again … though they are there, such as Eva Hornung who took out last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Prize, Joan London, Gail Jones, and Amanda Lohrey to name a few. Grenville and Garner are still around. And yet, overall, these writers are just not highly visible. And visibility is the clue. I would hazard the “wild” guess that the first names off the tip of the tongue when people think current Australian literary writers would be Malouf, Winton, Carey, Miller, to name a few. Great writers all, but not, I think the only great writers we are producing.

I’m not the only one concerned. After deciding to write a post on this, I did a little research and there’s been quite a bit written recently on the issue. In fact, just earlier this month Angela Meyer of Literary Minded wrote a post titled Let’s read writing by women in which she reports on a new committee being set up:

to pursue equal rights for women writers in Australia. Besides research, lobbying and setting up mentorships, the committee is looking at establishing a literary prize for Australian women writers, along the lines of the UK’s Orange Prize. The steering committee (including novelist and publisher Sophie Cunningham, critic and former Miles Franklin judge Kerryn Goldsworthy and novelist Kirsten Tranter) feel the move is unfortunately, necessary, due to the unequal recognition of books by women in major literary award shortlists and in the book pages of the major newspapers in this country.

It’s unfortunate that this is needed … but I agree that it is needed. Gender shouldn’t matter. After all, what we like to read is good writing. But it’s hard, when you look at the facts (percentage of women published, shortlisted for awards, winning awards, being set for study) not to feel that there is some gender bias going on in the literary fiction world. I’m not going to second guess here how it happens, or what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, but I don’t like feeling that I may be missing out on good writing. Nor do I like to think that women writers are missing out on the opportunities their male peers are obtaining.

Do women only become “visible” – and achieve accordingly – when feminist movements flourish? Do you agree there is an issue regarding women writers on the literary scene (that is, not the genre scene) if you are Australian and, if you’re not, how do you see the situation in your country*? Do you agree that “affirmative” actions like gender-based awards are the way to go? Let’s get talking…

* Back in February, I reported on the VIDA Report on book writing and reviewing in the UK and the USA, so the “problem” is being noted elsewhere.

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39 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2011 7:07 pm

    Gee, you know, I’ve been following this debate and it has echoes of debates in the visual arts world where most big names are men, and where most women stop making art in their mid thirties, and where there is Art and then there is Women’s Art. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it doesn’t lie in chastising women for what they choose to write about as Germaine Greer chastised women artists for making ‘small, trivial women’s art’. I suspect the answer lies in male attitudes and the fact that for all the advances women have made in the last hundred years this is still a patriarchy where anything women have to offer – unless it’s their sexuality – will ultimately (and obviously unspoken) be relegated to the second class, by men and many women.

    • May 30, 2011 10:12 pm

      Oh yes, Phillipa, I think there’s a lot of correspondence in this between art and writing…and I think part of it is the subject matter BUT like you I think it’s not that the subject matter is less valuable or less important but that cultural attitudes from the dominant culture deem it to be so. If art (and I’m using the term ‘art” widely here) is about expression then it seems to me that the issue is less WHAT you express but rather how well you do it. And I also agree with you that it is disappointing when women go along with the negative attitudes towards so-called women’s subject matter.

  2. May 30, 2011 8:25 pm

    This is just a thought off the top of my head – but I wonder if it much the same as inequality you see in other professions. Usually what it comes down to is the females role in giving birth to and then taking on the role of the primary carer of children prevents them from participating in an equal way in their professions. What I mean to say is that women largely have to take maternity leave for at least some period of time, a lot take a significant period of time off, and then its hard to get back into the working life. Maybe its the same for writing??

    Ok, I just re-read that and it makes no sense. I am not deleting it though because it seemed like it might make sense at the time I wrote it. Its 8.30pm and I just got home from 13 hours at work so I wil plead that as my excuse.

    It is interesting to think about though.

    • May 30, 2011 9:52 pm

      Of course it makes sense Becky … I’m sure that’s part of it. It is certainly one of the theories I’ve heard re women artists over the years too. It’s a really complex issue which, I guess, means it has to be tackled on a number of fronts and that makes it hard because one fix in one place probably isn’t enough.

  3. May 30, 2011 8:46 pm

    Very, very interesting theory about whether women writers flourish during times of feminism. It’s easy to think that aligns with the world today, when the dearth of well-supported women writers is contextualised by a society that loves to see feminism as a four-letter word. Both of these things sadden me.

    P.S. The top of your head couldn’t be simplistic if you tried!

  4. Matthew Todd permalink
    May 30, 2011 11:01 pm

    It’s an interesting point. Authors like Margaret Atwood, who vehemently disagree with the philosophy behind prizes like the Orange Prize say that these things ghettoise fiction written by women, and indeed only help to exacerbate the problem of female writing in mainstream literature.

    Of course, Australian literature is populated by (soon to be) dead white males anyway. Nam Le and Christos Tsiolkas are the only writers I can think of off the top of my head that aren’t Anglo. And they’re pretty recent arrivals (not in the sense that they just got here) – one of them hasn’t even written a major novel yet, while the other has written one insanely popular (and bloody good) novel, with three other good ones left behind on the shelves.

    I suppose White was gay, but he hated Australia for a long time, and left, so I’m not sure that counts.

    • May 30, 2011 11:44 pm

      Hi Matthew, nice to hear from you and thanks for taking up the discussion. I take Atwood’s point but I think my stand is probably that “ghettoising” is the lesser of two evils – that perhaps it’s better to be in a ghetto than not to be noticed at all. We also have other “ghetto” awards don’t we: for first novels, young writers, and indigenous writers, to name the main examples. Do you have any ideas about how we could do it better?

      BTW Thought of you a few times this month as we travelled around Japan (Western Honshu, primarily, and Shikoku. Not Osaka this time…)

      • Matthew Todd permalink
        May 31, 2011 2:36 pm

        I’m so jealous you were in Japan. I wish I still were…

        Alas, I have no idea what might work to encourage people to read books written by women. Or indigenous authors. Or gay authors. Or anything. I’ve seen statistics before – but I have no idea where, so this is going to be pretty vague – that look at how many published books are written by women, and other minorities. If there’s a problem with publishing, then that’s relatively easy to fix. But to encourage people to read books written by women even if they are published – I have no idea.

        This is weird because most book buyers in Australia are middle aged women – surely the prime target for books written by women. Maybe that’s an unfair statement, but surely it’s easier to get a woman to read a book written by a woman.

        Re: George’s point below. Eliot was writing with a male pseudonym, so I’m not sure about that. And would we really read Austen and the Bronte sisters if they weren’t almost the only examples of 19th century novels written by women? I don’t know the answer – it genuinely interests me.

        On a more personal note, I read a shockingly small number of books written by women. I’ve only recently noticed this, and am trying to fix the situation. Suggestions?

        • May 31, 2011 5:41 pm

          Where do I start … so many good comments to respond to. Re women being buyers, I think it’s complicated. A couple of things might be that many women buy genre books (crime, young adult, fantasy etc) and we are talking literary fiction, and the other that Meyer and others suggest is that women themselves tend to think men are better or more important writers!

          Re George, yes, you’ve said pretty much what I was going to say … I reckon I would read Austen of course but the point is that Eliot, Austen, Gaskell are well outnumbered by the number of male writers.

          Suggestions … where to start. Do you mean contemp0rary or older? Older, have you read Edith Wharton. An absolute favourite of mine. There’s Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Atwood of course. Australians include Astley and Jolley. And, one I still have to read myself, Christina Stead. A very small start … have you read any of these? I can’t recollect right now what you’ve reviewed over the years.

  5. George permalink
    May 31, 2011 11:49 am

    It seems to me that recommending “mentorships” and calculating the percentages of “shortlists” are sure signs that one is lost. Give me somebody who thinks that a mentorship is what Telemachus sailed to Pylos, and I’ll bet on her.

    “Do women only become “visible” – and achieve accordingly – when feminist movements flourish?”

    Then how does one explain Jane Austen, Emily Eden, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor?

    “and, if you’re not [Australian], how do you see the situation in your country*? ”

    As Mark Twain said of James Fenimore Cooper, “through a glass eye, darkly”. I work full time, I have work to do on and around my house, I’m still catching up on things I didn’t read as an undergraduate. Fairly current literary fiction I read for one of two reasons: somebody whom I trust recommends it; the neighborhood book club chooses it. I seldom read the fiction reviews in the Sunday newspapers we take.

    • May 31, 2011 5:49 pm

      Thanks George for engaging and offering some alternative viewpoints. I take your point re mentorships, targetted awards, statistical analysis. They seem artificial and mechanistic. And yet … I do think there’s some systemic things going on here which means that we are missing out on variety.

      As for Eliot and Austen, in addition to what Matthew wrote above, I’d say that there are always exceptions. Even now, when feminism seems to be a bit of a dirty word, there are women writers. It’s just that they seems to be less visible which implies to me that fewer of them are getting published or being promoted.

      Oh, and I don’t read fiction reviews either … like you I read through recommendations, bookgroup schedules, gifts, etc.

  6. George permalink
    June 1, 2011 10:35 am

    In response to various points above:

    a. I don’t think anyone long imagined that George Eliot was a man, any more than than they did George Sand.

    b. “And would we really read Austen and the Bronte sisters if they weren’t almost the only examples of 19th century novels written by women?” Even granting the premise, recast it as would we really read if they weren’t almost the only examples of nth Century novels written by a ? I think in any case the answer is Yes.

    c. Christina Stead–The Man Who Loved Children gets off to a slow start, but is a splendid novel.

    • June 2, 2011 9:33 am

      I agree re B, and thanks for the encouragement re Christina Stead. I’m hoping my bookgroup might choose to read her next year… there’s some interest in the idea I think.

      • George permalink
        June 2, 2011 9:04 pm

        Be warned that our book group was heavily against it–we the hosts and one other couple thought it a classic, the other nine members disliked or detested it and did not finish it. I had thought that the local setting–the Glover Park area of Washington, DC, about four miles from here, Baltimore, and Annapolis–might add to its appeal. I was wrong. The

        • June 2, 2011 9:49 pm

          Ah thanks George … I have heard enough about it to know that it’s likely to be controversial, including hearing recently a Bookshow discussion of it, so I think I’m prepared! Are you in the DC area? We lived in Northern Virginia for two years in the 1980s – our son was born there. We had a great time there.

  7. June 2, 2011 2:29 am

    I wish there didn’t have to be prizes like the Orange Prize but I fear that it is necessary in order for much ow women’s writing to even get noticed. Since my post on the Josipovici book I have been trying to think of current writers who are innovative and realized that I could only think of men. I was shocked and sad and have been thinking hard but have yet to come up with a single woman. This bothers me a lot because I know there must be innovative women writers out there!

    • June 2, 2011 9:37 am

      Yes, that’s exactly how I feel … the fear that we are missing out because it just isn’t logical that they aren’t around. And now you’ve got me thinking in terms of your post…

  8. June 3, 2011 2:35 am

    Re. “a Bookshow discussion of it …”

    Oh God, forget that Bookshow discussion. Those people read like children. The characters were mean to one another, therefore they didn’t like it. Byrne said that she was distressed by the ending, but the ending she described is not the ending in the book; she invented an ending in her head and grew sad over her own invention. They made me raging mad. Here’s one of the most purely great writers we have, merciless, fruitful, rich as cake, and here they are, whining because her characters aren’t nice and her inventions are prolific. As a piece of subject matter, Man Who Loved shouldn’t be even slightly controversial. Parents fight, voila! People are egotists! A mother is miserable and angry! A teenager wants to escape! How many thousands of books have been written on these themes? But Stead is good at it, there’s the problem, she doesn’t want you to get away, she doesn’t want you to sit at a distance, she isn’t fair and sweet and decent, or even cool and bitter and clever and removed, she leaps on you, she’s like a wave. “The Man Who Loved Children makes you a part of one family’s immediate existence as no other book quite does,” as Randall Jarrell wrote in my Penguin edition’s intro, and it does it with great force.

    • June 3, 2011 8:30 am

      Oh no, no, no, that wasn’t what I was referring to, DKS. That’s The First Tuesday Book Club! I was referring to Radio National’s The Book Show. There was this last October – with Hazel Rowley – http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2010/3048220.htm . There was another one I thought this year but maybe I’m remembering back to October! (I find TFTBC a bit of fun but not the same quality as The Book Show). I MUST read this book … and will do my darnedest to get my group to do it next year.

      • June 4, 2011 2:11 am

        Oh — lightbulb. Got it. All right, me and my frothing grievance will just go over here to this corner and mutter quietly to ourselves for a while.

        They replayed the Rowley interview earlier this year in memorium, but I don’t think there was another show dedicated to Man. Good luck twisting the arm of the book club. I was in a book club once, and I tried to talk them into Lautréamont’s Maldoror, saying, “It’s about a man who shoots a shark and then has sex with another shark,” thinking that this would sound pretty much irresistible, but they didn’t bite, for some reason. So I know that it can be tricky, getting your point across to book clubs.

        • June 4, 2011 2:18 pm

          Oh, you made me splutter DKS – “they didn’t bite” eh! (I must check out this Maldoror).

          Yes, it can be tricky. We have small cohort which likes to read classics (though perhaps not so much experimental works) and that number has just been increased by one. We usually manage at least one classic a year – last year it was Voss. We managed, finally, to have a poetry evening and it went down so well that we had another. BUT it’s time again, I think, for a third one. After all, we are 23 years old now!

    • George permalink
      June 3, 2011 9:50 am

      I think that the young reader (not necessarily quite a child, DKS) is apt to feel the failings of a novel’s characters and be repelled. It took me a while to get past my irritation with Julien Sorel and actually read The Red and the Black. Nor I think is Hettie in the Man Who Loved Children a character that a young man can make much sense of–unless he is unusually perceptive, as I was not. I bogged down in the book on my first attempt to read it, and picked it up 35 years later, when I made allowances for the slow parts at the beginning, and was astonished at what I then found. I don’t think it is a work for the reader under 30.

      (And to answer WG: yes, I live in Washington, DC. Drive up Beach Drive from the Zoo to the 2nd right, turn there, and again at the first right, and you’re in our neighborhood. And I worked in Baltimore for while 25 years ago. and once had a brother-in-law living in the Eastport area of Annapolis where the Pollitts wind up.)

      • June 3, 2011 10:49 am

        Being somewhat over 30 I’m ready for it I reckon! I’ll be working hard on my 50-something (and over) group.

        Ah, our son was born in the now demolished Columbia Hospital for Women. Great hospital. We lived in Reston, Va … but of course made many trips into DC mainly for the Smithsonian. Have been back a couple of times in the last decade and I’m sure will visit again.

      • June 4, 2011 2:46 am

        Anecdote for anecdote: the presenter on the Book Show I was growling about told the audience that she read Man when she was young, and enjoyed the “brilliance of the creation,” but then she came back to it when she was older, married, with children, and the idea of that fictional family, always angry, always in turmoil, upset her; she couldn’t cope with the book. “I think because when I read it as a young woman, I saw the brilliance of the creation, and I read now and I’m a mum. ” So, combine her position and your position, and say, “It’s a work for people over thirty who are not mothers …”

        The Red and the Black, ha, the first time I came across that book I didn’t even get as far as disliking the main character in prose — I was not even that advanced — I picked up the book and looked at the picture of him on the front cover and thought, “No, he looks like a grim person, a terrible person, a forbidding person,” and went off the author immediately. Ages later I tried Charterhouse of Parma and discovered that Stendhal was funny. Never judge a book by its, etc, etc.

        • June 4, 2011 2:21 pm

          Great anecdotes DKS. Was that Jennifer Byrne (or a guest?). I’m behind in my FTBC watching. Now she’s a mum she can’t see the brilliance anymore? What does THAT mean? Her mummy-brain’s gone to mush? I hope Naipaul doesn’t see that (see Matthew Todd below)!

  9. June 3, 2011 8:55 am

    Generally speaking, I think more needs to be done to encourage, prepare and support artists especially writers. I cannot think of any other career where one has to rely so much on one’s own devices. We (the world over) need to address the barriers that keep people from producing art. Women benefit whenever formal structures, that allow for their participation, are put in place. While I love Atwood’s work, I completely disagree with her position on programs and prizes for women writers. Women writers still face a uphill battle with regards to everything that they have to do as writers. In Africa, this situation is compounded ten fold.

    • June 3, 2011 10:50 am

      Well said Kinna. Theoretically I agree with Atwood – that is, in the best of all possible worlds – but practically I don’t!

  10. June 3, 2011 10:13 pm

    What do writers have to do to make a living while writing? How many writers are part of the education sector – like other artists, teaching while creating? To what extent is sexism still embedded in this sector?

    • June 3, 2011 11:13 pm

      Good questions Judith … I think quite a few are in the education sector – some as teachers in schools and some as teachers of creative writing. Grenville and Jolley both taught creative writing, Geoff Page (a male but relevant to your question) taught English until he was of retirement age, and so on. Some I think make a living as journalists. It’s not easy is it being a creative artist.

  11. Matthew Todd permalink
    June 3, 2011 10:51 pm

    Just because this article amused and depressed me in equal measures:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers

    • June 3, 2011 11:09 pm

      Well wow, what to say to that? “Sentimental tosh”? I have yet to read Naipaul, which is naughty of me I know, but I must say I’m disappointed in what seems to be a narrow-minded attitude. It does rather confirm exactly what many fear doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing that.

    • June 8, 2011 2:59 am

      How would he know? He’s already told Susan Sontag that he doesn’t read.

      From her essay, Writing as Reading.:

      “I remember saying something to V.S. Naipaul about a nineteenth-century English novel I loved, a very well-known novel, which I assumed that he, like everyone I knew who cared about literature, admired as I did. But no, he’d not read it. he said, and, seeing the shadow of surprise on my face, added sternly, ‘Susan, I’m a writer, not a reader.’”

      Conclusion: V.S. Naipaul: knoweth not of what he speaks.

      • June 8, 2011 9:01 pm

        If I thought it before, I know it now!

        I wonder what Sontag’s 19th century novel was? An Austen, a Dickens, an Eliot, a Bronte?

  12. June 5, 2011 3:01 am

    It was Byrne. I had that thought too: “I hope that One Of Those Kinds of People don’t see this, otherwise they’ll run around saying that motherhood removes a woman’s ability to appreciate literature, and point to this bit of evidence — behold, Jennifer Byrne.” She meant that the children in the book are unhappy because their parents fight, and now that she’s got children of her own she feels unhappy when she thinks of children being hurt by fighting parents. But — and I’ve already mentioned this on my blog but I’ll mention it again — Stead’s children are self-centred and resilient animals, and the point of the view of the book is less, “oh dear, the little children are oppressed, what a misery memoir,” and more, “children, born, find themselves in the ecosystem of a family, and they will thrive there in spite of everything.” Critiques of Stead don’t often dwell on her nature descriptions, but I think they serve a purpose here — they remind you that the people of the book are in an environment, just like the fish and birds around them, and that this environment is not only the environment of nature, but also the environment of the family, and the environment of the house.

    • June 5, 2011 10:26 am

      Thanks DKS … I’ll say it again. I must read this book … perhaps by saying it enough I will bore myself and actually do it!

      • June 6, 2011 9:00 am

        Speaking of Stead and Man, did you see they’re trying to redevelop her house?

        http://watsonsbayresidents.blogspot.com/2011/03/fighting-to-save-christina-stead-house.html

        • June 6, 2011 10:22 am

          Oh no I didn’t. Thanks for that. What a beautiful house. It doesn’t look like much has been done to it so it would be an awful shame to lose such heritage.

          While we were in Japan we spent a couple of days in Matsue, where Greek-born Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn lived for a short time. They have preserved the house it which – and I’m sure my memory serves me correctly – he lived for just a few months AND they have a museum dedicated to him in the house next door! AND he’s not even Japanese!

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