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