Why I love Radio National

ABC Canberra radio and TV studios in the Canbe...

ABC studios in Canberra (Courtesy: Bidgee, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikipedia)

One of the best things about retirement for me is being able to listen to Radio National in the morning. For you overseas readers, Radio National is the national radio station of our national broadcaster, the ABC, Aunty, or, if you want to be formal, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here is the usual morning line-up:

  • 0830: a Report of some sort: the Health Report on Monday, the Law Report on Tuesday, Rear Vision (a look at matters historical) on Wednesday, Future Tense (change) on Thursday, and Movie Time on Friday.
  • 0900: Life Matters: a wide-ranging interview program devoted to current issues relating to social change and social policy, the things that affect our day-to-day lives such as education, health, the environment, and so on.
  • 1000: The Book Show: all things book-ish
  • 1100: Bush Telegraph: things rural and regional

The Book Show is of course of particular interest to me, and today’s show is a good example. It started with a discussion of the Blake Dawson Prize for Business Literature through an interview with Australian business and sports journalist Gideon Haigh who has won the prize in the past. I pricked my ears up for this one as I hadn’t really thought about business writing until I read Kate Jennings last year. Jennings though focused on business fiction. This prize considers the whole gamut of business writing, most of which is non-fiction. Haigh, for example, won in 2006 with his book Asbestos House about James Hardie Industries and the history of its dealings with asbestos (a topic well-known to Australians). Corporate histories (authorised and unauthorised) are not high on my reading priority, but this interview convinced me that I should not dismiss them (nor other types of business writing) cavalierly.

The next spot in the program was about the recent VIDA report on gender in book writing and reviewing. It shows a strong gender imbalance in both authors reviewed by and who does the reviewing at some of the top literary magazines in the US and UK – like Granta, the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review and so on. The Book Show decided to check out the situation in Australia and so approached three of Australia’s top literary editors: Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Steger of The Age and Steven Rommei of The Australian. These three (two men and one woman) did not do a thorough survey of their respective papers but they all found a gender bias, albeit not as pronounced as VIDA had found (which may be accurate or may be due to their less rigorous methodology). They admitted to not being fully aware of their own unconscious (until now) skewed practices – such as, for example, always offering serious history books to a male reviewer. It’s gobsmacking really just how ingrained this gender stuff is!

The problem, though, is less in the methodology than in interpreting the results – as the literary editors above discussed and as The Reading Ape raised in his post on the topic last week. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • are fewer women authors published than men and, if so, why?
  • are the books women write less likely to be reviewed by the mainstream literary papers and journals and, if so, why? (One person suggested that women write more genre books?)
  • are  there fewer women reviewers because they are less likely to put themselves forward as reviewers?
  • who are the literary editors (and their “bosses”), particularly in terms of gender, and what drives their practices?
  • how does the literary culture establishment’s bias (as shown in VIDA’s figures) relate to reading practices in terms of who actually buys and reads the books?

And then there’s the question about us, the bloggers: Who are we, in terms of gender? What are we reading and reviewing? What influence do we have?

(After all this, dare I admit that 60% of the authors I’ve reviewed here to date are male?)

28 thoughts on “Why I love Radio National

  1. You have a whole hour given over to books every morning? I am green with envy. This is a radio household. It wakes me up in the morning and it goes off when I go to bed at night. We do watch the television very very occasionally, but if the conversation turns to television programmes, I have to bow out because invariably I have no idea what my friends are talking about. Like you I favour our National Radio Service, for us the BBC, which we also call Auntie. I think it is one of the great modern miracles. We get some book programmes, but nothing as regular as an hour a day. I shall write and tell them they are missing out to the Aussies.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ann.

      We do, and it’s been going for many many years. The individual segments are often separately listed so you can pick and choose.

      Re Auntie … we probably copied you. I nearly said in my post that the ABC is like the BBC. Do write to them! Send them the link to the website! The programme is, technically 45 mins, but it’s then followed by a 15 mins book reading programme called “First person” which is, by definition, a reading from autobiographies, memoirs, letters and diaries. In the afternoon, at 2pm, is a 20 mins Fiction book reading. Do you have a daily book reading program? All this of course is Monday to Friday.

      Oh, and I love the radio too, as you can tell, though we do watch TV also, particularly in the evening. Most of what we watch is Australian news and current affairs, and British drama! And is mostly on the ABC…funnily enough!

      • For some reason my computer decided it was going to put up all my comments yesterday under my Yahoo name. It’s ME!!!

        Yes, we do have daily book reading programmes, quite a few in fact and of course, we also have BBC Radio 7 (although it’s about to be re-branded as Radio 4 Extra) which serialises several books every day. Gid Bless the BBC. I do not know what I would do without them.

        • Thanks for confirming Annie. Sometimes these computers get too busy for their own boots don’t they?

          I think we are so lucky having government sponsored broadcasters like the BBC/ABC. The US has PBS which does the sort of programming we get on the BBC/ABC but you have to regularly put up with their fundraising drives. So tedious.

  2. I listen to the Book show podcast most days, although I am a bit behind at the moment so have quite a few I can listen to when I get to it.

    It is interesting that there are so few female reviewers, because I would say that book blogging would be more female than male.

    • Thanks Marg. It’d be fun to survey the bookblog world but I suspect you are right. (It would an interesting task because most of us aren’t using our names so you’d have to check each blog and hope they tell you their gender!) I have come across quite a few male bloggers whose reviewing I enjoy. I’d be interested to know what they think – as I’ve noticed that they have more male bloggers commenting on their blogs than I do. Maybe there’s a bit of gender preference going on here?

        • I suspect you are right – there are probably niches. Do you think this is genre related, that is, to generalise, that women read different books? Or is there something different about the way women discuss/write?

  3. It is a huge generalisation because there are lots of girls who read ‘guys books’, including me, but yes I think some genres are very female oriented and they are likely to discuss/write differently.

    • Yes I agree it is a generalisation but generalisations do have some validity don’t they, as long as we don’t make limiting assumptions from them.

      The challenge with gender stuff, as I see it, is which generalised behaviours are “chosen” and which are forced upon a group.

  4. I never would have considered reading the business genre, thinking it was all about getting rich quick, but I might take a second look now.
    As for gender bias, I admit, I seldom enjoy a book written by a female. I can’t think of a single female book I own, as I usually borrow them, or give them away to charity. I do find there are stylistic differences, and focus between male and female authors.

    • It’s interesting really how much a good writer can make interesting, fascinating even, something that we might initially have not interest in.

      As to female writers … I’d love to know what it is that you don’t like? Is it the style and focus … and if so what?

      • I find female writers focus on intimate relationships, how characters deal with society, and emotional motivations, and are quite prescriptive in their characterisations, whereas male authors write from a wider viewpoint, pragmatic or tangible motivations, and allow the reader to form their own opinion of the characters and their choices.

        I find in writing style, female authors attempt to appeal to or connect with the reader and make the reader sympathetic to their viewpoint whereas male authors are less apologetic, not afraid to offend the reader, or simply tell a story.

        But maybe it’s just those which I’ve read…

        • Thanks so much for answering the question LD … you make some interesting comments and I think I understand what you are saying, though some examples would help. Which female writers have you read? I agree that many women do often focus on intimate relationships, rels with society, emotional issues – and that men work from a different viewpoint. Men are more often likely to write novels of ideas, for example, than women I think.

          Your comments on style are interesting too … I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. I’m not sure I fully agree – I feel that most authors want you to be sympathetic to their viewpoint, don’t want to antagonise you, but perhaps male writers can be more overtly “brutal” in getting there.

          If you have time, I’d love some examples. The female authors I’m thinking of as being perhaps in the “tougher” category are Thea Astley, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Jolley (if you haven’t read it, try My father’s moon – pretty confronting stuff with a not wonderfully sympathetic female protagonist. Also her The newspaper of Claremont Street. Also The well. Her protagonists – usually women – are often flawed survivors.) But some examples would be great.

  5. Hmmm, fascinating. Off the top of my head, I would’ve expected more literature reviewers to be female, but then again when we look at the top paid/most prestigous jobs in *any* industry, we start seeing more and more men. Sigh.

  6. Last year my wife and I went to look at a house for sale in our neighborhood. We supposed it to belong to a couple of women we know slightly. But on the second floor I found myself looking at a bookshelf and thinking, Wait a minute, this is a man’s bookshelf. Just as I formed the thought, my wife said from the walk-through closet, Hey, these are all men’s clothes. The bookshelf, for what it’s worth, was long on history, including military history, and on biography, including statesmen.

    I take it for granted, on no real basis save casual observation, that women will tend to prefer fiction and perhaps memoir, men history and other genres.

    • Thanks for commenting George. But you have me intrigued now. You thought it was a couple of women but it wasn’t? It does sound more like a man’s selection though doesn’t it? When I was a teenage babysitter I loved to look at the bookcases in the houses where I babysat …

      As for your observation, that pretty much sounds like my parents though there’s a little crossover of course.

  7. Such an interesting conversation going on here! I don’t pay particular attention to whether the author of the book I am reading is male or female but only to whether I like the book or not. If you ask me I’d say I read more women then men authors but I am always surprised at the end of the year when I actually total up everything that I generally read more men than women. I’ve not figured out what it is about my reading choices that skews it that way, but there it is, almost every year.

    • Well thanks for contributing to the conversation Stefanie. I’m pretty much the same – think I read more women but when I tot it up I haven’t. There was a period though – in the 80s to perhaps early 90s when I did. I made a concerted effort to read women – and I’m glad I did because it rounded out my reading to that time. Now I think I’m driven largely by the groups I’m in – probably 70% of the novels I read is for my reading group and my online groups – and the selection for these is pretty diverse.

  8. I hope livingdelilah comes back with some examples too, because, thinking about it, my experience is the opposite of hers. When I say to myself, “Think of an unapologetic and pitiless book, one that provokes the reader with an unsympathetic antagonist,” my mind replies, “The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor,” and when I go on, “All right, now come up with an author who cuddles and cozens, who wants to be loved and listened to,” the answer comes back, “Charles Dickens, a writer who would push his own eyeballs into your sockets and weep your tears for you if only the universe made such an activity physically possible rather than mortally dangerous.” “Continue!” I say to my mind, “don’t leave it at that, don’t try to shape an argument around these isolated examples, give me some others,” and my mind goes on, “Well, when I try to recall books written in tones that are acid and severe I see the cover of a Murial Spark and the end chapter of a certain Anita Brookner, and I wonder if this coolness is not the legacy of writers such as Jane Austen, who smiled sharply in the face of Foolishness, and George Eliot, who reminded the Victorian Age that not everyone could be a hero and that the life experience of any individual was likely to consist of small and debilitating sacrifices performed without obvious thanks or reward.”

    And then I wonder how our expectations direct us to the books we end up reading, and what paths and understandings have led livingdelilah to her authors, and me to mine.

    • Ah … thanks for this DKS. I think your final question is a good one. Certainly it’s Jane Austen who has shaped a lot of what I like now (and, of course, what made me like Jane Austen is the tricky question).

      My Jane Austen group discussed a little while ago who we thought were Jane Austen’s “descendants” and our answers varied depending on what we saw as her legacy. Those (not so much from out group but from the wider world) who see the Regency period point of course to Georgette Heyer (and, in my view, rather miss the JA point altogether!). Those who see it as her style – her irony and biting humour, her rather acerbic view of the world – might point to Elizabeth Jolley or, as you say, Anita Brookner or Muriel Spark. Those who see it in her focus on women’s experience might point to Virginia Woolf. Discounting Georgette Heyer, whom I haven’t read, one wouldn’t call Jolley, Brookner and Woolf as apologetic.

      I do hope, like you, that LivingDelilah gets back to us …

      • I’ve never thought of Jolley as an Austen-legacy writer, but I can see a case being made for it. She strikes me as a bit more sympathetic than the Brookners and Sparks, more inclined to support the unsupported, unappreciated, and poor for the sake of themselves and their poverty and sadness — putting heart above head — which Austen doesn’t tend to do. And her social observations seem to go in that direction too, more than in the direction of Janeite Radiant Sense. But I haven’t read anything of Jolley’s for a while aside from Lovesong, which is not very representative of her work, and I can’t get my head away from the idea of her as a composer who happened not to have any musical instruments available, only a pen. It takes effort to shift the head in a Jane direction.

        Re. Certainly it’s Jane Austen who has shaped …

        Mervyn Peake for me. He coloured my reading for years. And even if that influence turns out to have been poisonous (I’m still ambiguous on that point) at least he got me off the high fantasy novels. No more Dragonlance after Gormenghast.

        • Ah, I haven’t read Mervyn Peake … but perhaps that’s because I never was into fantasy.

          Re Jolley … I have been shifting my original ground re her and JA primarily because of her greater focus on the interior. But she does have a biting humour which I think is where JA comes in.

  9. I try to listen to all the book show podcasts – i love them! They are especially good for long drives on your own I have discovered – I can drive for a lot longer without losing concentration if I listen to the podcasts rather than music.

    I just read that comment again and it sounds like such a stupid to say but its true.

    And I shoudl add that I love the program even without the long drive thing.

    • Ah, you made me laugh Becky. It didn’t sound stupid at all. I’m a reader, I can read between the lines and know what you mean! I think I know what you mean — though hadn’t really thought about it before — about listening to talk/interviews vs music while driving.

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