Things have been looking up lately on the women writers front. Last year two women – Anna Funder (All that I am) and Gillian Mears (Foal’s bread) – made an almost clean sweep of our major literary awards. This year women writers are again faring well, with the Miles Franklin shortlist comprising all women. The shortlist, announced last week, is:
- Romy Ash’s Floundering
- Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel
- Annah Faulkner’s Beloved
- Drusilla Modjeska‘s The mountain
- Carrie Tiffany‘s Mateship with birds
Three of these – Floundering, Beloved and The mountain – are debut novels, though Drusilla Modjeska has published several books, some of which play with the boundary between fact and fiction.
I’m not writing this post to gloat. After all, I love many contemporary Aussie male writers including those I’ve reviewed here, such as David Malouf, Tim Winton, Murray Bail, Gerald Murnane, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan,. However, there have been some very lean years for women, including a couple of recent years (2009 and 2011) in which no women writers were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. These, together with VIDA’s evidence regarding inequities in women being published and reviewed, and women being used as reviewers, were the prime impetus for the establishment of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW). Last year’s stellar year for women and now this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist might suggest that the job is done – but I don’t think so. History has shown that gains made by women are often not sustained …
… and, anyhow, the AWW is not about ignoring men. It is simply about recognising and, in doing so, promoting women. Most of the women involved in the challenge also read male (or, should I say, men) writers. I sure do, as you can see if you scan my Author Index.
Last year, Rebecca Giggs wrote an article in Overland about the “woman” issue. She was commenting on a question put to Anna Krien (I’ve reviewed Into the forest and Us and them) regarding why Australia’s best non-fiction is currently being written by women. Giggs pondered:
During this past summer – a time when women’s writing has been the subject of renewed attention – I have found myself wondering why a direct answer to that question is so hard. It would be exceptionally unusual, one imagines, for an emerging male author to be asked why so many of our best books are currently being written by men. And yet it would also be wrong to say that the query, asked of a female writer, is unforeseeable. As regressive and problematic as the question seems, it remains relevant because of the prevalence of its assumptions in publishing and readership communities. To foreclose on Attwood’s right to ask about the specific role of women in nonfiction is to abandon the opportunity to learn from our stumbling answers.
This is the point – to keep the conversation going, to better understand if there are any underlying issues preventing longterm equal treatment and recognition. Reading Giggs again, I was reminded of the recent discussions regarding Wikipedia’s removing women from their American novelists category to the American women novelists category. The impetus for the new category was valid: people do want to identify and locate women writers, just as people want to locate a country’s indigenous authors or LGBT authors or some other specific group. The problem was the “removing” of women novelists from the main list, thereby marginalising them while at the same time highlighting them. Wikipedia, being the collaborative venture that it is, is reviewing its policy to ensure that its categories work practically, equitably and philosophically.
It’s vexing, really, that the question is still vexed …