Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award shortlist and the woman question

Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin ca 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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:

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, and less well-known ones like Alan Gould, Andrew Croome and Nigel Featherstone. 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 …

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award shortlist and the woman question

  1. Great post! A much more balanced and informed view, I think, than that of the columnist Stephen Romei, aka ‘A Pair of Ragged Claws’, in the Australian Weekend Review, May 4-5. I quote:”It is the first all-female final since shortlists started being published in 1987 amd comes in the wake of suggestions of a male bias — “sausagefest” — was the description du jour — in the award. I’ll leave it to others to suggest a female equivalent to sausagefest.’

    I find that last remark snide, bordering on offensive, reducing this reversal of marginalisation to a swing of the pendulum with the covert suggestion that the judges are responding to public opinion, rather than simply accepting that this time, perhaps, the best books are by women authors!

    • Doesn’t that go the other way though too? Perhaps other years really have seen the best books all written by men… We won’t see the effect of the recent discussions on women in literature for a few years yet – I think the 2012/13 results have most definitely been influenced by the push for gender equality.

      • Tony, how will we know? We don’t see the longlist, we are not the judges; and we don’t know what criteria they use. What I know is that ll literary judging is subjective (or for that matter, any judging of art) and books or art works can polarise opinion. We also don’t know what pressures are on the judges from media and literary circles.

        Who is to say what is best? What does best mean to you? And men may have different answers than women to that question.

      • That’s a fair question Tony, but are you then saying that those “all male” shortlists were about quality but this “all women” one is not?

        The main point, though, is that there is enough quantitative and anecdotal evidence to suggest that women writers, generally speaking, are not treated equally in several ways including something as basic as respect. Individual shortlists can of course be argued “till the cows come home” but they are not really the real issue, are they?

        • What I’m saying is that I suspect that the past couple of years of intense media focus on female Australian writers has pushed the pendulum in the other direction. Christina’s words on “pressures … on the judges from media and literary circles” are very telling – except for the fact that most of us have been involved in these pressures, some more closely than others! In my opinion, it would be extremely naive to believe that the online campaigns have had zero influence on the most recent literary prize announcements.

          “That’s a fair question Tony, but are you then saying that those “all male” shortlists were about quality but this “all women” one is not?”
          – I’m definitely not saying that – in fact quite the opposite. I suspect either both are true or neither (and my money’s on neither!).

          My main point is that we won’t know whether the recent crusades (and certain people have been treating the topic as such) have worked, until their initial effect has died down. If we get an all-female longlist in five years’ time, I’ll be a little more convinced that it’s purely on merit.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Tony. As you say, it’s the long term that counts … let’s hope we get to a time sooner rather than later when we don’t even think about gender. For me, that would be a time when we didn’t hear a Nobel Laureate like VS Naipaul saying that women writers were ”unequal to” him because of ”the sentimentality of their world view”, or when we didn’t have women obscuring their names (AS Byatt, JK Rowling) in order to deflect the fact they are women.

  3. Wow, has it ever happened that the entire shortlist is women writers? Nothing against men, but that’s pretty darn exciting if you ask me!

    • No, I don’t think it’s happened before, Stefanie. The longlist was about 80% women. Interesting. I know Winton has a book coming out this year, and maybe Miller? But the interesting thing here is the number of new writers.

  4. Exactly. It’s not about women “overtaking” men or “being better than” men. It’s about equality; it’s about value being ascribed regardless of gender. Hear hear.

    • Good question Isabel and I don’t have the answer. I do though know of quite a few women working in the industry though where the main power lies I’m not so sure. I see it as a multi-pronged issue, really, from a general attitude towards the so-called “women’s fiction” to who gets published, and recognised in awards. VIDA stats certainly show that the proportion of women reviewing professionally is significantly less than men. Here is VIDA’s count for 2012 (for major publications like the London Review of Books, Granta, Boston Review, The New Yorker etc)

        • Thanks Irma … and I guess it’s the highest levels that have the most pull in the end, isn’t it? I rather thought the editors, publicists, sales reps etc were mostly women (from the little I’ve seen anyhow).

  5. Great discussion, I’m just late joining in. What if all the attention being paid to women authors resulted in the judges really reading them and being so surprised and impressed that they chose them? I agree that what is needed is long-term respect for both genders.

    • I think that’s a very good thought Marilyn … the influences can be so subtle can’t they and very hard to identify and then correct. It’s partly about consciousness raising, about encouraging people to check what assumptions they have and consider whether they are valid.

  6. Great discussion and comments, I think I’m a little late to the fray. I remember Patrick White saying that one should write neither as a man or woman and as a writer and I have always held this close. (Who knows if I succeed?) Putting women novelists into a minority context seems absurd. And yet in so many fields women are secondary, earn less, are considered in a different light. I’m not sure that time will make that much of a difference as much as trends of the day, and I’m convinced that brilliant writing – whether male or female – will always come to the fore. Is that naive?

    • It’s never too late to join the fray, Catherine, so thanks for joining in. My answer to your last question is yes and no … I think there can be a subconscious bias against women that could very well get in the way of their discovery at times but it’s one of those things that’s hard to prove. I’d like to think not …

  7. This is such a complex issue and I’m not really sure I have much of value to add.

    Perhaps the most important thing, Sue, is as you say: keeping the discussion going to better understand the problem, what’s causing it, and what can be done about. Maybe some kind of multi-decade tracking would be a good idea – I’ve certainly seen recent snapshots showing that males seem to get more publishing attention than females.

    Irma has a very interesting point: the book ‘industry’ is dominated by women except at the very top; surely this would skew what’s published.

    I like Patrick White’s comment that we should write neither as a man nor woman, and perhaps we should read the same ungendered way, though I figure that’s probably impossible.

    Maybe we should have a decade where all books are written by anonymous authors, so the gender is hidden?!? (I’m only partly joking.)

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going.

    • Thanks Nigel … It is a very vexed question and hard to tease out from the emotion what is actually going on. he VIDA statistics though do provide some useful quantitative data and as I recollect some of the Aussie newspaper literary editors a year or so ago were surprised by an imbalance when they looked at their stats in terms of gender of authors reviewed and reviewers. When it comes to reviewers it could be that fewer women put themselves forward as reviewers but then why might that be given women apparently read more books? Is it the sort of books they read that editors don’t think worth reviewing? Their lack of confidence in reviewing? Anyhow, I agree that it would be hard to read as an ungendered reader, and probably hard to write so though women and men can write good characters of the opposite gender can’t they…

      • I love your suggestion, Nigel! What would designers do without a gender? Did you see this interesting experiment:

        The problem is complex, as you both say, and statistics are only one part of it. Although men occupy most of the top jobs we can’t necessarily conclude that this is the root of the problem, though surely it’s a contributing factor. However, in the year that we had an all-male shortlist for the Miles Franklin there were women on the judging panel. I’ve read several interesting articles (links escape me) that suggest that the overall problem is evidence of an ingrained and subconscious belief — by men and women alike — that literature of excellence is predominantly produced by men. It’s impossible to quantify that obviously, but it’s worth thinking about.

        • Thanks Irma … I do think that there’s an element of that ie that subconsciously or even consciously for some, eg Naipaul, there is a belief that men are more likely to create quality literature. Hard to quantify though as you say. And how often, say, are boys asked to read Bronte, Austen, or Jolley at school versus girls asked to read say Dickens or Steinbeck or Carey. All great writers but I’ve read that when setting reading texts for school there’s a tendency to focus on authors boys are likely to be willing to read on the assumption that the girls will read what they’re given.

  8. Thanks Irma … That’s an excellent article. Shutterbabe just about says it all! So glad she got to keep her cover at least. I know it’s irrational of me, but I’m always disappointed when women put other women down the way she describes in the article. A long way to go yet.

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