Monday musings on Australian literature: On what women write about
I had planned another topic for today, but a tweet from Australian novelist Jessica White this morning sharing a link from The Conversation changed my mind. The link was to an article by Natalie Kon-yu, a lecturer in Creative Writing and Gender Studies at Victoria University. This article explores Nicola Griffith’s statement that “when women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men”. Griffith, a British-American novelist based in Seattle, surveyed the winners of multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker Prize, from 2000 to 2015. Kon-yu says that Griffith’s findings accord with her own. She writes:
It is, sadly, unsurprising that male writers win more prestigious literary awards than female writers, but what is interesting is that when women do win these awards, it is typically because they write about male characters, or “masculine” topics.
The “because” is a bit of an assumption, I suppose, but is an assumption based on a strong correlation noticed by these researchers. Kon-yu then gives examples, which you can read in the article I’ve linked to above.
Now, before you say “but, but…”, it’s true that women have won literary awards here in Australia over the last decade, and in fact have done comparatively well in the last couple of years, but Kon-yu asks us to look at what they’ve written about. Many of our women winners of the Miles Franklin award in the last 20 years, she suggests – Anna Funder, Alexis Wright, Shirley Hazzard and Helen Demidenko – “focus almost exclusively on capital-H ‘History'”. Other wins, like those by Evie Wyld and Thea Astley, were for books set in “the rugged landscape of the Australian bush”. The situation is particularly stark when you look at the Man Booker and the subject matter of recent women winners, Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Kon-Yu’s conclusion? Well,
It seems that, as a culture, we are still predominantly concerned with the lives of men or in themes that we view as “masculine” or “wordly”. We still relegate women’s work to the domestic, the interior, the personal.
You’ve probably heard VS Naipaul’s statement a couple of years ago that he couldn’t see any woman writer, even Jane Austen (what!?), being his literary equal. He “couldn’t possibly share her [Austen’s] sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”. You may also have heard commentary* about schools, co-educational ones anyhow, tending to choose “set” books on the basis of what boys will read, because girls will read widely while boys will only read within a narrow range.
Kon-yu looks into the recent past, the 1970s to 1980s, and finds that a greater percentage of the books by women which won awards then (Man Booker, Miles Franklin, in particular) did focus on female characters. Two Miles Franklin winners in this period, for example, were by Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River (1978) and The impersonators (1980). Both are set domestically and deal with family relationships. Around this time, too, writers like Elizabeth Jolley (here) and Anita Brookner (in the UK) were focusing closely on women’s experience and were receiving significant recognition. Kon-Yu reminds us that this was the period when feminist criticism was gaining ground, and publishers like Virago and The Woman’s Press were being established. A coincidence? Not likely.
Anyhow, back in the present, Kon-Yu’s conclusion is that:
It’s not enough to publish books by women, we need to focus more on telling women’s stories.
Kon-Yu, perhaps for reasons of space, doesn’t explore in detail what she means by telling “women’s stories”, but she does quote male American writer, Pankaj Mishra, as saying that:
Novels about suburban families are more likely to be greeted as microcosmic explorations of the human condition if they are by male writers; their female counterparts are rarely allowed to transcend the category of domestic fiction.
The overall point, of course, is not that women can’t, or shouldn’t, write about anything. They sure can – and clearly do. No, it’s more complex. It’s that writing on the domestic, and on the “interior” of women, particularly if it’s by women, does not receive adequate literary recognition; it’s the too-frequent assumption that this is the only sort of writing women can do; and/or it’s the belief that this sort of writing is only of interest, and value, to women. Such tosh! A healthy, vibrant culture needs to hear, and respect, diverse views on diverse subjects. We are, I believe, making gains across the whole diversity spectrum, but we have a way to go yet.
* Sorry that I can’t find a source for this now, so argue with me if you will.