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.

Evie Wyld, All the birds, singing

Courtesy: Random House Australia

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.

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: On what women write about

  1. Glenda Adams’ “Dancing On Coral” won the Miles Franklin in 1987; it’s a picaresque tale of a young female seeking adventure abroad as an ex-patriot Australian. It’s a jaunty book which seems all but forgotten nowadays. I’d like to see Text Publishing add it to their Classics list.

  2. I sometimes worry that in thinking about these things we overlook the stories by women about women which have done very well for themselves. Take Fiona Macfarlane’s ‘The Night Guest’, for example – both main characters are women, men are peripheral to the story, it’s a domestic drama of family and relationships, and here’s how it went in the prizes: Folio Prize Nominee, Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year, Best Books of the Year, Chicago Tribune Best Books of the Year, The Stella Prize Shortlist, Miles Franklin shortlist, Guardian First Book Award – Nominee, L.A. Times Book Prize – Finalist. Sure, it didn’t win anything (except the Barbara Jefferis, which for the purposes of this discussion I guess is moot), but it got a LOT of coverage and and a lot of adulation. Perhaps celebrating the wins of books like this and talking more about great books women have written about women would do as much to change opinions as fretting about the injustices – maybe we need both…

    • Drusilla Modjeska’s “The Orchard” probably falls into the same category. I can’t remember now if it was nominated for anything or won anything, though.

    • I thought quite a bit about The night guest as I wrote this post, Jane. It did get a lot of notice and short-listing. It may not have won as you say, but that amount of recognition counts for a lot. These sorts of analyses are hard, really, because one, there are always exceptions, and two, there are so many angles you can interpret the data by.

      I think we do need to celebrate more these sorts of books and to some degree bloggers and the AWW Challenge does this. I think the question is HOW MANY of these books get recognition in the places where the “leaders” of our culture (if I can be so crass) act.

      Too much whinging can get the goat up and achieve nothing. I’ve read some of the comments on The Conversation article, and the man who commented on the “kindness” of publishers publishing women after the invention of the printing press. He’s such a perfect case of someone who means well but is completely oblivious of the impact of his language AND of what his language says about his deep-down assumptions. Anyhow, good on you for engaging in that discussion.

      • Oh that guy – I think he was just a classic troll, hoping to get someone to yell at him so he could have a fight. Which they did, of course, because he was being an idiot. But I am interested in this idea a lot of people have that they ‘just read good books’. It seems like a ridiculous assumption – there’s no way you’ve heard of most of the good books out there, and you’ll have heard a great deal about a lot of books that aren’t that good (but have marketing budgets).
        Yes, as I was writing I thought, ‘AWW does exactly that – gets positive stories out there about great books by women and encourages people to read them’, and I should have said it. I ran out of puff! And yes, also bloggers. I went to a panel at Emerging Writers Fest about the Stella Prize and there was much talk about how women don’t win the major prizes or get reviewed in the big newspapers and it occurred to me that perhaps that doesn’t really matter; that maybe a lot (most?) of readers aren’t guided by prizes or reviews in the old media anyway, that reviewing and recommending is now so fragmented over so many places that the Stella Count and the Vida Count might be counting the wrong thing altogether. Winning a prize definitely helps a writer in that they get a bit of cash to keep writing. But that’s nothing compared to the money you’d make from writing a book like ‘The Martian’, which got no reviews and won no prizes (after all, it’s genre) but sold millions and millions of copies on internet word of mouth.
        I don’t know. I’m rambling…

        • Yes, I was going to comment on that to in my response to you. They don’t think at all about “how” they hear about the good books they read and, even, the way they evaluate what is a good book. It’s one thing to say “look I read Christina Stead”, but what about today’s women writers.

          But, very good questions re what’s guiding our reading and what we are counting. We still need to make sure that women are counting where it counts, if you know what I mean! But the ground is shifting as you point out. Where to is a little uncertain right now. Meanwhile, the challenge and blogs do seem to be increasing awareness of a wider range of books and writing – I think, anyhow.

  3. Ash Road. I’ll be damned. Studied it in Year 8! Another one I hadn’t realised was a Text Classic…

  4. Perhaps this kind of (relatively) new focus on gender bias is in fact the real Third Wave of feminism. The first wave arguably focused on human rights, the second (again arguably – I’m just thinking out loud here!) focused on legal rights and only now do we begin to be publicly aware of the intrinsic and insidious culturally-embedded nature of gender bias. It is particularly telling that even the Arts industries – including publishing of course – are susceptible. Calling out this bias, drawing attention to it, is a good thing. And possibly the only way to address it? The Stella Prize is a clear and positive example.

    • Arguably speaking, I think that could be a fair broad brush description! And this intrinsic stuff is the hardest to lodge because it’s not easy to prove. There are always exceptions, there are always angles, there are always blips on the trajectory, aren’t there. But, as you say we just need to keep plugging away …

  5. WG: You are – once more/yet again/as usual – writing deeply intelligent reviews of deeply interesting and important perspectives – on the prize-winners. Of those of the female gender – Geraldine Brooks, Kate Grenville, Mary Rose Liverani – just some names springing to mind – Keri Hulme, Amy Witting! Some names from the top of my head – sitting here in Mission in lower south-west BC.

    • Thanks Jim … oh yes, Amy Witting. And she dealt with the domestic too … I must read her again. Keri Hulme’s The bone people is the ONLY book my reading group, now 27 years old, has read twice. I’d read it again, too.

      • Very interesting post about an important subject. Naipaul’s comment depressing indeed (and bonkers). I sometimes wonder if “history with a capital H” novels get too much unearned acclaim – period! On the other hand, in the UK a writer like Ali Smith gets a lot of acclaim. The strange thing is that the majority of readers of fiction prabably are women and yet the literary world seems quite drenched in sexism!

        • That’s a really interesting observation Ian about women comprising the greater number of readers. Is it your understanding that while women are the readers, the decision makers are proportionally more male?

  6. Konyu’s conclusions certainly got a lot of coverage this past few weeks. A lot of the commentary was frankly irritating because people interpreted it to serve their own agendas. The statement you quoted for example that when women win literary awards it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men was used to argue a) to win an award you have to be a man or write about men b)there should be more awards for women writers. c) women don’t write about men or male issues because they can’t. Many of these pontifications were based on assumptions and generalisations which should have been challenged -like the generalisation there is a distinctive female style of writing and a distinctly male style and never the twain shall meet, thus blissfully ignoring and diminishing the achievements of many leading authors.

    I realise I’m in danger of a rant here so should probably stop…

    But thank you for posting a really well balanced article.

    • Why thanks Karen. Yes, I realised that it was too easy to fly off into unsupported directions. The word “because” intrigued me. I think one could argue that was more correlation than causal. These analyses have value but there are so many variables to consider and explore aren’t there?

  7. Well said! When someone like Jonathan Franzen writes a book about a dysfunctional family he makes the cover of Time Magazine. A woman writing about a dysfunctional family? Well what could she possibly have to say that might be relevant to men? Grr. It’s the same old thing over and over again and it seems like we never get anywhere. It really is infuriating.

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