Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Jefferis Award and negative depictions of women

A month ago, blogger Kim Forrester (Reading Matters) tweeted “I’ve stopped reading books where a woman being murdered is the plot point. Let’s change the story.” I thought this was interesting, but didn’t think a lot about it at the time because I read very little crime (though I do watch some). However, I was reminded of it when, last week, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) brought my attention to this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award and the judging panel’s comment on the submitted books – but first some background.

The Barbara Jefferis Award has very specific criteria:

“the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

In other words, it is not the sex of the writer that’s relevant here (nor, in fact, the genre). This award is for books about women and girls, but it must also present them in a positive or empowering way. It was controversial at the time it was established. I remember it well because I created the Wikipedia article on it. I noted that journalist and literary editor Susan Wyndham had asked whether Australia needed a new fiction award encouraging ‘positive’ portrayals of women and girls, or whether it’s “an outdated gesture in a post-feminist culture rich with female authors, characters and readers?” And then I continued with:

Several writers have supported the award, including Tom Keneally, Helen Garner, Frank Moorhouse, Gerald Murnane, Anne Deveson, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Brian Castro. However, writer and critic, Andrew Reimer dislikes the idea of focusing on “social agenda” over “novelist’s skill and imagination”, and novelist Emily McGuire agreed, stating that she doesn’t “like the idea of judging fiction based on its message”. Author and critic, Debra Adelaide, expressed her concern that the award might encourage “safe and constrained” writing and wondered whether “we are getting to the point where we have more awards than publishing opportunities”.

Libby Angel, The trapeze actJumping ten or so years later to the 2018 award, here is The Sydney Morning Herald’s report after the announcement of Libby Angel’s The trapeze act as winner:

Among a record number of books entered for the $55,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, a surprising number featured domestic violence, death or the subjugation of women, according to judge Sandra Yates, running contrary to the prize’s explicit criteria.

The first three books Yates read from the longlist saw one woman burnt at the stake, one woman pushed off a cliff and the other a victim of domestic violence.

“We were surprised, I have to say, that so many even in the longlist seemed to have such dark, negative portrayals of women in them,” she said. “We [women] don’t need any more books about our capacity to endure, I think we have established that.”

Reporting this, Lisa commented “So I am not the only one sick-and-tired of the current crop of misery memoirs and novels featuring women as victims…”

I don’t feel as strongly as Lisa about the “current crop” of books, but I am interested in the wider issue at play here, which I’d break down into three main questions:

  • How do we define positive, empowering representation?
  • Is there, currently, a prevalence of negative representations?
  • Should writers conform to a “social agenda”?

I’m not sure whether there is a definition for the judges to work with – and would be interested to hear from Dorothy Johnston who wrote a guest post here on judging this award –  but I’d define positive, or empowering depictions of women and girls as those in which women are able to exert some sort of agency in their lives. This could include Lisa’s “misery memoirs” if, as often happens, they end with the woman rising above the challenges (the violence, the abuse, the poverty, the illness – whatever the initial misery is) to take control. There can be a fine line here, though, between Yates’ notion of “enduring” and the idea of being, or becoming, empowered.

To be simplistic, we could say that, in the context of this award’s requirements, there are three “types” of books depicting women: those whose portrayals are positive (or, “ultimately” positive); those whose portrayals are neutral, that is, they are just about women getting on with the normal business of life; and those in which woman are essentially victims, with no agency to improve their lot.

Looking at the novels I’ve read that feature women and/or girls and were published between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2017, I would say that most – by my definition, anyhow – would fall into the first two “types”. These books include:

  • Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (my review)
  • Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne (my review)
  • John Clanchy’s Sisters (my review)
  • Claire Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review)
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo (my review) (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis’ Award)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review)
  • Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (my review)
  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review)
  • Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review)
  • Catherine Mackinnon’s Storyland (my review)
  • Emily Maguire’s An isolated incident (my review)
  • Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (my review)
  • Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The paper house (my review)
  • Ariella van Luyn’s Treading the air (my review)

Not all of these are simple, positive depictions, but their women are not all victims, albeit some are certainly challenged by the decisions they’ve made. I know from experience, however, that my definition of “positive” is not universal, and that I see hope where others don’t. Laguna’s The choke, for example, is undeniably grim – but Laguna believes in offering hope, and, whether or not you like the ending, it is intended to be hopeful.

The only book I’ve read from this period which, by my definition, would not meet the Award’s positive depiction criterion is Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). That girl tries, but is ultimately powerless and so done in by men with power over her.

So, I don’t necessarily agree that the majority of current books – at least those I’ve read – focus on women as victims. Many of the female protagonists may commence as victims – like Laguna’s Justine or the two protagonists in Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (published in 2015) – but most of the books are about confronting problems, not simply succumbing to them and enduring.

As for whether writers should conform to a social agenda, my simplistic answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that a social-agenda based award is, in itself, wrong. It just means that it would be unwise for an author to write to an award whose requirements didn’t align with what they wanted to say. We have in fact many social-agenda oriented awards – the Stella Prize and the David Unaipon Award being just two examples.

How would you define “positive depiction”, and what do you think about the current crop of novels (regardless of where you live)?

47 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Jefferis Award and negative depictions of women

  1. I’m pleased to see that this issue is under discussion!

    I do have a problem with the designation ‘ultimately positive’ because it allows for a great deal of female endurance, and I agree with Sandra Yates that we’ve had enough of that.

    Notwithstanding, I too could submit a list of books I’ve read that conforms to your first two criteria, but that would IMO be misleading. Because I get press releases and get sent unsolicited copies of books that make me think, oh no, not another one, and I choose not to read them. A list of the ones I *have* read would imply that everything was ok, and I don’t think it is.

    Now, you could argue that I can’t judge these books since I haven’t read them, but the press release or blurb is designed to give the reader information about the book, and we ought to be able to rely on them to make choices about what we read. No one who monitors my reading through my blog could assume that I am some kind of Pollyanna, but I am *bored* by seedy stories of violence, sexual abuse, addiction and victimhood. There’s just too many of them (particularly from some publishers that I could but won’t name), and IMO these books don’t really have anything interesting to say. There are exceptions: Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident highlighted not a murder but the fact that domestic violence is routine in some country towns and the police always know who the perpetrators are.

    To put a more positive spin on this issue, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to read Barbara Jefferis’ Three of a Kind about three wonderful women from last century making it in a man’s world. Other recent books that I’ve read and loved were Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, The Honey Flow by Kylie Tennant and Shell by Kristina Olsson. These are not agenda-driven books, they are simply novels by good writers telling interesting stories that happen to feature women who take control of their lives.

    • Thanks very much Lisa … all fair points. And I wouldn’t call you Pollyanna at all … in fact, I probably fit that mould more. It’s possibly, conversely, why I seem to tolerate these books more!?

      My only real disagreement is that I think ultimately positive is perfectly valid because it means change has happened, or is on the way to happening. Fiction is usually about challenge and drama, and for many female characters that does mean being powerless.

      Re being agenda-driven, the concern of some critics was that the Jefferis Award suggests an agenda – just a positive one! Personally, I don’t like the term agenda-driven, because I think most good writers write from the heart. Currently that heart, and Charlotte Wood is a good case, is being moved by what they see happening to women and girls. Like me they are probably frustrated by how little has changed?

  2. Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver novels always feature women who are taking control of their lives. They can be a good antidote to reading a lot of other fiction, sometimes.

    • I haven’t read anything by Anne Tyler. Is there anything you would recommend? It’s been a long time since I read any Barbara Kingsolver, too. I have a habit of falling in love with an author, reading everything they’ve produced so far, then forgetting about them so missing huge chunks of their work.

  3. I so totally agree – it is so nice to read books with strong good women instead of the current trend of “fem-jep” (females in jeopardy) stuff. There is too much trash out there. Barbara Kingsolver has a prize for fiction which focuses on social concerns and change in fiction.

    I also read Shell and Alias Grace (long ago). These days Rachel Kushner does a good job (Booker Short List this year) as does Siri Hustvedt. Margaret Drabble’s new one, “The Dark Flood Rises” is wonderful.

    I can actually think of quite a number of books in which women are presented in positive ways – the problem, I think, is mainly in crime fiction – and it’s become gross there.

  4. I agree about crime fiction being the major cause of women portrayed in a poor light. Domestic violence books? Well, if the woman becomes empowered and leaves is heartening. There will always be domestic violence with both men and women. I have always enjoyed biographies of women who do amazing things. I dont think books depicting women in a negative light will ever go away so it is perhaps upon the reader to choose what we buy and read. I think it is a complex topic and we could talk about it for years. Interesting discussion that never goes away.

    • Thanks Pam … yes, I think crime is the biggest problem here because there’s a sense of revelling in the horror done to women. I think the facts are that more men are murdered than women? (I could Google but I must be away)

      And yes, I love biographies about amazing women – that’s probably a bit of a different between biography and memoir, now I come to think about it. Memoirs are often people telling about overcoming awful odds and can often be by lesser known people, whereas biography focuses on the big achievers (who may have overcome difficult odds but the focus is very much the achievement?)

  5. I like the idea of agenda based awards. To me, it takes a certain amount of bravery to get in there and write about an issue or situation that may constitute ‘rocking the boat’. Even if your goal is to create awareness, this differs to simply telling an entertaining commercially driven story. These novels often sell less and are remaindered earlier. Being listed for an award will give them a publicity boost and then winning may give them the financial means to stay in the loop of writing fiction with a conscience despite the lower sales. I don’t really think a person could successfully write to an award’s agenda anyway, you’re either able to write in that way or you’re not. That’s why authors are *usually* more literary inclined or wholly commercial. I do agree with Lisa though on being sick of misery memoirs. I know what you mean about triumphing at the end, but are we all just trying to out misery each other at present? If an award exists that focuses on the positive representation of women, I wholly support it. I don’t think society is past that at all. If anything, we need it all the more.

    • Good thoughts here, Theresa. I wasn’t really thinking much about the misery memoirs, though I think they’ve been big for a couple of decades now, because the Jefferis award is for novels.

      I don’t mind agenda-driven awards either. As you say, writers aren’t really going to write to an award agenda … it would be a big assumption anyhow to think they could win it!

  6. I’m glad to see you mention Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things. I read that and, although most of the book is difficult and involves the abuse and subjugation of women by society, I found the way Wood expressed her anger through the characters in the novel empowering. It’s a book that made me look hard at myself and my complicity in adopting societal norms in my behaviour, and it also made me realise that I don’t have to behave that way. I don’t mind if a female character suffers as part of the plot of a novel as long as that suffering isn’t the focus of the novel or there solely as entertainment for people who hate women. I’m with you on ‘ultimately positive’.

    I read a lot of crime fiction. I’m picky, though, and won’t read just anything. Most of what I read are police procedurals where the focus is on the solving of the crime rather than on titillating the bored with graphic depictions of violence. I only read crime fiction that includes strong female detectives or forensic scientists and has a statistically accurate representation of crimes perpetrated against men and women.

    Which brings me to the point I jumped in to make and then distracted myself from! We’re all free to choose what we read, and to read what we personally enjoy. The problem, it seems to me, isn’t so much in authors writing particular styles of novel as in publishers and publicists promoting certain types of novel so that it’s hard to find the books you want to read among the flavours of the month that publishers/publicists want us to read. Agenda based awards help me to broaden out my reading, whether it’s a prize for fiction written by women, a prize for translated fiction, or a prize for fiction that is empowering of women. I’m not an idiot, but even I read a hell of a lot of fiction by white Western males because literary culture has trained me to think that men write more meaningful fiction than women, and because the same literary culture has a habit of putting fiction by white Western males in my face through newspaper reviews, shop displays and cultural discussion programmes. Literary culture has also tended to silo female authors off into the arguable cul-de-sac of gender studies, where we only compare women who write with other women who write. We don’t yet force the other half of the population to see female authors as being as valid as male authors. We instead sit in our echo chambers telling each other that we’re right and lamenting the fact that they can’t see our logic. Agenda based awards could be said to play into that siloing, but until we reach the point where non-white, non-Western, non-male authors are no longer viewed as plucky little outsiders hammering on the door of the patriarchy club, I think they’re a good thing.

    Blimey. I’ve surprised myself with how strongly I feel about the subject!

    • Wow, Jan, I couldn’t possibly answer all that, except to say that I love what you say and can’t disagree with any of it. Your point about choice being hard, for example, because of marketing, is well made.

      And while I don’t read much crime, the ones I most watch are the procedurals that focus on the investigation, like Vera or Endeavour. The ones focusing on the crime and the criminals, particularly serial killers of women, I find less and less interesting as times goes on. And Mr Gums feels the same, if not more so.

      So thanks for this detailed but impassioned response!

      • Against social agendas determining what fiction should be read or published. I think that is ultimately self defeating. There probably is a problem with too many crime novels featuring grotesque violence against women… and I think that you are right suggesting that is little interest in the psychology of serial killers. Crime fiction can be surprisingly good at dealing with the edgiest parts of contemporary life in a fashion that is not exploitative (an example would be Eva Dolan’s excellent Ferreira/Zigic Hate Crimes Unit series).

  7. I read (listen to) crime fiction almost at random – whatever the library has – and I haven’t noticed that women are the victims any more than men. The pornography I object to is gratuitous descriptions of violence.

    Now, as to your main thesis, I think the BJ is an excellent award, an agenda which needs and deserves our support. You know that my blog looks out for positive representations of women in Aus.Lit, mostly pre-WW II, and of all those women I’ve written about – Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Rosa Praed, Catherine Martin, Catherine Helen Spence, Kylie Tennant ….. – none starts out with the woman as victim. Perhaps the closest to that position is Barbara Baynton, whose own situation married with young children and isolated, feeling threatened, and eventually abandoned in the bush, is reflected in her writing.

    • Thanks Bill for that historical perspective – we need the Barbara Bayntons alongside the others don’t we? That is, we need the aspiration alongside the dark reality (not that all the aspiration isn’t real too.)

  8. It doesn’t worry me that awards are based on certain qualifications. It helps me to decide what I will read. I am not into crime novels. I only read a couple a year, and one would be for my book club. I do seek out Australian female or male authors. I like to read about women who overcome major difficulties in their life, but I also like reading about women who just achieve because of their natural abilities. Clock Dance is the new novel by Anne Tyler. A good read about a woman in her seventies who decides to take control of her life.

    • I think you are I are fairly alike in our reading tastes Meg – except you get through more than I do! Anyhow, I’m not surprised then that the idea of focused awards doesn’t bother you.

      Given the 70s are rapidly nearing, that Tyler sound interesting. I might look it out as it’s been a while since I’ve read her.

  9. Excellent post that made me aware of the ‘3 types’ of portraits of women in book. I learned a lot in by reading your thoughts! I wll save this list of books and try to read some in 2019. Thanks so much for your insights!

      • I do have a problem: I cannot for the life of me get my hands on Anna Spargo-Ryan’s books The Gulf and The Paper House. They are not available as e-book.
        If any one has these paperbacks lying around and feels like popping them in an envelope to send to this avid reader of Australian literature…I would be eternally grateful! N. Burns Arumerstraat 9, 8923 GE Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. I would gladly reimburse sender for postage with book certificate for Amazon (just include your email address)

  10. Hmmm, I haven’t given it too much thought, other than understanding what Kim meant when she first tweeted that thought about women being victims. I can express an opinion that I am tired of so many current American thrillers about women being boring; it seems the same story is told over and over with little variation. Gone Girl, The Girl on The Train, The Other Woman, The Couple Next Door….over and over there’s some crazy woman who’s in trouble, and it makes me run for my classics or translated literature. Surely there’s something else Americans can write about?

    • Thanks for joining in Bellezza. Fortunately I don’t read many thrillers (though I do see some). Do you find this subject matter spilling over into literary or general fiction too in America – I mean, negative portrayals of women? I used to read quite a bit of American literature but haven’t read so much in recent years, so feel a bit out of touch.

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