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whether Australia needed a new fiction award encouraging ‘positive’ portrayals of women and girls, or whether it’s “an outdated gesture in a post-feminist culture rich with female authors, characters and readers?”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”.
Jumping 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)?