Mary Austin, The land (Review)

Regular readers here know that I choose my Library of America offerings for various reasons: for authors I haven’t read before but would like to (such as Edgar Allan Poe and Sherwood Anderson), for authors I love and am always happy to read more of (such as Willa Cather, Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton), or for topics that interest me (like slavery and civil rights). Mary Austin’s “The land” fits into this latter: it’s about the American southwest which is a region I love. I have in fact reviewed another Austin story about that region, “The scavengers”.

In “The scavengers”, Austin described the scavenging animals of the American deserts, the buzzards, vultures, ravens, coyotes and Clark’s crows, and promoted the idea of nature’s balance. In “The land” her focus is the landscape itself, and its hard, unforgiving nature. It’s the first story (essay) in her collection Lost borders, and works partly as an introduction to the collection, in which she sets down, she writes, “what the Borderers thought and felt”.

Tufa, Mono Lake

Tufa or “man-deep crystals of pure salt”, Mono Lake

Indeed, LOA’s notes quote scholar Esther F. Lanigan statement that the story introduces “the motley collection of drifters, prospectors, explorers, entrepreneurs, and sheepherders [about whom she will write], most of whom demonstrate an astonishing insensitivity in their dealings with the women closest to them”.

The “lost borders” region she explores in the collection is what I’d call the eastern part of central California*. We are talking country that stretches from the east of the Sierra Nevadas to Death Valley in Nevada. It is remote, hot and very dry. It is country, in other words, that Australians would understand. Driving through this region, as I did in 1983 and a few times in the 1990s, reminded me, in fact, of my road trips in outback Australia – particularly western Queensland and northern South Australia.

“The land” is about story and myth. She writes that “curiously … you can get anybody to believe any sort of a tale that had gold in it”. She’s “sore” that she’s not believed “in some elementary matters, such as that horned toads are not poisonous, and that Indians really have the bowels of compassion”. So, when she is brought a potsherd from Shoshone Land and told she could probably find “a story about it somewhere”, she responds that she’ll “do better than that”, she’ll “make a story”. And so she does, and is amused over time to see her story take on the mantle of truth. She has “a spasm of conscience” on at least one occasion, but doesn’t ‘fess up. Instead, she suggests that there only has to be another similar potsherd found for the tale to be fixed “in the body of desert myths”. Beware, methinks, you oral historians!

“The land” is also about men and women. Austin respects Indian (as she described them back then) knowledge, saying:

Out there, a week’s journey from everywhere, the land was not worth parcelling off, and the boundaries which should logically have been continued until they met the cañon of the Colorado ran out in foolish wastes of sand and inextricable disordered ranges. Here you have the significance of the Indian name for that country— Lost Borders. And you can always trust Indian names to express to you the largest truth about any district in the shortest phrases.

“Largest truth” in “the shortest phrases”. Love that. There’s a lovely, irregular, repetition of “out there” throughout the piece, reinforcing the sense of remoteness and desolation. The unforbidding nature of the land is conveyed in other ways too: by experience, “I have seen things happen that I do not believe myself”, and in description, “the senses are obsessed by the coil of a huge and senseless monotony; straight, white, blinding, alkali flats, forsaken mesas …”.

While Austin respects the Indian inhabitants, she is less impressed by men (and I mean here the male of the species, not mankind). Men are seen as “small”. She describes them as making “law for the comfortable feel of it”. They “pinch themselves with regulations to make sure of being sentient …”. Their “boast of knowledge is likely to prove as hollow as the little yellow gourds called apples of Death Valley”. It is the

men who mostly go into the desert, who love it past all reasonableness, slack their ambitions, cast off old usages, neglect their families because of the pulse and beat of a life laid bare to its thews and sinews. Their women hate with implicitness the life like the land.

Indeed, she concludes this essay with:

If the desert were a woman, I know well what like she would be: deep-breasted, broad in the hips, tawny, with tawny hair, great masses of it lying smooth along her perfect curves, full lipped like a sphinx, but not heavy-lidded like one, eyes sane and steady as the polished jewel of her skies, such a countenance as should make men serve without desiring her, such a largeness to her mind as should make their sins of no account, passionate, but not necessitous, patient—and you could not move her, no, not if you had all the earth to give, so much as one tawny hair’s-breadth beyond her own desires. If you cut very deeply into any soul that has the mark of the land upon it, you find such qualities as these—as I shall presently prove to you.

Austin belongs, I think, to the tradition of nature writers that includes Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (whom I’ve reviewed), but it seems to me that her gender adds quite a different perspective to what she sees.

Mary Austin
“The land”
First published: In Lost borders, 1909.
Available: Online at the Library of America

* This region is at the centre of the California Water Wars (dramatised in the film, China Town)

Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 3, Gender and the study of Austen

Jane Austen and gender studies are made for each other, not only because the content of her novels inspire feminist critique (albeit sometimes conflicting, because, well, all her heroines get married, don’t they?), but also because reactions to her tend to be polarised along gender lines. (Remember my reporting in a recent post on VS Naipaul’s assessment?). It is this latter issue that Barbara Seeber addressed in her second paper of the conference, “The pleasures (and challenges) of teaching Emma“.

Seeber commenced her talk by stating that “the politics of gender underpin divided opinions of Jane Austen”. She looked at some of the reasons why students (readers, more widely too, I’d say) say they don’t like Emma – Emma herself is unlikable, the book lacks a plot, and it’s mostly a romance – and teased them out one by one, particularly in terms of their gender implications. I’m not going to summarise the paper, but will just share a few salient points that contribute to issues I’ve been thinking and writing about here.

Unlike VS Naipaul, Sir Walter Scott praised Jane Austen’s writing. Nonetheless, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott distinguished between “cornfields and cottages and meadows” which he saw as typical of “the sentimental and romantic cast” and works dealing with “the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape”. Although Scott himself praises Austen’s “precision” and comic ability, this distinction that he makes does, Seeber argued, reflect a common feminine versus masculine divide.

So, how does the gender divide play out for readers of Emma?

Unlikeable Emma

Well, Seeber herself recognised that as a young woman she did not like Emma because she is bossy and controlling, but did not feel the same about Mr Knightley. She realised she had internalized the prevailing attitudes regarding femininity, the double standard that allows men to be authoritative and commanding but disallows the same in women.

(I must say that Emma’s bossiness wasn’t an issue for me when I first read the novel – perhaps because, as the oldest child, I had a bossy tendency myself!  It was her snobbery that made her less likeable to me, but I have come to a more complex understanding of that.)

Nothing happens, or what happens isn’t important

There’s a gender point too – of course – behind the idea that nothing happens. Seeber quoted Virginia Woolf from A room of one’s own:

Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

Related to this issue of “feelings”, Seeber said that the popular film/tv adaptations can work for and against appreciation of the novel in the classroom. The films, she said, tend to focus on feelings, and can result in students resisting to expand their thinking beyond feelings. Also, in terms of gender, the issue is further complicated by the fact that male students can be self-conscious about liking Austen because of these films.

Too romantic

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com)

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com)

The focus on feelings in the movies, has been described by some as the “Harlequinisation of Austen novels”. It can result in the shaming of boy Austen readers. Anxiety about normative masculinity, Seeber said, can be present in the classroom. On the other hand, male students can be surprised to find that Austen is actually interesting, and female students surprised to find the male students enjoying her! (Oh dear!)

But then Seeber’s argument became really interesting for me in terms of recent discussions on this blog regarding gendered reading and writing. Seeber argued that denouncing the films as Hollywood romanticism, that dismissing them as popular culture, is related to the devaluing of women, in that works enjoyed by women are often dismissed as trivial. This is ironic, she argued, because Austen satirizes those who claim themselves above the popular novels (eg Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey). Austen, she said, does not distinguish readers by what they read.

The obvious, and frequent, counter made to the argument that nothing happens in the novels, that they are merely domestic or romantic, is to point to references or allusions to wider issues like the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, and the governess trade in Austen’s novels. BUT, Seeber argued, to justify Austen in this way is to undermine the real story of, say, Emma, which is about the achievement of self-awareness and living in the every day, about being human or acting humanely, as Norton describes it, or, as I might describe it, about being civil.

In other words, to try to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of the so-called feminine (or more domestic) values.

I liked this argument.

Raising my consciousness: Thoughts of a reader on International Women’s Day

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

I am not, and never have been, scared to use the “F” word – that is, I call myself a Feminist. My philosophy is a simple one: women are not the SAME as men, but women deserve EQUAL rights and respect as men. This is not to say that the interpretation and application of this philosophy is simple but it is to say that all our thinking on how we live, how we (as humans) should be treated and how we should treat others needs to start from this fundamental principle.

Books and reading have of course fed my thinking on this issue … and so today I’m listing a few books that have meant something to me. They are not, all anyhow, the usual suspects, but they are books that have remained in my consciousness years after I read them.

Germaine Greer‘s The female eunuch (1970)

I read this a year or so after it was published. It provided an underpinning to my thoughts from that point on. Greer’s analysis of how women are objectified fundamentally changed how I viewed myself and it informed how I have dressed and presented myself ever since. She politicised my decisionmaking and gave me permission to not spend time and money (that I could better spend elsewhere) on unnecessary grooming and uncomfortable, or demeaning, clothing. She said much more besides about women’s self-actualisation but it all stemmed for me from this basic premise …

Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale (1985)*

Most of the books I’m going to list here are non-fiction but we litbloggers know the value of fiction in presenting and analysing human thought and behaviour, in showing us how we are and/or how we could be. Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale depicts with horrific clarity how we could be. It’s a dystopian novel, a cautionary tale; it describes with horrendous, gob-smacking clarity what could happen if we don’t remain vigilant about women’s right to equality. If you haven’t read it and you wonder whether Feminism’s for you, read this book before you make up your mind!

Diane Bell‘s Generations: Grandmothers, mothers and daughters (1987)

I recently read an article written in 1905 about Jane Austen, in which the author, William James Dawson, wrote:

It is often deplored that professional historians, who are capable enough of describing the pageantries of a court, the contests of politicans, the sumptuous lives of the rich, or even the miserable conditions of life among the disinherited and the criminal, appear incapable of producing any accurate picture of the average kind of life lived by those distinguished by neither great  wealth nor great poverty …

Lives, for example, lived by women. Dawson goes on to say that Jane Austen provides “a picture of England itself”. I love his recognition that fiction can provide us with social history … even though the rest of my list is non-fiction.

Anthropologist Diane Bell describes objects in women’s lives and how women pass them down from generation to generation. If I tell you that one of the chapters is titled “Darryl got the farm and mum got the pearls” you’ll get the picture. The book draws from interviews she conducted with several families of women. The women talk about pianos, sewing machines, textile crafts, jewellery, china, books, and so on, describing not only how they are passed down through the female line but also the memories these objects invoke – and what they tell us about women’s lives then and now. It’s a beautiful book, that I’d love to quote from if I had the time. I read it when it came out, and I think of it often.

Katie Holmes’ Spaces in her day: Australian women’s diaries, 1920s-1930s (1995)

Holmes is an historian and this book, like Bell’s, provides an insight into women’s lives – but through their diaries rather than through interviews. The book, also like Bell’s, is organised thematically but instead of by type of object hers is by women’s roles and life stages. The descriptions of women’s work (in the days before labour saving devices) are exhausting!

Start work 8 o’clock finish 11pm, feel awfully fed up, this life is much worse than the farm was even if I didnt have any clothes, here I do not have time to wear them, so it is worse, dont know what to do about it, but I am fed up. (Mabel Lincoln, 21 January 1930)

She also describes the way women were expected to give up their dreams to help others – to take over a family when a sister dies or becomes sick, for example. Unmarried women, in particular, were only “allowed” a life of their own for as long as someone else in the family didn’t need them. Another book I haven’t easily forgotten.

Helen Garner‘s The first stone (1995)

This is, probably, a strange book for me to include, mainly because Garner made me so MAD. Garner is a feminist but her response to the incident at Ormond College did not sit well with many feminists, me included. As I recollect, the incident involved the master of the College, the man in power that is, making untoward (read, unwanted) sexual advances to two students at a College party. When the students complained to the College hierarchy, they did nothing, so the two young women went to the police. Garner argued they should not have done that, that they should have simply, literally or metaphorically, “slapped” the man and got on with their lives, leaving him and his reputation secure. She felt their reaction was not mature and was taking the issue of harassment to unnecessary levels. But, for me, there were two significant issues that made me disagree vehemently with Garner. Firstly, the young women tried to complain within the College system and got nowhere. Had the College taken their complaint seriously, the situation could very well have been handled quietly and with a rationality that could have worked for all parties. But, the College didn’t. And secondly, this was a situation of power. It’s (depending on the situation) one thing to receive an unwanted advance at a party from a peer. Garner’s suggested response could very well be the appropriate one BUT, and I think it’s a big BUT, it’s quite another thing to receive such an advance from someone with real power over you. I’ve listed this book, though, because Garner is a great writer and so very honest about her views and feelings. We need more honesty like this, and more willingness to confront the issues and tease them out … and that, of course, is the other reason I’ve listed it. It got some issues teased out, albeit, for some, in an emotionally charged and hurtful way.

… and that, as they say, is that. I’d love to know what books have contributed to your thinking on women’s rights (or, indeed, on any issue of importance to you).

* Most of the books I’ve listed here are Australian but, given the topic is International Women’s Day and given the significance (to me) of Atwood, I had to include her here.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Where are our women writers?

Miles Franklin, 1902, by H.Y. Dorner (Presumed Public Domain, from the State Library of New South Wales)

It might be just me, but it seems that women writers (I know the adjective should be female but it just doesn’t feel right in this context where “women writers” is short-hand for “women who are writers” or “writers who are women”) are somewhat thin on the ground in Australia at present, at least in terms of major visibility on the literary scene. There have been two, I think, significant flowerings of women’s writing in Australia in the last century. The first occurred in the first three to four decades of the twentieth century, and the second from the 1970s to 1990s.

My simplistic – read, not thoroughly researched but off the top of my head – explanation for these two bubbles is that they represent responses to the two major phases in the women’s movement of the last century – the suffrage movement of the late ninetheenth-early twentieth century, and the second wave of feminism which occurred in the 1960s-1970s. Certainly, in Australia, women writers were highly visible in the 1920s to 1940s, with writers such as Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard, Eleanor Dark,  and Christina Stead. And again, in the 1970s to 1990s, we had Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Jessica Anderson, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, to name a few. These women were all highly visible in literary circles and they managed to win some of the prizes going. In the last decade or so, though, women seem to have fallen behind again … though they are there, such as Eva Hornung who took out last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Prize, Joan London, Gail Jones, and Amanda Lohrey to name a few. Grenville and Garner are still around. And yet, overall, these writers are just not highly visible. And visibility is the clue. I would hazard the “wild” guess that the first names off the tip of the tongue when people think current Australian literary writers would be Malouf, Winton, Carey, Miller, to name a few. Great writers all, but not, I think the only great writers we are producing.

I’m not the only one concerned. After deciding to write a post on this, I did a little research and there’s been quite a bit written recently on the issue. In fact, just earlier this month Angela Meyer of Literary Minded wrote a post titled Let’s read writing by women in which she reports on a new committee being set up:

to pursue equal rights for women writers in Australia. Besides research, lobbying and setting up mentorships, the committee is looking at establishing a literary prize for Australian women writers, along the lines of the UK’s Orange Prize. The steering committee (including novelist and publisher Sophie Cunningham, critic and former Miles Franklin judge Kerryn Goldsworthy and novelist Kirsten Tranter) feel the move is unfortunately, necessary, due to the unequal recognition of books by women in major literary award shortlists and in the book pages of the major newspapers in this country.

It’s unfortunate that this is needed … but I agree that it is needed. Gender shouldn’t matter. After all, what we like to read is good writing. But it’s hard, when you look at the facts (percentage of women published, shortlisted for awards, winning awards, being set for study) not to feel that there is some gender bias going on in the literary fiction world. I’m not going to second guess here how it happens, or what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, but I don’t like feeling that I may be missing out on good writing. Nor do I like to think that women writers are missing out on the opportunities their male peers are obtaining.

Do women only become “visible” – and achieve accordingly – when feminist movements flourish? Do you agree there is an issue regarding women writers on the literary scene (that is, not the genre scene) if you are Australian and, if you’re not, how do you see the situation in your country*? Do you agree that “affirmative” actions like gender-based awards are the way to go? Let’s get talking…

* Back in February, I reported on the VIDA Report on book writing and reviewing in the UK and the USA, so the “problem” is being noted elsewhere.

Nine, just 9, books by female authors at the top of a 20th century list?

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1902

Woolf, 1902, by George Charles Beresford (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

The Reading Ape, in his February Literary Fact of the Day compilation, included the following tidbit:

There are only 6 female authors on The Modern Library‘s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century.

In fact, in the Modern Library’s Board’s list (over 10 years old now), a woman doesn’t appear until slot 15, and it’s Virginia Woolf‘s To the lighthouse. By contrast, a woman – Ayn Rand no less – occupies the first two slots of the Modern Library’s Readers’ List. Granted, this list is old news now as it was published at the end of the 20th century and was well raked over at the time. But, the Reading Ape reminded me of it and it seemed to me to be worth another look, 10 or so years down the track.  Here are the women:

  • 15. Virginia Woolf’s To the lighthouse
  • 17. Carson McCullers’ The heart is a lonely hunter
  • 58. Edith Wharton’s The age of innocence
  • 61. Willa Cather’s Death comes for the archbishop
  • 69. Edith Wharton’s The house of mirth
  • 76. Muriel Spark’s The prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • 84. Elizabeth Bowen’s The death of the heart
  • 94. Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea
  • 95. Iris Murdoch’s Under the net

Oh, that’s actually 9. The Reading Ape can’t count! Still 9% is pretty poor isn’t it? There are only 2 in the first 50, and did you notice that only one of these authors is represented by more than one book? That’s not the case with the male authors. I’m not going to be thorough about this but Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, EM Forster, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh are just some of the male authors represented by two or more novels.

Anyhow, back to the women. I’ve read all those authors, and 7 of the books. I would agree with the inclusion of most of them, but let’s think about who’s missing. Well, for a start, there are quite a few Nobel Prize winners, including the following who write in English (which seems to be what this list is – Top 100 English language novels):

  • Pearl S. Buck
  • Nadine Gordimer
  • Toni Morrison
  • Doris Lessing (Nobel granted in 21st century, but her main body of work was written in the 20th century)

Surely each of these has at least one novel worthy of inclusion and could, say, replace one of DH Lawrence’s 3 (THREE!) inclusions? And what about Christina Stead, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, AS Byatt to name a few other significant female authors of the 20th century? What about Keri Hulme’s The bone people? Or a novel by Thea Astley? (Because, another feature of the list is that it’s very America-England centric)

Given that we are now over a decade into the 21st century, it might be interesting to reflect on a list compiled at the end of the 20th century. What do you think of the balance, and do you think there are novels by female writers which should have been included in the top 100 of the 20th century? (Let’s not get too bogged down in what we’d eliminate – that’s much less fun!)

Why I love Radio National

ABC Canberra radio and TV studios in the Canbe...

ABC studios in Canberra (Courtesy: Bidgee, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikipedia)

One of the best things about retirement for me is being able to listen to Radio National in the morning. For you overseas readers, Radio National is the national radio station of our national broadcaster, the ABC, Aunty, or, if you want to be formal, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here is the usual morning line-up:

  • 0830: a Report of some sort: the Health Report on Monday, the Law Report on Tuesday, Rear Vision (a look at matters historical) on Wednesday, Future Tense (change) on Thursday, and Movie Time on Friday.
  • 0900: Life Matters: a wide-ranging interview program devoted to current issues relating to social change and social policy, the things that affect our day-to-day lives such as education, health, the environment, and so on.
  • 1000: The Book Show: all things book-ish
  • 1100: Bush Telegraph: things rural and regional

The Book Show is of course of particular interest to me, and today’s show is a good example. It started with a discussion of the Blake Dawson Prize for Business Literature through an interview with Australian business and sports journalist Gideon Haigh who has won the prize in the past. I pricked my ears up for this one as I hadn’t really thought about business writing until I read Kate Jennings last year. Jennings though focused on business fiction. This prize considers the whole gamut of business writing, most of which is non-fiction. Haigh, for example, won in 2006 with his book Asbestos House about James Hardie Industries and the history of its dealings with asbestos (a topic well-known to Australians). Corporate histories (authorised and unauthorised) are not high on my reading priority, but this interview convinced me that I should not dismiss them (nor other types of business writing) cavalierly.

The next spot in the program was about the recent VIDA report on gender in book writing and reviewing. It shows a strong gender imbalance in both authors reviewed by and who does the reviewing at some of the top literary magazines in the US and UK – like Granta, the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review and so on. The Book Show decided to check out the situation in Australia and so approached three of Australia’s top literary editors: Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Steger of The Age and Steven Rommei of The Australian. These three (two men and one woman) did not do a thorough survey of their respective papers but they all found a gender bias, albeit not as pronounced as VIDA had found (which may be accurate or may be due to their less rigorous methodology). They admitted to not being fully aware of their own unconscious (until now) skewed practices – such as, for example, always offering serious history books to a male reviewer. It’s gobsmacking really just how ingrained this gender stuff is!

The problem, though, is less in the methodology than in interpreting the results – as the literary editors above discussed and as The Reading Ape raised in his post on the topic last week. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • are fewer women authors published than men and, if so, why?
  • are the books women write less likely to be reviewed by the mainstream literary papers and journals and, if so, why? (One person suggested that women write more genre books?)
  • are  there fewer women reviewers because they are less likely to put themselves forward as reviewers?
  • who are the literary editors (and their “bosses”), particularly in terms of gender, and what drives their practices?
  • how does the literary culture establishment’s bias (as shown in VIDA’s figures) relate to reading practices in terms of who actually buys and reads the books?

And then there’s the question about us, the bloggers: Who are we, in terms of gender? What are we reading and reviewing? What influence do we have?

(After all this, dare I admit that 60% of the authors I’ve reviewed here to date are male?)

Wikipedia wants YOU (if you’re a woman)

Wikipedia has turned 10 – as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Like all good organisations celebrating an anniversary, it is engaging in a little navel-gazing – and discovering some interesting things. To wit …

Gender symbols

Gender symbols (Courtesy:CKSinfo.com)

Yesterday the thoughtful Stefanie of So many books emailed me an article from The New York Times because she remembered that I’d mentioned being a Wikipedia contributor. Thanks a bunch Stefanie. I  thoroughly enjoyed the article, which is titled Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list.

It turns out that I’m a rare beast. According to the article, only about 13% of Wikipedia contributors (editors) are women, and the average age of contributors is the mid-20s. I cannot tell a lie. I am in fact somewhat older than that and, if you haven’t guessed already, I am a woman.

How does this finding accord with my experience? I have, over the last three years, attended two Wiki meet-ups in my city. At both there were two or three women to the ten or so men. Hmm … a bit better than 13% but not much. It was certainly a disproportion I noticed. As for age, I would have to say that the majority were over 30 years old …

Anyhow, Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation suggests that her goal to increase the percentage of women contributors is

running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving world that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.

There is probably some truth in this. Contributing to Wikipedia is not hard, technically speaking, but it can be daunting if you are a little unconfident and nervous around technology. And, I suppose, the whole premise of an encyclopedia is to provide facts – not opinions – about subjects, though really it’s a little more organic than that. Some subjects – at least those I’m interested in (but I’m a woman of course!) – are not black and white. Take literature, for example. An article about a writer needs to provide the facts of that writer’s life – a general biography – but it should also provide a sense of their work and here there is some opportunity to explore a range of ideas about that writer’s style, themes, and so on. These ideas need to be researched and cited so that users can trust it, but it is more than a simple recitation of facts. Wikipedia’s principles require that your work not be “original” but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a dry recitation of facts.

However, there are other factors, besides these two, that may discourage women – and one is that Wikipedia can be a fairly aggressive place. While there are a lot of enthusiastic, friendly and helpful contributors and administrators in Wikipedia, there is also more aggro than I expected. It is not pleasant when you are a new contributor to be rather abruptly or rudely called to task for what is a misunderstanding or an honest mistake. It is also not pleasant – whether you are new or not – to get caught up in an article controversy where contributors spend more time insulting each other than working out a compromise. I have experienced both. These are things that women, perhaps, are less willing to put up with? I’ll say no more on this – but hope that Wikimedia executives, trolling the web, might just come by and add it to their things to think about.

All this, though, begs the question: Does it matter if most of the contributors are young males? Well, yes, I think it does. And Sue Gardner does too. She gives several examples of “gender disparity” in terms of emphasis. I’ll repeat just one that would interest litbloggers. She checked the article, she says, on one of her favourite writers, Pat Barker (the author, readers here probably know, of the Regeneration trilogy). Barker’s article at the time comprised three paragraphs. By contrast, the article on Niko Bellic was about five times as long. Niko Bellic, if you don’t know, is a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV! Need I say more? (Get your value judgements free here!)

So, what does Sue Gardner plan to do about the problem? Well, she plans “to use subtle persuasion and outreach though her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies…”. She says:

Gender is a hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it … I am not interested in triggering those feelings.

Doesn’t that just about say it all!