The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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It’s the stories we tell ourselves that feel the truest.

The things we know, that we intuit without being told, are almost invariably those that have happened to us, that have brushed our shoulder or struck our face.

These feed those fractured, sometimes meandering, narratives in our head that whisper ‘That’s right’, ‘Yes’ or ‘That’s never gonna fly’.

Also marking out the true for us are those slightly or more mediated experiences, like behaviour modelled by our parents or the testimony delivered by our dearest friends. Trust someone enough and their telling is just as true as our own.

The intersection of true and truth, the difference between the piling up of incidents that shape so much of what we call Ourselves and the evidence based accounting of things, marks a thoughtful place.

One of the truest stories that I once told myself is that I read writing by women. Not exclusively, of course, but my early interest in women’s writing, particularly by Australian women, was buoyed by personal taste and an 80’s childhood.

The 80’s are perhaps easily parodied now*, but they contained moments of national confidence as well as some acceptance of feminism’s challenge to a boresome blokeiness. It wasn’t perfect, nothing ever is, but any decade that can boost both The Go-Betweens’ album Tallulah and the Sex Discrimination Act is okay by me.

I’d always kept a reading diary, recording each book read, so I was confident that once I’d toted them all up, women writers would easily constitute a majority of my reading.

Except they didn’t.

For every Astley, there was two Austers. For every Woolf, one and a half Wintons.

The story I had told myself for so many years simply wasn’t true.

Literature is weighed by quality, not by raw numbers its true, but this imbalance still troubled me. The opportunity to engage is not limitless and I had read against a series of perspectives that I had claimed to privilege. I’d hoped to read against too a modernist distaste for women’s literary fiction (which even Woolf was not excepted from), but my books merely marked out the walls of a literary ghetto.

This I could fix, and did.

But it left me wondering how well others, in particular those literary gatekeepers in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian book review pages, would fare in a similar gender audit.

So I put them to the test. I’ll talk more about that, soon.

*What is worth parodying more? The 80’s themselves or the mind-numbing revival which has now lasted longer the original decade?

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15 responses »

  1. Hey, nice blog!

    I think what you’ve identified is pretty common, which is why it’s great to ask those questions and do those counts. I know that earlier in the year, when some people did some rough figures on the books reviewed in Australian literary outlets, the editors were surprised by the results.

    Look forward to seeing what more you have to say on the subject – ie your test.

    • Thanks Jo – I really appreciate the comment!

      If I could somehow train myself to write a third as cleanly as you, I’d be mighty happy.

      I have figures from the SMH and the Australian dating from early October to last weekend & hope to write a post around this in the next couple of days.

      • You are too kind! Your prose is very clean indeed.

        Will be great to see your figures and results, especially as the sample test that was done on local publications was at the beginning of the year, with some lit eds then pledging to make an effort to address the balance. So it will be interesting to see, some months later, how that is panning out.

        I do know that, as far as gender of reviewers was concerned, Stephen Romei had said he’d actively seek out female reviewers, and I know of a few women whose pitches were accepted, or who were approached, in the months since he said that (including me). So I find that heartening – and not just because it’s resulted in me getting work!

  2. Interesting James. Your results are probably true of just about everyone. Look at those lists of 100 books you must read – there’s a clear gender imbalance there. Until recently most books were authored by men. Even the word author has a link with authority – something females apparently lacked. My favourite graffito from the era of your childhood is the phrase “anon was a woman”. There well may be truth in that. Perhaps some of our longest lasting literature was actually written by a woman.
    Am hugely impressed too that you’ve kept a reading log.

    • Thanks Mandy – really appreciate your thoughts!

      I love your idea about Anon being a space for women authors. There was some discussion years ago about sections of the bible, the ultimate Anon in some ways, as being written by women.

      Even so, it’s striking to me how often fiction is best exemplified by writing women.
      The 19th century is perhaps the best example of this, so a pretty robust case can be made for Jane Austen, the Brontes & George Elliot as the most significant literary figures of that century.

      I take your point about the gender imbalance in publishing, historically more books have been published by men, but am uncertain if this is the case now, particularly in fiction.

      The fact of a gender imbalance historically in books still considered worth reading is a given but why is it still an issue now?
      If someone like me, who agrees without hesitation that there is a problem to be solved, still gets it wrong, what does the person who doesn’t see it as an issue missed out on?

      The literary merits of individual books and authors is up for endless & fascinating discussion but the question that really interests me here is are women writers publishing today still undervalued? If so, how bad is it and what might be some of the causes? There been some writing on this recently, much of it I haven’t read yet (but hope to) so this blog is a way for me to circle around the issue & hopefully make some sense of it.

      Love to hear more of your thoughts.

  3. Fascinating – I’m very surprised at your personal findings, James.

    A reading log’s a good idea – will do.

    In a sense, I believe that we have the patriarchal straitjacket to thank for the 19th century ascendancy of women writers, in that women were denied other outlets for their talents and creativity. If other avenues had been open to them, they may not have chosen to write, since the rewards, when they come at all, are usually slow to arrive.

    • Thanks for your comments, Theresa – I really appreciate your thoughts!
      Your point about fiction being an avenue for women who were denied others is well made, particuarly as Austen or the Brontes didn’t see the literary prestige awarded to their equals Dickens & Henry James (although the fact that they were at different ends of the century is at least one further wrinkle on this story).

  4. Pingback: Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge « A Long, Slow Goodbye

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