The stories we’re told matter.
They re-inforce or up-end the plot points in our head, those stories we tell ourselves.
What stories then are we told about the writing of women?
The recent Vida: Women in Literary Arts count of gender in key literary publications overseas such as the TLS and the New York Review of Books showed that women, at best, made up about 30% of reviewers.
That got me wondering about the Australian literary scene; surely a country that appears to have thrown off the torn beer-coaster mateyness of the 70’s so successfully would be more welcoming to women’s voices?
As the rising inflection of that last thought indicated, the past isn’t that far away – it isn’t even past.
More than a year after it became a matter for fresh controversy, less than a third (29%) of the books reviewed in the literary pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian each Saturday are written by women*.
Why is this a problem? Surely the only thing that matters here is the literary quality of the works under review and, in the best judgement of the responsible editors, this is where the best work lay.
Well, no. To accept that, I’d have to accept that the best work is generally done by men and that simply does not reflect my reading experience.
The figures I’ve quoted above are consistent with those provided by Sophie Cunningham in July 2011 when she (amongst others) began to point out examples of gender bias in publishing & reviewing following the last straw that was the all-male Miles Franklin short list in April 2011. Her article in issue six of the excellent Melbourne literary journal Kill Your Darlings sets out the scale of the problem in clear, concerned prose & is a must read.
Now I’m a reader, without any direct experience in either the publishing industry or literary journalism. But I was curious to see if the part of the literary world I engaged with the most – the book review pages of the two broadsheets I buy each Saturday – showed signs of responding. Regrettably the answer was, only a little. I know that The Australian’s literary editor, Stephen Romei has made an effort to commission more from younger reviewers such as Jo Case and Angela Meyer. Both are great additions to the reviewing pages but this has only resulted in a small uptick in the percentage of women reviewers.
Whilst I don’t know enough about the underlying factors that contribute to this stubborn gender imbalance, I do know enough to know it is a problem.
As a reader, one of the things I love about literature is it’s anti-homophilic potential. The best fiction has the ability to grant me a new perspective outside of my direct experience. Sure, many of my favourite novels still reflect my world right back at me, but at least as many navigate the unfamiliar, near and far.
One of the perspectives I have have sought out (however imperfectly) is that of women. Alice Munro taught me far more about the girls in my schoolyard than any of the my fellow XY introverts.
I don’t know this for sure but I suspect that the literary review pages of our major newspapers determine -at least in part- the bookish agenda. This leads me to a truth so obvious that it almost doesn’t bare saying but let’s give it a go nonetheless: books that are reviewed well are more likely to be considered by literary judges for inclusion on prize lists, long & short.
If less than a third of books reviewed are by women, is it any wonder that our main literary prize, The Miles Franklin, has been awarded to women only twice since 2001?
To be clear, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy here. My guess would be that novels and reviewers are drawn from known sources and most easily meet known expectations of literary merit. All of us draw on what we know and how we piece together our inspirations is often the very source of our uniqueness. But unless we step back from our biases, and honour the very essence of fiction by seeing from another’s perspective, we more than miss out; we risk descending to a stale self-regard which is worse than unjust – it is dull.
*Some words about the scope of this audit. It covers those significant reviews of fiction and non-fiction that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian each Saturday. I didn’t count interviews. I didn’t count brief reviews. I counted reviews of between 400 and 600 words, those with enough space to mount an argument, persuade and be in the mix of the literary debate.