The Stories We’re Told


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*.

The gates were opened a little wider for XX reviewers, but not by a great deal (35%).                                                                                (see graphs on authors & reviewers)

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.


55 responses »

  1. A thoughtful, considered post- bravo! I’m glad you don’t think there is a conspiray though, as I don’t either…I *feel* as if I read what I want to read without regard to gender, but that said I’ll admit that what I read is definitely influenced by reviews- though the ones online and word of mouth as well as the newspaper. Maybe all the women I follow on the net balance out all the men in The Oz and SMH?
    I applaud the initiative of the 2012 Women Writers Challenge (sorry, am not sure if I have the correct title there)- of course I do, I’m a woman writer!- but it sort of feels a bit weird too, to be making a fuss of something (gender) that I honestly don’t think has any influence on quality writing. That said, while Franzen can write books about families and make every award list going around, but women writing about families get dubbed “women’s fiction” or worse, there’s clearly still an argument to be had here.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Kylie. I think the views of published authors such as yourself are really important in this debate.
      I too share your response re reading. I don’t want to read with an eye to a spirit level, fiddling about always to get the literary bubble dead centre. I want to read because it’s fun, challenging & lets me see the world in new ways.
      However, we don’t read in a vacuum. We bring our own insight & prejudices to every reading experience. Some reads -the rare ones- crack these wide open, most leave them entact. But well before any reader cracks the spine of any book, publishers and editors have made decisions about what writing is available and how is it presented. I’m interested in those decisions & would like to understand that process more.
      I would also like to understand more about our literary culture as represented – in this case- by newspapers. Why, for example, are 65% of published reviews by men? Given that women represent more than 50% of students in most literature courses at universitities, what don’t more women write criticism?
      I don’t have an answer to this question, indeed I barely know how to phrase it but I do know that I’m tracing the outline of a question that needs a better answer than we’ve seen so far.

      • Reviewing was never mentioned in my English degree. I sought it out as a writer to expand my writing experience, and possibly heard about opportunities through my library degree.
        Have worked with a variety of small publications, paid in books (which I like but others may prefer cash).
        Ventured outside my comfort zone to review an Austalian dance title for M/C; found it a challenge, but a positive one.
        Our arts community is crying out for arts reviewers. Perhaps we need to be calling for universities to embed it in courses (if it isn’t currently), teach it from writers centres (QWC has an annual call for people willing to teach) and profile reviewing as a legitimate form.

      • Of course literary criticism was part of the English degree but as an essay response not as an opportunity to pursue in the marketplace. Has that changed in the universities?
        I do think though that that groundwork gave me confidence to pursue reviewing later.

  2. Thanks so much, James, for participating in the challenge, for being active on “Read-a-review&comment” Wednesdays via the #aww2012 hashtag on Twitter, and now for this post.

    As the most recent VIDA statistics released this week and your own results show, there is still a need for this initiative. That said, I agree with Kylie that it’s kind of “weird” to be making a fuss – correction, it’s kind of weird in 2012 that there should still be a *need* to make a fuss about such a thing as gender. Yet if writers such as Naipaul continue to believe – let alone state publicly – that no female writer, ever, could be his equal, clearly gender is still an issue, even if it is one of perception, not reality.

    Moreover, if Kylie, as a published author, knew of the difficulty I had finding Australian women authors to read last year, she might understand the rationale behind the challenge better. As you know, when I went looking at my local library, the two weekend staff members there couldn’t name one living Australian female writer.There are a lot of women like me who rely on recommendations by friends and library staff to find our next great read. Unfortunately, that list of recommendations contains very few – if any – books by Australian women. Fine for the authors who have made a name internationally, the Kate Grenvilles and Geraldine Brooks of this world; not so great for the likes of Charlotte Wood, Gail Jones, Gillian Mears, Eva Hornung… and Kylie.

    Keep up the great work, and I look forward to seeing those classics!

    • Thanks for your comment Elizabeth.
      Your efforts on this issue are already legendary & have inspired me to consider my reading more carefully.
      I began the audit hoping against hope that the ratios (65 men to 35 women) would not be as bad here as VIDA was reporting for US/UK. Although this hope was dashed, I do remain hopeful that improvements can be made. The Australian’s progress will be particularly interesting as Stephen Romei has openly put his hand up as something that he hopes to improve.
      Publishing and critical responses are a bit like a ocean-going tanker though; it takes a while to turn that ship around, to develop the new writers that will surely address the imbalance in the long term.

      • That’s very good news about Stephen. Love the ocean-tanker analogy. Tankers have been known, on occasion, to provide refuge for the lost and weary in times of crisis. Maybe this one will at last take pity on those writers tossed and broken by rough seas.

    • Hey Elizabeth- I am honestly horrified by your comment re the librarians! Maybe I live in a bit of a bubble? It’s quite possible- as an author I talk lots with other authors/readers and I must admit that maybe I do assume that everyone could easily name 20 living female authors….

      • I’ve got to admit that my experience with my local liberians (at Marrickville & Ashfield) is more in line with Kylie’s experience than with Elizabeth’s.

        As always, you encounter a range of knowledge but I’ve found the head liberians – in particular – engaged and knowledgable about Australian literature.

        I’ve had bad experiences as well but I’ve had those at the dentist’s, so perhaps you can accuse me of feeling a bit kinder about someone who doesn’t want to actually hurt me.

        I would be curious about the results of a survey of liberians to gauge their knowledge of Oz lit. I suspect it would be fairly good but it would be good to know for sure.

      • Kykie, I wouldn’t assume these staff were librarians (it was a weekend, for a start) and everyone can have a bad day when they can’t remember things. I also think that they *did* know some Aussie women writers, but perhaps didn’t realise they were Australian. What helped me out eventually was the library policy of putting a kangaroo icon on the spine of books by Australians. As I wrote in my blog post about this, they were actually very attentive and helpful in trying to track down some names for me. But, yes, it was astounding.

      • OK, I’m a librarian. I’d have trouble naming 20 Australian living, female authors. I could look it up in a matter of moments and have you a printout in under five minutes, but I doubt I could do it barebrained, and to do it barebrained would actually break some of the basic rules of reference work. (The one I’m thinking of here is “The perfect answer is: “I am looking at the entry for it in the Macquarie Dictionary and the spelling is D-O-G.””). The problem is that the question is so multifacted (Female? Australian? Alive? Available?) that you have no way of knowing if Author X has been run over by a truck, or sees herself as Australian, or if her last copy has been covered in coffee by some idiot wthiout checking.

        Readers advisory is a skilled process of drawing out the preferences of the reader, and then comparing those preferences to what you know, and to the information which can be provided by the tools you have. It’s really hard to train in, because the people who do it well tend to have nebulous, other good communication skills which they can’t describe, and because customer feedback on negative transactions is rare.

        “Name one living, female, Australian author.” is also a surface question. Answering it probably would not have satisifed Elizabeth’s reading needs. I presume she was wanting to know “Which book can I read next for maximum enjoyment.” or something like that. so a list of 20 female authors, even if I presented it, would only satisfice, not satisfy.

    • Hi Elizabeth, James,
      as an information services librarian (incl readers engagement) in a multibranch
      service, I would be horrified if those were my staff. Perhaps the library focuses too heavily on circulation and not enough on engagement around our central product.
      We have recently trained a majority of our staff with Paul Brown, Best Sellers, to re-emphasize our focus on readers, reading, story & marketing books/literacy/engagement. I support what Tim says (further down) that if we don’t personally know we know where to find it (& we promote these same tools/resources to customers.

      • Hi Alison,
        Thank you for your comments here – I’ve really enjoyed working through some of these issues with you on Twitter as well.

        I’m impressed again and again with the commitment of librarians such as yourself and it’s been fascinating to hear about what you’re doing to further increase engagement with your readers.

  3. It’s great to have some figures, James, thanks for that. Can’t say I’m all that surprised, alas. I’m slightly surprised by Kylie’s comments, only because they’re coming after the debacle that is the list for the National Year of Reading 2012.

    What’s becoming increasingly clear is how much internalised bias there is and how much Australian women, especially the gatekeepers, people such as Jennifer Byrne and the Radio National presenters and literary editors, are part of the problem. They don’t seem to want to look at their own bias at all. I mean, of course we ALL feel as if we read what we want to but don’t we need to look a bit closer at what feeds our perceptions of value? Can’t read a book if you’ve never heard of it.

    I really had to laugh: interview on RN books and arts program on Sat, 2pm with the Director of Adelaide Writers Week – interviewer and Director both women. Many male writers mentioned, including Malcolm Knox, Richard Dawkins, Joseph Stieglitz, Robert Dessaix and even Greg Chappell! But not a single woman writer mentioned, not one. And this when I believe this year’s AWW is dedicated to Margo Lanagan! Indeed most of the discussion was about attracting male readers of non-fiction to the festival – so it seems men are still most important, whether by virtue of their presence or their absence.

    I think Elizabeth’s point about librarians is deeply disturbing. These are meant to be the experts.

    • Thank you for your comments Claire.
      I too thought it was important to try and get some more ‘hard facts’ around the debate.
      I normally resist the idea that ‘numbers = hard facts’ but some many comments were made in the progress of this debate along the lines of ‘it’s all roughly equal anyway’ that I had to see for myself.
      Sophie Cunningham’s work in rounding up depressingly similar figures last year were really my inspiration. Her point about being aware of your own biases & working against them was powerful made.
      Readers make in their way in warp and weft of cultural emphasis and my reading life was formed by the 1980’s. Exciting publishers like McPhee Gribble & Virago meant that Australian women’s writing had a spotlight that I don’t think we thought would slip in the way it has.
      The change in emphasis since the 80’s would effect librarians just as it did us all.
      I dearly hope there’s a change coming.

    • I know Jennifer Byrne is big in Australia, but she may not have final say on what is promoted, or may have lassitude? and just prefers that reading experience.
      She may not be trying to represent Australia’s collective readers, whereas the Miles Franklin could more legitimately
      be held to that ideal.

  4. Ps perhaps we could ask PM Newton and PA O’Reilly if they feel women’s writing gets a fair go. I’d be betting their use of initials signals they don’t believe that’s the case. I note Honey Brown also published her first book as HM Brown. We could probably find a few more examples just in Australia. Are there any Aust men who publish under initials?

      • Banjo Paterson originally published under A.B. Paterson for some work (reportage for example) and Banjo for poetical work.

    • Thanks for making a count James. It’s such a shame that your figures are not happy ones but I think it’s vital to keep pushing the pie(charts) in faces …. so to speak.

      Re using initials – I responded to the AWW blog “PD James is a guy, right?” here with my reasons in some detail:

      Basically I wanted to make sure a 1st book by an unknown Australian writer had the best possible chance to survive in the wild, where there would be no supportive blog/review culture to nurture it.

      I made a decision that the best way for that was for it to be gender neutral, because in literature, and many other spaces (how many suits do you see on the news every night? In parliament? In business?), it seems the neutral form is still male.

      Cartoonist Fiona Katauskas articulates it well when she explains that using female characters in her cartoons instead of a male to represent the “everyman” often confuses male readers, who look for the “feminist angle” and when told there wasn’t one, reply “well, why didn’t you just use a guy instead?”

      Using my inititals didn’t change what was between the pages – a female protagonist – and I have first-hand stories about unsuspecting blokes, who “never read women,” but who found themselves accidentally reading my book. I thank them for the sale, and hope they enjoyed the experience.

      • Thanks for your comment Pam.

        I know I’m unusual in this,
        but your gender is what actually caused me to pick up ‘The Old School’.

        Peter Temple aside, I’m not one for what generally gets labelled ‘crime fiction’, not least because their gender politics is often dodgy.

        But there was always one major exception – Sara Paretsky.

        In V.I. Warshawski, Paretsky gave me a character I could both cheer for & believe that -one day, perhaps- I could see her watching down a real city street.

        You did that for me again in ‘The Old School’ with Ned, but with an even greater vividness, because she walks my streets (and, not unimportantly, recovers from her wounds in a more believably slow manner than V.I. ever did).

        Characters who are simultaneously both within & outside a culture are fascinating to read about. You pulled that off wonderfully with Ned & the NSW Police – can’t wait until the next one!

  5. Thanks for this post, James. As an author I always hope to be judged on a level playing field with my peers. As a feminist I am disappointed we still need so much to change before this can happen.

    Until it does, keep these audits coming. Three cheers for reading outside your experience, too. If #aww2012 is helping people read more broadly, then let’s do it every year!

    • Thanks for your comment Jennifer.

      I agree that there is a bothersome aspect here that’s a common response from all sides:
      Why do we still need to worry about this? Wasn’t it solved long ago?

      I even feel that at times and I’m certain that the issue is far from settled.

      This leads, in part, to some people of generally good will wondering if there’s a certain level of privileged whining going on. But logically ridiculous comparisons to the rates of violence in the home that Pakistani women are subjected to aside, the facts give the lie to this position.
      The problem is there, it can be fixed – let’s get to.

      As a small contribution to this, I will keep the audit coming and celebrate (I hope) the improvement.

  6. Pingback: Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 5 March 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

  7. Thanks for this post. As a supporter of #AWW2012 I must admit to enjoying seeing these cold hard facts. There is something so clear about a pie chart isn’t there?! Now, back to my reading of Australian Women Writers!

  8. A great post, thank you for sharing the Australian statistics, its obvious that more even representation is still needed
    I am enjoying discovering and reading so many Australian Women Writers through the challenge and have been encouraging everyone I know to do the same

    • Thanks Shelleyrae. Like many of us, I’m very grateful to the AWW initiative and loving the new authors I’m reading as a result. Elizabeth’s efforts here are fantastic.

  9. I’m not sure that reviews do push the bookish agenda. I’m a librarian and, sure, some people do come in with a clipping for a paper and say “Can you get that for me?” but I think that literary reviews, indeed all of literary fiction, are sort of a little ghetto off on their own, and that the mainstream is reading light genre novels, biographies and cookbooks.

    I’m not arguing the main point, which is that the lack of reviews of authors looks like the symptom of a bigger problem. I’m just saying that I think your assumption that reviewers matter may not follow through. I think most readers don’t care about reviews, and get authors by word of mouth from their friends.

    • Hi Timothy, thanks for your comment.
      You are correct, of course. I don’t think reviews frame much for many readers.

      If you put aside my very imperfect phasing, I was meaning to draw a connection between book reviews and literary prizes. My thought was that a book receiving a noticeable review would be more than likely be considered for literary awards.

      As a librarian, would you care to comment on the general level of knowledge of Australian fiction amongst your profession? As I wrote above, I’ve found it to be sound but others have had different experiences.
      I’d love to hear the view from the other side of the returns desk.

      • Sure.
        First things first, so I don’t get in trouble with my employers: I’m not slacking off at work to write this. I’m home with an injured back, also, I don’t represent my Council in, well, anything, Sorry for the legalese, but if I want to say anything, I need to put it in. 8)

        I do see your point that literary prizes go to books which get good reviews. Just because literary fiction is a ghetto doesn’t mean women should get a fair shake inside that walled garden, I agree.

        The general level of knowledge of Australian women writers among librarians varies, I’d say. Some councils are doing it tough, and when they do it tough they squeeze the library staffing budgets. Not so much that you loose staff, but that staff spend a lot more time on the mechanical aspects of the profession (shelving, checking in and out) and a lot less time on things like keeping up to date with authors (which we call readers’ advisory in most places). I’m with quite a big council (the two biggest in Australia are in Queensland, because other states divide up their local governments more) so I’m shielded from this to an extent. Also, we’ve automated a lot (self-serve RFID out, and soon, self-serve RFID in) and so that again, shields staff time, but is only doable in big services necause of the capital costs.

        Our way of dealing with it is to have a sort of team of genre specialists and to play as a team. I know what each of the others likes to read, and I ask them if I get stuck. That does, however, mean we can get by with an occassional librarian who is good with any patricular genre or appeal factor: indeed it only works if each of us is good at some things and not good at others. It also only works in big services. So, in my service, I know who reads Australian women authors, much as I know people who read vampire novels, and if I get stuck, I can tap them for ideas. And yes, that’s me saying I’m not a guru on this. I’m a guru for real world IT, history, sci-fi, fantasy and cookbooks, which means I’m good for Australian female authors who are dead, but for modern ones, I often ask colleagues for help.

        We also keep a lot less data in our heads and a lot more on our machines now. We have Who Else Writes Like and Novelist, and customers can just use them themselves, or we can guide them through them, and that means we kind of outsource some of the knowledge work.

        We also purchase based on customer suggestions now, so again we don’t need to have a librarian who knows what’s good or bad: the customers tell us what is good or bad for them. So, again, we can get by without being good at any particular appeal factor.

        So, you can see I keep saying “You will get better service in a bigger service.” I think that’s a defendable point. I don’t want to to be true, but if you have a little rural service (and I’ve worked in the small independent rural services) its very hard to see how you can carve out a few hours of worktime a week to keep up with technology, let alone readers advisory.

      • Timothy, I’d love to talk with you about the organization of your genre specialists – we’re working on this too. (sorry to go on an aside, James)- Alison Miles at large Qld library service.
        One problem, James, is that everyone assumes that all staff are librarians.
        But for some staff (generally speaking – not about my workplace) an assistant or officer position requires no training, qualifications or expertise. It can be just a job for money. Some of these staff may not actually read! but they are great at their duties.
        We offer information services at all opening hours so if a staff member doesn’t know they can refer to a qualified person who does.
        My belief though is that if you’re only interested in a job not reading, information, technology, engagement and people, then the library is not for you.

    • Hi Timothy, I think in general I agree with your point. I worked in management for one of Australia’s largest international publishers. Sadly it seemed at times that even when books that got loads and loads of reviews (and good reviews) it didn’t necessarily transfer into sales. That said, and this is ME only, I do tear out reviews from the SMH Spectrum as a way to keep track of what I’d like to buy. Mind you, this year I AM only reading via recommendation, so I do realise that I’m being contradictory! (But that’s my own AWW2012 experiment, I don’t normally do that!)

      • Thanks Timothy – that’s a great insight into the librarian’s side of the desk that this reader really appreciated.
        An obvious point that never struck me before is that a library’s purchasing will be determined by what its readers read.
        Just another reminder that when it comes to Australian fiction, we all have skin in the game. If you can’t buy it, borrow it.

      • As a librarian I go even further: why buy it when you can borrow it, but I know that’s cheeky. 8) I get most of my magazines and all of my newspapers through the library’s online services now.

        One further point on this, in the same way that you determine what libraries buy with your borrowing behavior. you determine format as well. If you want your library to be mostly books, borrow the books. If you want your library to do a lot of downloable stuff, then get in and use OverDrive and Bolinda and that sort of thing.

        Using electronic resources is the best way people who don’t have time to come to the physical library have of supporting.their libraries. And they do need your support.

        Your borrowing really and truly keeps libraires alive.

  10. Hi all – great post, James. I think Claire’s point about the internalised or unconscious bias against reading women is well made. Before this whole discussion over the past year opened the topic up I assumed I read mostly women fiction writers – when I looked at my shelves and what I’d read in the previous year, the bias was still slightly in favour of men. Not hugely, but the difference between my perception and the reality shocked me a little.

    Nobody wants to read with quotas in mind, but I agree that an awareness of how huge the bias against visibility of women’s books is is important. Women are writing and being well published – the issue is in readers knowing those books and writers exist.

    Yesterday I accepted a reviewing gig for the first time in years – I have almost always declined, thinking I didn’t have the authority to review, didn’t like the potential conflict involved and so on. But the editor – Stephen Romei, as it happens – chose a good match between book and reviewer, so I said yes. The reviewing issue is about so much more than women not being invited to review – I have often been asked, but mostly the books were well outside my areas of interest, or I already knew I disliked the author’s work so didn’t want to take it on, or just thought I didn’t have the right to critique someone else’s work. But – partly because of the good match, but also as a result of this past year’s discussion – I’ve decided it’s time to stop evading and start engaging as a reviewer when it feels right.

    Anyway, lots to think about still. Thanks for keeping the chat going, James, and Elizabeth for your tireless energy in this arena.

    • I *love* this comment Charlotte.

      Not only is it typically incisive and clear but it also points to the deeper truth of the debate.

      Sometimes in any debate, the need for clearly delineated, black & white positions (one good & another evil) is almost overwhelming. It does feel good be certain, after all.
      There’s a flag to rally around, the comradeship of people that feel the same way you do, an enemy to fight.
      A snapshot moment needs the certainty of the barricades.

      But day-to-day, life’s accretion is almost infinitely complex and people of good will hold contrary views.

      So, why the obscure rant, you ask?
      For me, Charlotte’s comment reveals the sometimes uncertain process behind the debate. First Sophie Cunningham and now Charlotte have spoken of the sometime reluctance of writing women to pitch themselves forward to publishers and to literary editors.

      This little piece of evidence says loud & clear that it’s not helpful to see this issue as a conspiracy of publishers and editors. Lots of factors wash in & unless we understand the true nature of the problem, we are going to be hampered in solving them.

    • Charlotte, I’m thrilled that you’ll be writing a review and, if you had the time and energy, would love one for the AWW blog, too. Short of that, I wonder if you could seek permission to have an extract of the review commissioned by Stephen Romei to be co-posted to the AWW blog, with a link to the full review (if published online), or with details of where the review will appear?

      Timothy (since this comment appears in your thread), I’ve already remarked on the AWW blog that a librarian’s perspective of this matter would be a very welcome post on the AWW blog – if you or Alison are interested.

  11. Er, that should have been: “Just because literary fiction is a ghetto doesn’t mean women __shouldn’t__ get a fair shake inside that walled garden, I agree.” Embarassing!

  12. While I would not argue that there is a conspiracy against women writers. I see sexism and racism in our post world as a like a mist – nothing to really touch or see, but you get soaked none the less. Having said that I do tend to read more male authors, so I guess I am part of the problem. In our little bookshop women buying books lead men 70% to 30%.
    Women are writing the books, and reading them, but the highest levels of publishing/ideology industry are dominated by men, so to my simple mind this is the cause of discrepancy.

    • Thanks Tomsk for your comment.

      It’s interesting to hear about the gender divide in buying from across the bookshop counter.
      I’ve worked in welfare and, like publishing, it’s an industry that counts women as a majority of its staff yet the managerial positions are very often held by men.

      There was no conspiracy; men were just more ready to put their hands up for managerial roles.

      The rough HR rule of thumb is that men will apply for a role even if only 60% of their skills & experience match the job description; women won’t until the match is 85% or higher.

    • Just one last thought on this. at least for now.

      In Australia, I think its a lot easier to get published if you are famous for something else first, in another field.

      If you accept the premise that the rest of society doesn’t pay women equal attention, then that creates a bias in your author pool.

  13. Brilliant post, James. In fact, it’s been bubbling away in my head all day today. My comment is taking on the form of a post of my own – if it works out (how often the things I write fall to pieces as I write them!), I’ll link back to your post. Naturally.

    So, in the absence of a proper comment, and because I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been expressed more eloquently above, let me just add my voice of approval to the crowd.

    • Shucks, Michelle – thank you!
      I am now desperate to read your post, not least because you’ll do a fantastic job and really show me how this blogging thing is done. Please don’t make me wait too long.

  14. James, your figures are damning, and it’s a real pity – thanks for providing them. More of a pity is that S Romei’s decision to use less experienced female reviewers at The Australian doesn’t always guarantee either a competent or a balanced review – witness the rather inept reading by Thuy On of Deborah Robertson’s new novel in last weekends Australian – – likening her main character to a male Bridget Jones is unnecessarily vindictive and condescending towards both the writer and the complex themes of the novel.

  15. Hi Paul, thank you for your comment.

    Although I quite enjoyed Careless, I haven’t read Deborah Robertson’s latest so won’t venture to comment on Thuy On’s review.

    I’ve got to say again that I welcome Romei’s efforts to bring in new voices.
    The vice of inexperience is common to all of us (at some stage) and it is the fate of critics to grow up in public.

    Can I ask you to clarify “less experienced female reviewers”?
    Presumably, if your concern is with inexperience, that would stay constant regardless of the sex of the reviewer.

  16. Quite so. I had thought I was taking a line from one of your earlier posts, re Romei’s intentions to broaden the field a little to lesser experienced female reviewers (which I now can’t find, its the one where you mention Angela Meyer etc.) It matters little of course whether the gender is male or female. And of course, too, the vice of inexperience is common to all of us – it’s just a pity that a new novel by a great female Australian writer has to suffer for the sins of another – the nature of reviewing, I suppose (and I’m sure in this case, if you asked the author, she might say that she’d have preferred to have been reviewed by an insightful reviewer of any gender rather than a patronising female reviewer…)

    • Thanks for the clarification, Paul. I momentarily concerned that the quality of a single review would derail us from the broader issue.
      My firm belief and experience is that diversity doesn’t hamper quality, -given time- it increases it.

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