Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

From the Editors

Women in Print: An International Women’s Day Discussion

by Jo Case , March 11, 20112 Comments
Left to right: Rebecca Starford, Sophie Cunningham, Monica Dux, Louise Swinn

On the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day, over 100 bookish types packed among the shelves of Readings Carlton in Melbourne to hear a panel of Australian literary women talk about the very timely hot topic of the moment – the oft-suspected, recently proven underrepresentation of women in the world of books and writing.

The session was chaired by Rebecca Starford, editor of Kill Your Darlings. Participants were Sophie Cunningham, novelist, former publisher, commentator and recent editor of Meanjin; Louise Swinn, editorial director of Sleepers Publishing and a writer and reviewer; and Monica Dux, The Age opinion writer, author of The Great Feminist Denial.

The conversation began with a sobering reflection on those statistics recently released by VIDA (a relatively new US organisation for women and the arts), which revealed a stark gender bias in the pages of a wide range of literary institutions, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review and Granta.

Rebecca Starford presented the findings of her own mini-survey of the current situation in Australia, based on the records of trade magazine Bookseller & Publisher’s weekly supplement, Media Extra, over the first two months of 2011:

In The Age, 133 books were reviewed: 90 authored by men, 43 (or 33%) by women. Of the reviewers of those books, 72 were men, 61 by women.

In The Australian, 88 books were reviewed: 61 authored by men, 27 (or 30%) by women. Of the reviewers, 55 were men, 33 were women

Things were still skewed, but less so, at Australian Book Review. In 2010, 356 books were reviewed: 210 authored by men, 146 (41%) by women. The numbers of reviewers was fairly even. Interestingly, though, only 27% of the books by men were reviewed by women.

At Australian Literary Review, the stats were more damning. From October 2010 to February 2011, 51 books were reviewed: 41 by men; 10 (less than 20%) by women. Of the reviewers, 36 were men; 15 (29%) were women.

One of the explanations commonly offered for this disparity is that men are more willing to put themselves forward than women. Talking to The Book Show recently, (in a segment that was often cited during the night’s discussion), the literary editors of The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald all mentioned that they receive far more pitches from men than women.

Sleepers Publishing’s Louise Swinn reported that she receives more book-length submissions from men, though the submissions for the annual Sleepers Almanac anthologies of short stories are evenly split between men and women.

Sophie Cunningham, talking about her recent role as editor of Meanjin, had a particularly interesting story to tell – gender ratios “varied wildly” depending on the genre of the submission. “I had to work very hard to make sure that women were properly represented in non-fiction,” she said. “Because in terms of essays received, I was getting a lot more essays by men, if you keep memoir out of it. The pieces by women did tend to be a lot more personal and written out of their own experience.” Looking back on her time at Meanjin, Sophie said that while 52% of the essays overall were by women, 75% of the memoir pieces she published were written by women. (In that time, incidentally, 53% of the fiction and 35% of the poetry was by women.) Speaking specifically about Meanjin’s CAL-sponsored series of essays on cultural institutions, Sophie said it was difficult to find women to write these pieces. “Women often said, I’m not an expert, I don’t know that I’ve got the time, and were generally a lot more diffident about tackling those subjects where they were expected to be fairly aggressive in their analysis.”

Louise backed up Sophie’s point with a quote from Alizah Salario’s piece, ‘Twenty-Three Short Thoughts About Women and Criticism’ on Bookslut: “At her most basic, a good critic must possess a certain amount of chutzpah in order to believe other people will read – and care about – what she has to say. Call them audacious or simply arrogant, critics must have the confidence to write with conviction. They must demonstrate to readers why, of an infinite number of interpretations, theirs speaks a truth (but perhaps not the truth).”

Louise reflected, “I think maybe we’re not always encouraged to think that our experience can be the experience.”

Monica Dux said that though the VIDA statistics are “appalling”, she’s “not actually that surprised”, having spent the last couple of years of her life looking at women’s representation and writing about women. “It’s a reflection of society. I think we have this idea that writing is somehow more transcendent, and that it must be more noble.” She cited the current debate about the underrepresentation on women on boards as an example of where this situation is reflected in the wider world.

“I think that women actually need to push themselves out of their comfort zone, otherwise we’re stuck in this loop,” said Sophie. “I got really frustrated with the number of women who said, I’m not an expert. I tell you what, the men I was ringing up asking to write on subjects weren’t saying, I’m not an expert.” She said that she often tended to use good female non-fiction writers “several times over”, citing Sian Prior and Lorin Clarke as two of her go-to writers. She believes this likely results in her figures being “fairly skewed, in the way I think The New Yorker figures are … I think if you took Susan Orlean out of the mix at The New Yorker, you’d end up with about two [non-fiction women writers].”

Monica agreed with Sophie’s idea about the need for women to push beyond their comfort zones, drawing on her own experience as an opinion writer. “Those first few experiences of sending an unsolicited opinion piece were excruciating. Writing is, by its nature, very much about confidence.” She said she started writing “almost by accident”, as a result of some pro-active female editors who encouraged her. “There are people out there who are looking to publish women. You just need to be persistent and push.”

Louise reflected that, as a writer, she needs to “not take rejection so hard and just keep going”. A seemingly confident and polished public speaker, Louise admitted to being “incredibly nervous” about public speaking, and having done “lots and lots” of public speaking courses, as well as acting and singing classes, in order to feel comfortable performing in public. “At Sleepers, when we’re asking people to do events, we always have to ask two women for every one man,” she said. “You’ve got to start saying yes. And start pitching.”

Sophie said, “The men I’ve worked with – writers like James Bradley, a really fine writer and reviewer – would constantly pitch stuff at me.” She emphasised the effort she consciously put in to achieve gender balance at Meanjin and the importance of “as an editor, as a publisher, taking affirmative action really seriously. Doing the statistics.”

Louise held up a flyer she’d happened upon, for a series of seminars, running over the next few months, on VCE English texts. Of 15 set texts discussed, only two of these were by women. “These are kids going through school and this is what they’re reading,” she said. “And then we tell the girls that their voices are just as worthwhile.”

“I think it’s getting worse,” observed Sophie, pointing to the recent Triple J Hottest 100 furore as an example of the culture we currently inhabit. (For the first time ever, no female solo singers were featured in this list, put together from public votes.) And of course the panel all recalled the infamous “sausage-fest” all-male Miles Franklin shortlist of 2009.

I’ve done my own quick calculations (since the event) on how women have fared in general with the nation’s leading literary prize. Over the course of the Miles Franklin Award – which has run since 1957 – a woman has won 13 times. Three times this was Thea Astley; twice she shared the award (in 2000, with Kim Scott; and in 1963, with George Turner). The Miles has been awarded 50 times in all. Over the past decade (since 2001), two women have won, from the pool of 10 awards.

There’s much more to be discussed around this issue – and hopefully there will be further events and more public discussions. (For instance, on International Women’s Day, Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre ran a terrific piece by novelist Kirsten Tranter on this very issue.) Perhaps, one year on, we should take another look at the statistics of women in print and see if anything has changed?

Jo Case is associate editor of Kill Your Darlings and books editor of The Big Issue.

(The Book Show also did the sums on the gender split of guests on the show, read the breakdown here)

(Cross-posted from The Book Show Blog.)



2 thoughts on “Women in Print: An International Women’s Day Discussion

  1. I know there is a multitude of contributing factors. One surely must be the same thing that impacts representation of women in many fields. Writing a novel, pitching and researching non-fiction, these are things that require a lot of time. Women are still the main carers for children and families and main ‘home makers’.

    At the stage in their writing careers when they could and ‘should’ be tackling these big writing projects (ie: been around for a while, have the confidence, something to say, the rigour with which to craft a work) they are often fitting it in around running a home, caring for a family and perhaps some other part time work. I know men do this too, but this issue still affects women much more so than men.

    It is perhaps easier to write shorter, more fragmented pieces of work (poetry, short stories, memoir pieces) when the time you have to devote to writing is also fragmented?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

9781863956932

Carody Culver

Charmless lives: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief and Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune

How do narrative non-fiction writers who dare to dissect the darker aspects of humanity keep their readers engaged, rather than simply horrified? Read more »

KrissyKneen_credit_DarrenJames

Carody Culver

‘As if the top of my head were taken off’: The digital possibilities of poetry

‘When Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I can’t help but think she would be stupefied by the possibilities of digital literature.’ Read more »

tumblr_n9hftkebsr1tfwx0xo1_1280

S.A. Jones

‘Fool the Axis, Use Prophylaxis’: World War II’s anti-venereal disease posters

Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II gives a fascinating insight into one of the ways the United States ‘managed’ servicemen’s sexuality: through poster art. Read more »

15115828030_526f79c515_z

Julia Tulloh

The celebrity spokesperson phenomenon

What should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is not a full-time activist, but if she inspires young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Read more »

Clara and Doctor

Julia Tulloh

Doctor Who’s gender dynamics: a mid-season evaluation

In some ways, Peter Capaldi was a problematic choice for the newest regeneration of Doctor Who. How on earth were the producers going to pull off a successful friendship between a middle-aged man and a twenty-something woman, without it seeming at best patriarchal and at worst creepy? Read more »

blue-ombr-speckle-liner

Julia Tulloh

From the outside in: the beauty vlogger phenomenon

A current cohort of beauty bloggers are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like. Read more »

Gone-Girl-Ben-Affleck-Rosamund-Pike-Entertainment-Weekly-cover

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Marital Crises: Gone Girl and Force Majeure

You can share your body, your bed, your bank account, and even your toothbrush, with another human being. But each mind contains a private world that can never be fully understood or examined, let alone shared with another. Read more »

theskeletontwins1

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Suicide, Laughter and The Skeleton Twins

Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track. Read more »

stepup5poster

Anthony Morris

Let’s Dance: unapologetic repetition and Step Up: All In

A franchise of movies based entirely around good-looking people performing unlikely and oddly aggressive dance moves wouldn’t seem to require heavy continuity – or any continuity at all – but Step Up: All In is surprisingly effective. Read more »

ST_Ello_600

Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

Ello’s manifesto is the key to understanding its relative success, and how it has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set. Read more »

6289302147_38e8035680_z

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly “remixed” images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Read more »

Streisand_Estate

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex. Read more »

nonaandme

Danielle Binks

Race, growing up and Nona and Me

Nona & Me beautifully explores female friendship amid cultural and political upheaval. It’s a tender portrayal of two girls who have so much in common, but are worlds apart. Read more »

7183815590_de3f64bca6_z

Danielle Binks

‘YA-bashing’: sexism meets elitism

Another month, another critic who doesn’t read YA literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy. Read more »

tumblr_inline_n9e5g8afMe1rvc0fr

Danielle Binks

Beyond ableism and ignorance: disability and fiction

Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice. So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class? Read more »

homepage_large.9419e472

Chad Parkhill

The music of exhaustion

The War on Drugs new album Lost in the Dream is the startling sound of exhaustion – both a personal exhaustion and a broader cultural exhaustion – transformed into art that is thrillingly and paradoxically vital. Read more »

free-u2-album-on-itunes

Chad Parkhill

The Perpetual Undeath of Rock

 ‘Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die.’ Depending on your own tastes and cognitive biases, Neil Young’s famous lyric will now seem more prophetic than ever before – or profoundly misguided. Last week saw the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in what Apple … Read more »

arthur-russel-beckman

Chad Parkhill

Calling out of context: The perennial appeal of Arthur Russell

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of forty, he did so in relative obscurity, having released four commercially unsuccessful albums and granted a single print interview: not exactly a promising oeuvre on which to build a legacy. Read more »

bojack-horseman-exclusive-trailer-debut_bghe

Stephanie Van Schilt

Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman

In addition to both being really funny, two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’. Read more »

images

Stephanie Van Schilt

How To Talk Australians and the rise of web series

How To Talk Australians has deservedly garnered widespread praise both locally and internationally. With close to two million views worldwide, it could be deemed our first truly successful locally-produced web series. Read more »

please-like-me

Stephanie Van Schilt

Mental illness and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me

While the jury is still out on the success of Please Like Me’s efforts to address ideas around mental health, the discussions both its seasons have provoked and continue to encourage are incredibly important. That, I definitely like. Read more »