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>

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 »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

only-the-animals-book-cvr

Claire Hielscher

A joyous deception: Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals

In visual art, the compulsion to surrender to the belief you are falling either into or out of an image is known as trompe-l’oeil, French for ‘deceive the eye’. Ceridwen Dovey’s story collection Only the Animals encourages a comparable state of joyous deception. Read more »

9781555976712

Carody Culver

Everybody hurts: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

There’s a difference between identifying someone’s malady – or lack thereof – and understanding their experience of it. To what extent can we truly imagine being in another person’s skin? Read more »

1560682_10153899026420591_499501666_n

Eli Glasman

Just a number: The literary world’s obsession with age

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out. 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 »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. 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 »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. 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 »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen. Read more »

9780987507013

Review: The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew

This is a coming out story but one that desperately needed to be told on two counts – one because it’s an Australian YA coming-out story, and two because it’s a coming-out story about a young man questioning his homosexuality alongside his Jewish faith. Read more »

Untitled

Danielle Binks

How to buy books for young adults

‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’ When I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently, I felt insta-rage. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. 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 »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. 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 »

DP

Stephanie Van Schilt

Idle hands and Devil’s Playground: Going to the movies to watch TV

I recently went to the movies to watch TV. I bid a reluctant farewell to the comforts of my couch and heater and ventured into the frosty evening in search of Devil’s Playground. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »