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The Meanjin Literary Smackdown

by Estelle Tang , September 19, 201125 Comments

The Meanjin Tournament of Books is a literary stoush that seeks to name the Great Australian Novel.

With sixteen book titles, the round robin-style competition has four judges pitting book against book until the winning title emerges. It’s the Australian Grand Slam of book competitions, if you will.

Excitingly, its inaugural year has limited the shortlist to novels by Australian women, any era. Thursday night saw the launch of the Tournament of Books at the Wheeler Centre, with the judges introduced and the shortlist revealed.

The shortlist is an excellent one and I was surprised that I have only read three of the titles on it (Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog and Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi). I had read a further two authors, though not the titles listed (Helen Garner, Elizabeth Jolley). I wasn’t alone. When the crowd was polled, chair Louise Adler counted that about a tenth of the audience had read more than five books on the list.

The launch of the Tournament of Books also included crowd voting. Meanjin had decided 15 of the shortlist’s titles, and the audience were invited to anonymously vote in a final nominee. When the results were tallied, Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn was the victor – the only genre book and one of the few YA novels. The full shortlist is published here.

The great books on the shortlist and judges on the panel will surely make this a fun event to follow along. Anna Krien, Mandy Brett and Andrew Marlton (First Dog on the Moon) were all eloquent and entertaining speakers at the launch, and I am keen to hear their perspectives on the books they read.

I was less impressed with the fourth judge, Anson Cameron. Firstly noting – albeit jokingly – that he doesn’t hold much truck with the notion that women don’t win awards (as every award he has been shortlisted for was won by a woman), he then admitted that he doesn’t really read books by Australian women, and finally wondered if men are more established in the literary world because ‘perhaps men just write more?’ The audience were tittering in disbelief, and one woman behind me whispered, ‘Turn his microphone off, now’.

I have full respect for the Meanjin team and believe that they had good reason to select each of the judges. However, Cameron last night demonstrated that he is incredibly uninformed about the gendered problems of publishing, which is a shame given the excellent and abundant writing about feminism and literature that is being published at the moment. Comments such as Cameron’s demonstrate why events like the Stella Prize and the more lighthearted Meanjin Tournament of Books are so important.

Looking at the excellent shortlist last night, I felt quite ashamed that I had read so few books. So much so that I decided to take action: I’m going to read the read the Meanjin Tournament of Books shortlist. Starting right now.

I’ll be checking in here at Killings about my progress over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can keep abreast of all the exciting Tournament of Books action at Meanjin or by using #meanjintob on Twitter.

Lisa Dempster is the Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and author of Neon Pilgrim.


 




25 thoughts on “The Meanjin Literary Smackdown

  1. Given what he had to say, the fact that he agreed to participate at all is very telling. Can you imagine a woman saying yes to an invitation to a gig about which she knows nothing and then announcing, at the gig, that she knows nothing about it? To me this is reminiscent of Stephen Romei and other literary editors’ comments that men are more aggressive and persistent in pitching reviews and stories to literary editors, and don’t care if they’re not experts in the field covered by the book. To me this is, in both scenarios (panel & reviewing), an insult to the writers.

  2. Completely agree, Kerryn. And apart from all the reasons Lisa has discussed that this is unimpressive, it also strikes me as shockingly unprofessional – to accept such an invitation to be part of an initiative and then as part of a public event promoting that initiative, trash the ideas behind it in this way and state yourself unqualified to be taking part. Bad manners!

    And Lisa, I know what you mean – I’m taking this list as an opportunity to bring myself up to speed on some Australian women writers, or works, that I’ve missed. The Tournament is a terrific idea, for this reason: it’s engaging with Australian women’s writing and opening readers up to it by way of discussion.

  3. Lisa, this sounds like a challenge. Can we read along with you, compare notes. On EWF perhaps? Anyone else wanting to work through the regrettable backlog with me?

  4. Kerryn and Jo – yes I completely agree. I felt quite appalled at the launch, not just because of Cameron, but because his acceptance/inclusion on the judging panel seemed so representative of the insidious gender imbalance in our literary industry. (That said: one friend joked that perhaps Cameron’s participation as a judge is a consciousness-raising effort, i.e. his.)

    Kay, I’ll be checking in here at Killings once or twice as I read along, as well as tweeting as I read, using the #meanjintob hashtag. I no doubt will be hanging out in the comments of the Meanjin blog when the judges reveal each round’s winners – so there are plenty of online places to ‘play along’!

  5. It seems to me hypocritical to take issue with Cameron when Lisa herself admits that she had read so few books on the shortlist. Australian women writers for the best part usually write about boring subjects with the exceptional few such as de Kretser’s Lost Dog. I’m disappointed that this got knocked out in the first round. I would have put that high on my list of one of the best books written by an Australian woman. I’m not surprised though that there is generally such dreadful writing coming out of Australian women when they put such effort into whinging and whining about not being included in prizes, it only serves to make it harder for the blokes to take them seriously.

  6. Ouch, Leia. That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? Also, I don’t think it’s apt to compare Lisa with Anson Cameron – he was saying he wasn’t qualified AND gave a silly reason for women’s writing not being taken as seriously. as a bloke, I don’t see women whinging about this – it’s a deep and serious cultural problem, one that’s long overdue to be corrected.

  7. Leia, Lisa’s response to discovering she’d read relatively few titles by Australian women writers was to embark on an ambitious program to rectify it, while acknowledging that it speaks volumes about our literary culture that fiction by women has been marginalised. Anson Cameron’s response was to imply that they weren’t worth reading. He’s a literary critic who not only admits that he doesn’t read fiction written by Australian women (which is a more serious issue than you finding them boring, as you aren’t a cultural gatekeeper) but also betrays a total lack of engagement with a debate that has dominated local literary circles of late. This isn’t surprising but it nonetheless makes it hard to take him seriously as a critic.

    Your belief that “Australian women writers for the best part usually write about boring subjects with the exceptional few” and “that there is generally such dreadful writing coming out of Australian women when they put such effort into whinging and whining” guarantee that I don’t take you seriously either.

  8. Surely the issue is not that a member of the panel hadn’t read many of the books, Leia, it’s that he indicated so little interest in writing by half the population and probably more than half the writing community – from some kind of essentialist point of view. He assumes gender difference in the books produced by certain writers and has decided that therefore he will not like them (though he doesn’t know, since he doesn’t read them).
    But at least he said it out loud, which most people don’t.
    Surely (SURELY?) he was either trying to be controversial (well, that worked), or was just there as a symbol of that mentality that affects not just writing by women, but also writing that is not of the kind that fits the Great Australian Novel canonical framework.
    I’m not dignifying your final comment with a reply, because that’s how my mother raised me. And also I’m a little speechless.

  9. Surely the point is that women’s writing has been defined as boring (inferior) precisely because it’s by women, or pertaining to ‘women’s issues’. That seems like a legitimately problematic situation that is okay to be unhappy and vocal about.

    As a dude who’s been whinging and whining about this, I guess I can’t take myself seriously any more. Nooooo, existential quandary!

  10. There is nothing I can add to the responses above, except this: Leia if you are sorry that de Kretzer’s book was knocked out in the first round there is a chance to revive it at a later stage in the ‘zombie round’, aimed at bringing knocked out books back into the competition.

  11. Ah, the old homogenisation of women’s writing chestnut again. Firstly, can we get to the point where we stop referring to ‘women’s writing’ as if it’s somehow a legitimate label? The tag ‘women’s writing’ only serves to separate it from the supposedly real, interesting, marketable writing done by men. Writing by women is only marginally better, but at least it refers to the gender as secondary.

    Further, to suggest that writing by women is boring as a rule is a pretty stirling display of ignorance on a literary forum. I mean Leia, do you even go here? No one with any credibility would dare sit on a panel and declare that Indigenous writing was boring or that Indigenous writers were somehow concerned with less socially valuable issues than their white counterparts. Yet it’s perfectly acceptable for us, in 2011, to have continuous debates about the merits or lack thereof of ‘women’s writing’ and how it concerns itself with ‘women’s issues’.

    I will never understand how a novel about war can be loftily declared to examine the human condition, notions of sacrifice, freedom and friendship – yet a novel about motherhood might be declared ‘domestic’ and ‘special interest’ despite it being about all these things and more. Worse is the suggestion that the experience of women has no interest to a wider audience, ie one that’s had its world view informed by the value of man’s experience.

    I read Christos Tsolkas’ The Slap. I thought the women were less well crafted than the men, and I disliked most of the adult characters. Nonetheless, I found it an engaging read and I enjoyed discussing it with fellow readers. In judging the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Nicholas Hasluck described The Slap as “a controversial and daring novel” which examines “identities and personal relationships in a multicultural society” and “taps into universal tensions and dilemmas around family life and child-rearing”. When a man writes about domestic issues, it’s a searing examination of the human condition. When a woman writes about the same kinds of things, it’s a ‘domestic novel’.

    I put it to you that if Christos Tsolkas were Christine Tsolkas, The Slap would not be about to debut on the ABC as an 8 part TV series.

  12. This website needs a ‘like’ button – great comment Clem.

    I only realised how biased my reading was when I started keeping lists of what I’d read – the first year I did I discovered that less than 10% of the books I chose to read were by women. And it was basically because I just grabbed recommendations from reviews or ‘best of’ lists or whatever (plus probably unexamined biases of my own that I’m not particularly proud of).

    Anyway, since then I’ve made a serious effort to rectify my reading habits and have ‘discovered’ loads of wonderful books by writers I’d never have checked out if I’d just drifted along thoughtlessly.

    I think the more the issue is talked about and thought about, the more people will start to realise how shockingly biased so much of the literary world is (in terms of prizes, attention etc) and some at least will pay more attention to their own reading habits and internal prejudices.

  13. There is not one but many great Australian novels. The attempt to “sex up” literature by pitching books against each other in a “stouch” or boxing match, or worse, an Australian idol-type scenario–to use (male-oriented) sporting/competitive metaphors for literature–is so bloody Australian. God forbid we call it art or culture, no, it has to be written by everyman for everyman. Mediocrity all the way. Women authors are fine, so long as they are mediocre.

  14. Ladyofletters – I believe the Tournament was based on a similar concept from a US site … just an interesting aside given your ‘so bloody Australian’ remark.

    I have to say, the ‘literary smackdown’ in the title of this post is starting to seem very apt! It’s great that the Tournament is inspiring these debates, and raising the profile of some of Australia’s best women writers at a time when it’s needed. (Sorry Clementine, I see your point re the label ‘women’s writing’, but at the moment it’s needed, to discuss these issues. Hopefully it will evolve to a time when it’s not necessary. Just as we once would have called The Slap ‘ethnic writing’ and now it’s just ‘Australian writing’.

  15. Clem, I agree with your overall argument, but have an issue with you presuming that Indigenous writers are not susceptible to the same ignorant prejudice and judgment that ‘women writers’ are. Really? Indigenous writers (and writers of colour) in Australia are continuously marginalised within the writing arena, just as they are outside of it. Granted, panels may not openly state that Indigenous writing is boring or inferior, but how often does Indigenous writing even get to the level of being discussed by a panel? It may be through less public acts of discrimination but equally shameful. There are more effective ways to argue against misogyny and White Guy privilege than by placing gender against race.

  16. Brighid, I absolutely agree that Indigenous writing is marginalised and more so than writing by women. My point was simply that people working within the literary industry wouldn’t openly claim that Indigenous writing was boring or trite or inferior, but they continue to see that as a valid statement about women’s writing.

    I’m not trying to pitch the two against each other at all.

  17. Ladyofletters, I (perhaps obviously) don’t have a problem with events that attempt to ‘sex up’ literature a bit, or to make it more accessible. Gawd forbid the only acceptable literary events were Serious Panel Discussions or Serious Literary Criticism! Art and culture can be highbrow, and it can be part of the every day, and it can be a mixture of the two; I have a very democratic idea of what literature is and should be, and find your statement that it should have nothing to do with the ‘everyman’ unbearably snobby.

  18. At last! Some sane commentary on this topic. Lionel Shriver wrote a particuarly good article on the perception of writing by women in the Guardian recently. Her publishers insisted that her dark, adult novel be covered with a flowery shot of a woman’s legs, and she wouldn’t have a bar of it.

    It is a shame writing by women is so maligned in literary circles, but at least if there is some awareness (not helped by Anson) we may begin to see a greater acceptance of ALL good writers, not just ‘great (male) fiction’.

  19. I would argue that stereotypes serve no-one. I am a man who reads more writing by women than men, overall. So it’s folly to say ‘women writers are marginalised because they do X’ or ‘readers want Y’. Hogwash. If a commercially successful/predictable formula was that easy to nut out, the traditional paper publishing industry wouldn’t be thrashing about in panic right now.

    There are only two kinds of writing, good and bad. I balk at the idea of writing as a whole being any more ‘worthy of attention’ because it’s: contemporary, Australian, by women, insert category here.

    Women have produced strong content against the (socio-cultural, economic)odds in the past. If quality is the benchmark, what’s the issue again? There may be plenty of apparent evidence of prejudice in the publishing industry/trade, but women-only awards won’t change the wider *culture* they’ll just create a ghetto. Yes, a women-only writing award is of use if it encourages more women to write, if it incents cultural production of quality.

    But consider this: many readers simply do not want or need *new* writing. The newness/contemporaneousness of writing simply is not relevant to the enjoyment and experience of readership, for many people. This is what you are facing if you’ve chosen a life of letters. And it *is* a choice. There are only so many books you can read in a lifetime, the number is finite. If I began to read solely books by women authors – from anywhere – from here on in, I’d have enough reading material to sustain me ’til I pop my clogs.

    Seems to me the only people focusing on the conditions of contemporary writing production for women are those deeply invested (emotionally, professionally) in it – the public couldn’t care less.

    Like it or not, writing is a product, transmitted via markets. Trade is, by definition, competition. The obstacles women writers face require a much broader cultural shift than simple discussions of writing praxis and the trade culture. This kind of change happens slooooowly. By the time the culture has shifted, writing itself may have long been transformed beyond any currently recognisable idioms.

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