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Pushing past reluctance: An interview with Sophie Cunningham

by , June 4, 20143 Comments

Pitch, Bitch is a new initiative held on the first Wednesday of every month. Its aim is to encourage female writers to pitch their work for publication. Today, Wednesday 4th June, is the first #pitchbitch day.

To celebrate the launch of Pitch, Bitch, we spoke to writer and Chair of the Literature Strategy Panel of the Australia Council, Sophie Cunningham, about her extensive experience as a woman reading, writing and editing.

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The idea for Pitch, Bitch sprang in part from a panel on gender discrepancies in writing and publishing, which you took part in several years ago. You also wrote at length on this issue in your essay for Kill Your Darlings, “A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests and Dreams of a Common Language”. Where does your passion for the issue of representation of women writers come from?

Well, I’m a feminist, so my interest in the issue of representation is a part of that. But that’s a very abstract answer. As a lover of writing, and books, I’d say that I really, really love women’s writing. I read more books written by women than by men – I always have. In their work I often find that my worldview is acknowledged, described, and expanded. Their seeing of the world makes me, the reader, feel seen. I experience this less with male writers, though I really like having my worldview challenged. But it’s a different reading experience.

It distresses me that good work, important work, by women may not be as widely read and discussed, or taken as seriously, as that of men.

Each year the VIDA Count in the UK and the Stella Count here in Australia demonstrate the pervasive nature of gender discrepancies in literary coverage. Improvements are slow and incremental, if they come at all. Why do you think change is so slow to come, even when the inequity of representation has been proven and acknowledged?

I could write millions of words and I’m not sure I’d come close to an answer. I do believe, though, that the gender divide is deeper, and more unconscious, than most people (men, or women) are prepared to acknowledge. Sexism exists and the evidence is constantly before us. Resisting that truth doesn’t change it. It’s hard to change behaviours if you don’t accept that you have them in the first place, or accept that their occurrence is problematic. That’s a level of cultural change that takes generations – assuming future generations believe that change is needed. We could as easily slide backwards on these and other matters (indeed the current political environment suggests that that is the case).

You are the Deputy Chair and a founding member of The Stella Prize. What were some of the reasons the Stella was created? What impact has the Stella had, in the two years it’s been awarded?

As someone who worked in the industry I was genuinely bemused that books written by women did not get the same traction as books by men. I simply don’t accept the argument that prizes are a level playing field, and that if a book by a woman is good enough, it will rise to the top. Good books do not always rise to the top (and I don’t just mean books by women, here).

Always focusing on the individual ends up neutralising any argument. By this I mean there is no point in looking at any particular year and saying ‘Well of course X won that year, his was the best book!’ Because it might be true that X wrote an awesome book. Or, ‘Do you need a prize given that women have done so well in the last couple of years?’ And it’s true that women’s writing has been very positively received over the last couple of years. I do think that there can only be political change if one considers systemic issues. You have to stand back and ask if those individual statements explain the fact that – for example – only 12 individual women have ever won the Miles Franklin Literary Award over its 56-year history (and that two of those winners were in the last two years). I believe the answer is no, they do not explain it. Figures like this are not explicable ­– unless you truly believe that women don’t write books that are as good as men’s. I don’t consider that to be true.

I also think prizes themselves are important. I accept that there are issues with judging writers’ work, and placing books in competition with each other. I understand that the ‘best’ book may not always win, no matter the gender of the author or the type of prize. However, prizes enable careers (as much as any writer can attempt a career these days). Longlists, shortlists and prizewinners all come to the public’s attention. They help writers get read. Prizes weave literature into the cultural fabric. The memory of a writer and her work is less likely to slip away if she’s been publically acknowledged in a significant way.

In your time as an editor of Meanjin, did you encounter a discrepancy in the frequency of pitches you received from men and women? Were there differences in the manner in which men and women pitched to you, or in the ways they responded to either rejection or the editing process?

I didn’t see a real difference in the way that men and women responded to rejection or editing Both men and women tended to be professional and not let on if they were either incredibly wounded by a rejection, or infuriated by my editing. So if there were felt differences on their part, I usually wouldn’t have known about it. But I did notice a difference in the way they pitched work or ideas. Women didn’t pitch as often, or as assertively. If I approached them with a particular idea, they were more hesitant in accepting a commission and would often cite lack of time, or expertise (even when, in my view, they had the expertise).

I should say at this point that I myself am like this. I often turn down work, and don’t pursue it when I probably should. I am extremely sympathetic to the sense that many women (and indeed men) might have that freelancing is very difficult, and often thankless. So when I suggest women need to push past their sense of reluctance, it’s advice I am bad at taking. But I recognise it’s important. And I am in no way critical of men’s more assertive approach to these matters. I high five them. I appreciate those qualities in men very much.

Do you see a relationship between a lack of publicity and recognition, and the general reluctance of women writers to promote and pitch themselves and their work?

To be honest, when I was a publisher I didn’t notice a marked difference in men and women’s capacity to do publicity and promote themselves. Some people take to that, and some don’t. It wasn’t overly gendered. What I did find gendered was the way the media would respond to particular authors. An example: Girl writes semi-autobiographical first novel, and that autobiographical aspect is the focus of most of the publicity. Boy does the same thing, and the personal relationship with the work is not made the focus to the same extent. It is his artistic achievement that is of interest. And it’s possible that men are better at setting up the parameters of the conversation when they are interviewed, and thus better at controlling publicity and public perception. Women are a bit better behaved on this front, in that they may try to answer questions honestly, or give the journalist what they need. This can be to their detriment, I think. Being nice is very overrated.

Have you heard of the Finkbeiner test? I only read about it today. It summed up the situation quite nicely, though it’s ostensibly about scientists:To pass the Finkbeiner test, an article about a female scientist must not mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

Do you have any pitching tips or general advice to offer to women writers?

On pitching: see it as a job. Pitch regularly, professionally and don’t take rejection personally. Don’t expect endless engagement with the editor and publisher – you’re basically on your own, even if the commission is accepted (of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this).

However, you must also feel able to be assertive if the editor or publisher’s expectations become unreasonable (or they want you to work for free). As an extension of not taking things personally, you can’t get personal if things get sticky. No matter how much intimate feelings like creativity and connection come into play as you work, your mantra must remain ‘It’s a job’.

Kill Your Darlings is the Pitch, Bitch media partner. Find out more about Pitch, Bitch at yeahpitchbitch.tumblr.com, and read our interview with founder Estelle Tang.




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