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Kill Your Darlings, No. 6

A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests and Dreams of a Common Language

Photo: Carla Gottgens. Courtesy of Melbourne Writers Festival

This has been an an essay which has kept writing – and rewriting – itself. I was approached by Rebecca Starford about it after she chaired a panel I appeared in, discussing the under-representation of women in print. That panel was organised by Melbourne independent bookshop Readings, on International Women’s Day. Preparing for it, and the writing of this essay, led me to a sense of real despair. I have been having versions of these conversations for some 30 years and here I was, yet again, publicly bemoaning the treatment of women. The parameters of the debate never change. In fact, I think they’re getting worse. Writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy captured the feeling many women have about the repetition inherent in these kinds of debates on her blog, Still Life With Cat, back in April 2009:

I am supposed to be a grown-up, and because I made a promise, I’m not buying into the question of the literary stag night 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award all-male shortlist beyond offering the odd brief neutral fact in other people’s comments threads, and observing here, because I really cannot help myself, that if what spokesjudge Morag Fraser says is true and the judges did not realise what they had done until their shortlist was already set in stone, then the gender-blindness we thought we had diagnosed and exposed by about 1985 is actually still as bad as it ever was, even at these upper levels of cultural and intellectual endeavour … the howling restraint is making my ears bleed.

Howling restraint is, indeed, stressful. Because here’s the thing that makes this subject really hard to write about. Disinterest in women – the overlooking of them, the walking out of the room without noticing their exclusion, the disavowal of them, the occasional hatred of them – is a profound and deep problem. It does not only affect women in publishing; it affects women in every industry, and women who work at home. Here are a few statistics quoted by Annie Lennox on International Women’s Day this year:

Across the globe, gender-based violence causes more deaths and disabilities among women of childbearing age than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. Even in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s safer to be a soldier than a woman. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work for a paltry 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own just 1 per cent of the means of production. Until recently, in the British Parliament, there were more men called David and Nick than female MPs… Of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide, the vast majority are female.

Closer to home – and, I concede, less life threateningly – publishing is a predominantly female industry (62 per cent) yet most senior positions are held by men. That is, according to The Bloom Report in 2007, 68 per cent of men who work in the industry earn more than $100,000 as opposed to 32 per cent of the women.

The shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award in 2011 was announced after I’d first drafted this essay. It is an all-male one, just as it was in 2009 when Goldsworthy wrote the post I quoted above. Literary blogger Angela Meyer dubbed the 2009 award, somewhat memorably, as a ‘sausage fest’. This year Benjamin Law has coined the fairly wonderful term ‘cock-forest’.

The question I had back in 2009 was whether the judges (Robert Dixon, Morag Fraser, Lesley McKay, Regina Sutton and Murray Waldren) were really suggesting that not a single one of the following female writers, who all had a book published in that year, deserved a shortlisting: Michelle de Kretser, Helen Garner, Amanda Lohrey, Joan London, Kate Grenville. And that’s just to mention the women who didn’t make the longlist. Several did, which meant, presumably, that the judges liked them. Those writers were Toni Jordan, Claire Thomas and Sofie Laguna. When announcing the list, Morag Fraser said she and her fellow judges had ‘walked out of our two-hour shortlist meeting without realising what we had done’. She went on to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can draw no conclusions from it.’

But I did draw conclusions. I drew them in 2009 and again in 2011. Women continue to be marginalised in our culture. Their words are deemed less interesting, less knowledgeable, less well-formed, less worldly and less worthy. The statistics are – in this humiliating and distressing matter – on my side. Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won 13 times. Four times this woman was Thea Astley, but twice she shared the award. Since 2001 two women have won, from the pool of 10 awards.

Let’s do a brisk jog through the statistics for the winners of the fiction prize component of other major awards: the Queensland Premier’s Prize has been won by a woman four out of 12 times, The Age Book of the Year Award 14 out of 36 times, the NSW Premier’s Award 11 out of 31 times, the Victorian Premier’s Award eight out of 26 times. In contrast, the WA Premier’s Award has been awarded to women more often than men – eight out of 14 times. I find it interesting that people who would argue (correctly) that you can’t deny climate change because we have a few cool days in a row, or it’s been raining in Victoria this year – that is, who argue you have to look at long-term trends – are more than happy to say that it’s just been a bad year for women’s writing. You can argue the toss about any given year; you can’t argue with decades of systematic exclusion.

The gender differential in every area of the literary world is shocking. Surveys consistently find women read more books than men, especially fiction. As Ian McEwan once put it, ‘when women stop reading, the novel will be dead’. But while men are buying around 20 per cent of the books, they are doing most of the reviewing of them, and the books they are reviewing are usually written by men. The latest interrogation of these figures in Australia has been triggered by a survey undertaken by the American organisation VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, which was set up ‘to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities’.

Readers may well be aware of those figures (taken from 2010) but here they are again: in The New York Times Book Review, 40 per cent of book reviewers were women and 35 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in The New Yorker, 22 per cent of book reviewers were women and 20 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in The Atlantic, 19 per cent of book reviewers were women and 23 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in Harpers, 18 per cent of book reviewers were women and 31 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in the London Review of Books, 22 per cent of book reviewers were women and 29 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in The Times Literary Supplement, 27 per cent of book reviewers were women and 24 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers; in The New York Review of Books, 16 per cent of book reviewers were women and 16 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers. And, just to throw another random figure into the mix, influential US trade magazine Publishers Weekly’s list of Top 10 Books of 2009 was all-male. When their attention was drawn to this statistic, Publishers Weekly’s response was uncannily close to that of the Miles Franklin judges: ‘We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration … We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz … It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.’

Australian literary pages fare slightly (but not much) better. At The Age, between 1 January and 22 May 2011, of 344 reviewed books, 204 were authored or edited by men and 140 by women (41 per cent). Two hundred and thirteen of those reviews were written by men and 131 by women (38 per cent). At The Australian 180 of 265 books reviewed were authored or edited by men and only 79 of those reviews were written by women (30 per cent). Over at Australian Book Review, 364 books were reviewed in 2010. Two hundred and six of those books were authored by men and 158 by women (43 per cent). The numbers of reviewers was fairly even. At Australian Literary Review, the stats are more damning. From 1 February to May 2011, 43 books were reviewed: 35 authored or edited by men and only 8 by women (18 per cent). Thirty-six of those reviewers were men and seven were women.

Literary journals tend to have more positive figures. Kill Your Darlings publishes more women (around 60 per cent) than men. Voiceworks, a magazine that publishes writers under 25, published 56 men and 77 women in 2010. That journal’s editor, Johannes Jakob, also told me that Voiceworks read their submissions blind, with no idea of name, gender or geography.

Much has been written in response to both VIDA’s figures and their Australian equivalents. Literary editors and journalists, such as Susan Wyndham from the Sydney Morning Herald and Jane Sullivan from The Age (who has herself acted as a judge for various literary awards) said they were thinking more carefully about their selection both of reviewers and books. ‘We need more factual information like the VIDA survey,’ Sullivan wrote in her column earlier in the year. ‘We need honest, heartfelt responses from editors, not just defensive talk about “important books”. We need soul-searching. We need new definitions about what matters to us in reading.’ During a segment that Radio National’s The Book Show ran on the topic, The Age’s literary editor Jason Steger made the point that if gender bias existed, it wasn’t a conspiracy theory. Stephen Romei, the former editor of ALR and current literary editor at The Australian, agreed that gender was an issue, but made the point that women were not assertive when it came to offering themselves up as reviewers. Steger and Wyndham both agreed that was a factor – as, indeed, do I. All three pointed out that they receive more pitches from men than women.

Photo: Carla Gottgens. Courtesy of Melbourne Writers Festival

At the panel that triggered this essay, 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. She also quoted Alizah Salario: ‘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).’

On the same panel I made a similar point. When I used to edit the literary journal Meanjin, I published roughly equal numbers of men and women, but women were more diffident about taking on commissions and pushing for work. It’s a problem and one women need to take responsibility for. Monica Dux, another panelist, stated, ‘Writing is, by its nature, very much about confidence … You just need to be persistent and push.’

Confidence is just one of the issues that work against women’s full representation in our writing culture. Another issue is that it is harder for women’s work to be considered literary or taken seriously. My experience, as both a publisher and a novelist, has been that when men write novels drawn from life, it is still considered a ‘proper’ novel (as it should be), but that these qualities in a work are used to dismiss books by women. As well, women’s books are often seen as generic (chick lit) when men’s are not. So, for example, when Alex Miller writes a wonderfully romantic novel, such as Conditions of Faith (2000), it’s seen as literary. But if a woman covers similar territory – longing, forbidden sex, exotic locations – this is called a ‘romance’. Here is Benjamin Law on this subject on the ABC’s online opinion site The Drum:

When I used to work as a music writer, I can’t tell you the amount of times I heard music festival organisers, managers, publicists, musicians and punters – men and women – telling me they didn’t actually like the sound of a woman singing. (Sounds too much like nagging, I suppose.) In the book world, I’ve also heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the ‘big picture’ enough, as families or interior lives aren’t part of something panoramic and worldly.

Bestselling writer Jodi Picoult recently raised this issue when she talked about the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom compared to those of many female writers (though her argument is complicated by the fact that she is also discussing the dismissal of genre writing, and indeed, by the fact that Freedom is an extremely good novel). ‘The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author,’ Picoult wrote in The Guardian in April 2010. ‘I’m not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction). How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors are ROUTINELY assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?’

Picoult’s point was underlined in, frankly, comic terms (in a ‘if you don’t laugh you’ll cry’ kind of way) when Jennifer Egan recently won America’s National Book Circle Prize for her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, only for the Los Angeles Times to run a photo of Franzen because he had not won the prize. (In response to the vocal outrage, the newspaper has since changed the photograph accompanying the online version of the announcement.)

What to do? The problems are nebulous and not easily solved. Women share this bias with men, as well as being the victim of it. Lizzie Skurnick, a contributor to the Huffington Post, described her experience on an awards panel like so:

‘I just want to say,’ I said as the meeting closed, ‘that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it’s disgusting.’ (I wasn’t built for the board room.) ‘But we can’t be doing it because we’re sexist,’ an estimable colleague replied huffily. ‘After all, we’re both men and women here.’

But that’s the problem with sexism. It doesn’t happen because people – male or female – think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man’s wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he’d be a better manager. It’s not that women shouldn’t be up for the big awards. It’s just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men … I don’t know … deserve them.

You can make it illegal for women to be beaten. You can make it illegal for them to be raped. But legislation can’t force men – or indeed women – to find the style in which women write, and the things that they write about, gripping or important. It can’t insist that women become more confident and assertive, though I would argue that the latter would be helped by a fuller representation of texts by women in our education system. As Swinn pointed out during our Readings panel, a series of seminars being run throughout 2011 on VCE English texts discusses 15 texts, only two of them written 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.’

After the announcement of the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist, Alison Croggon wrote on The Drum:

A world loaded in favour of one sex accounts for the pyramidal structure of gender. At the wide bottom of the writing world – the world of amateur writers on the internet, for instance – women, if anything, dominate. The closer you get to the top, the fewer women there are. And at the very top, as in this year’s Miles Franklin, the presence of women is an exception. What to do about it? One thing is certain: passively assuming women are equal and will gradually work their way to equal status doesn’t work. We need some different tools.

Jakob had some interesting questions on this exclusion of women over the course of the average writing career:

Does gender bias have more impact on older women’s publishing and prize-receiving experience because at a certain age publishers and judges expect them to be more mature or serious (i.e. man-mature, man-serious)? Or do they feel pressured to stop writing or pursuing writing professionally precisely because as women they’re not expected to write anything serious or important anymore? Does the culture pre-emptively cut women writers out?

Whatever the case, issues surrounding the economic and cultural rights of women are not being resolved by the free market. Affirmative action has been abandoned too soon. We need, to quote a friend with whom I discussed the retro politics inherent in activism, ‘to bring flares back’. We need to find ways to advocate for women’s voices in the face of their ongoing marginalisation. We need to ignore the inevitable suggestion that to advocate in this way is tokenism.

I’ve started a list of action that may help:

  • individual women need to push themselves out of their comfort zone
  • publishers have to stop insisting on twee covers for women’s books – a subject about which American novelist and critic

Lionel Shriver has written eloquently, notably in The Guardian in 2010

  • literary editors need to review more books by women and publish more reviews written by women

It is to keep working on that list that an (ever-expanding) group of us – one that includes Louise Swinn, Monica Dux, Jenny Niven, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Aviva Tuffield, Rebecca Starford, Jo Case, Kirsten Tranter, Christine Gordon, Susan Johnson and myself – have decided to set up an organisation that we are calling, for now, A Prize of One’s Own. One objective is to set up a prize that brings more readers to novels by Australian women, and respects and rewards the work of local women writers – much as the Orange Prize has done in the UK. We hope we can have the prize up by 2012, but it may be 2013. We’re talking to sponsors. At this stage it’s for just the one fiction prize – but that may change.

Yes, there are other prizes for women in Australia, such as the Barbara Jefferis Award, but that is for books that represent women in ‘a positive light’, whereas we believe women can and should and do write about all kinds of subjects and people – and they certainly don’t have to be nice. They may even, as a colleague on Twitter tweeted when this was being discussed, want to write about violent sluts – though the suggestion that we call the award Violent Sluts was promptly shelved. The prize has already received some publicity both in Australia and abroad (notably in The Guardian and The New Yorker), but it’s important to say we have plans over and above the award: to work as a lobby group for women in publishing, to set up mentorship schemes, and to undertake rigorous and current research on women in publishing.

There has been, inevitably, the suggestion that such an award is sexist or promotes tokenism. I don’t believe that to be true. Here is Benjamin Law again:

If you take [Anita] Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists … Perhaps the question isn’t, ‘Why should this award exist?’ but ‘Why the hell shouldn’t it exist?’ When I worked as a bookseller for five years, customers took notice of Orange Prize winners. People wanted to read them. Sales spiked and readers bought copies in bulk for their book clubs. The Orange Prize increased readership of writers like Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith, and reaffirmed the already-established careers of Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson.

We don’t accept the suggestion that women’s writing is inferior, either. And, instead of exercising howling restraint, we’ve chosen the path of joyful celebration, of action. As I’ve been working on this essay, lines from a poem by Adrienne Rich keep coming back to me, and that’s been a comfort, for it’s a love of words, really, that is informing the passion of this debate in the first place: ‘No one lives in this room / without confronting the whiteness of the wall / behind the poems, planks of books, / photographs of dead heroines. Without contemplating last and late / the true nature of poetry. The drive / to connect. The dream of a common language.’

Yes, what she said: the dream of a common language.



Sophie Cunningham has worked in publishing for 25 years. She is the author of two novels, Geography and Bird. Her non-fiction book Melbourne is due out in August.

See footage of Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Why We Still Need Feminism’ address here, filmed by Slow TV at Melbourne Writers Festival 2011.

‘A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests and Dreams of a Common Language’ appears in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings. Purchase the issue here.

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