This is a challenge born of something approaching despair.
Last year, VIDA in the US released its survey of publishing data which showed exactly what anyone with half a brain already knew: dire levels of representation of women at all levels; the number of books by women that got reviewed, the number of female reviewers and book page editors, and women in senior positions in the industry.
Throughout 2011, more and more incidents came to prominence (as if inequality was a new thing!) including the lack of women writers on a number of key literary prize judging panels and shortlists.
My personal favourite moment was when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer, and the LA Times reported instead that Jonathan Franzen had lost the Pulitzer, and ran his photo on the front page – not the winner’s. Laugh? I nearly…
Of course, this is not unique to writing and publishing. Like nursing, librarianship and education, it’s a field in which the majority (which happens to be female) are dominated by a minority, with males traditionally taking positions in management in publishing, libraries, writing courses, festivals and writers’ centres (although the normally rowdy community is often strangely silent on those last two categories, I notice).
That’s not to diminish the many amazing women in positions of power in the writing world. It’s just a thing.
But unlike those fields, something unique and profound is also afoot, because the issue is also about how literary worth is assessed: which issues, what settings, language, topics and characters make up the sort of books that win prizes. It’s about our culture.
I won’t bang on about it: others have already done so very eloquently, and anyway it seems like the kind of no-brainer thing most of us have been saying since 1975. Or since we could speak.
But what to do?
Short of coming over all Emma Goldman (and don’t tempt me), here’s one wee thing we can all do, no matter what our gender: make 2012 the year you read a few good books written by Australian women.
The challenge has been issued. It runs as follows:
Goal: Read and review books written by Australian women writers – hard copies, ebooks and audiobooks, new, borrowed or stumbled upon.
- Purist: one genre only
- Dabbler: more than one genre
- Devoted eclectic: as many genres as you can find
- Stella (read 3 and review at least 2 books)
- Miles (read 6 and review at least 3
- Franklin-fantastic (read 10 and review at least 4 books)
You can read more about it here.
I’m going to undertake the devoted eclectic challenge (of course, because that’s how we roll here, at the best of times), and at least the Miles level.
I’m not sure of all the books I’ll read yet, because there are some beauties coming out, but the first few are:
Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis, by Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi
Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden, by Kate Llewellyn
Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short
And no doubt I’ll read some YA titles, including the forthcoming:
- Queen of the Night, by Leanne Hall
- The Howling Boy, by Cath Crowley
- Pulchritude (or whatever it ends up being called) by Fiona Wood.