Earlier this year, in Sydney, the shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award was announced- and suddenly, my Twitter account was on fire. It was perhaps one of the shortest shortlists ever, including only three books and overwhelmingly, without a woman’s name to any of them. The response from the online literary community was near-immediate, with one contributor to the Melbourne-based Kill Your Darlings blog referring to the list as a literary ‘sausage-fest.’ It is the second time in three years that the shortlist has been devoid of female writers, according the Meanjin blog ‘Spike’, leaving the blogger wondering if we still see our quintessential Australian experience as being a rural male one.
While there has not been any deliberate attempt to serve an ‘anti-female agenda’ in this short-list or the 2009 one, many critics are left scratching their heads.
As a young woman with lofty aspirations to one day win the award myself (perhaps even multiple times), I am left wondering who my own role models are. A scan of my shelves provides the answer. I can list perhaps only a handful of women writers still writing today that I’ve paid attention to. This is worrying. And perhaps it is a condition shared by many others like me; readers who have admired the Austens and the Brontes and the Whartons and the Plaths and the Alcotts, but have ignored those newcomers who deserve our attention.
So who are the contemporary women writers who warrant a place in our waning collective attention-spans? Does women’s writing still suffer from pigeonholing? Why do some people think that women write only for women readers, and men write for all?
Walk into any creative writing class (or literature class for that matter) and the presence will overwhelmingly be female- or at least, this has been my experience. Where do they go after graduation? (Is there a sequestered island somewhere for women writers? And if so, why haven’t I received my invitation?) There is no simple answer to this question, and no logical explanation that I can see. Does it boil down to the fact that we really are still living in a man’s world, at least when it comes to our conception of ‘literature?’
If you’re a woman writing today, you’re more likely to publish within four genres: romance, ‘chick lit’, mystery/crime or speculative fiction. The assumption seems to be that if you’re a woman writing, you’re writing about women’s concerns- something that will only interest other women. Moreover, you’d be most likely to write about WASPy twenty or thirty-somethings who just want to have a baby. (Thank you, Bridget Jones.) In 2010, I was lucky enough to see a panel at the Perth Writer’s Festival entitled ‘Escaping the Pigeonhole’ in which my eyes were opened by three very inspirational women. Local writer Liz Byrski defies the idea that books need to be about young people- and she does it with style; Dr. Anita Heiss challenges the white domination of the genre with her “deadly” indigenous heroines; Sara Foster’s books integrate marriage and child-raising with reality, albeit through her compelling mixture of crime and ‘chick lit.’ While each of these women are inspiring in their personal lives, and have certainly made some success for themselves as writers, I challenge you to find a man out there who would list himself as a fan. To quote another ‘chick lit’ writer, Lisa Heidke, “[A fellow writer] exasperated that I was sticking with the novel idea, asked me why I was writing chick lit. ‘You should write a real novel.’ And a real novel would be?”
Speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy, for those not in the know) seems to be a much more forgiving genre, but if you thought that it was free of gendered concerns, you were wrong. Many authors revert to using androgynous sounding nom de plumes in order not to discourage male readers from picking up their books. To quote one reader it “took me ages to click with the fact that Robin Hobb is a woman!” Ever wondered why J.K. Rowling didn’t publish as Joanne? It happens in the crime genre too, although nowhere near as much. (Heard of P.D. James?)
It’s all so very... backwards. One is inspired to think of the Bronte sisters publishing as Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell, or Jane Austen publishing simply as ‘an author.’ There’s got to be more than this. There’s got to be more to it than write for women, or write as a man.
We’re heading that way already. Think of the Lionel Shrivers of the world, the Donna Tartts, and the Alice Sebolds. But until we no longer need to make a distinction for ‘women’s writing’, until we no longer need panels about escaping the pigeonhole, and until woman writers stop feeling the need to conceal their gender, we’re not there.
If you’re hearing me, raise your glass. No, better yet, raise your pen, and get scribbling. Be a Melina Marchetta, or a Honey Brown, or a Kirsten Tranter (or a Helen Garner, or a Helen Oyeyemi, or a Jhumpa Lahiri.) And who knows? Maybe you’ll make the shortlist one day.
Because, after all, an all-sausage barbeque is no fun.
She is indebted to Shaneyah Galley, Christopher Grierson, Elisa Thompson, Kash Jones and Deblina Mittra for their help with this article.
AND CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING
Killings, The Kill Your Darlings Blog
Southerly's July Guess Blogger
The coverage on this issue in the Meanjin blog, Spike, is also pretty great but I can't find the exact article that I was thinking of... so here's a similar one.
And finally, Lisa Heidke:
This article originally appeared in Murdoch University's Metior Magazine during Semester 1, 2011