Saturday, 23 July 2011

Welcome to the Sausagefest

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.

Killings, The Kill Your Darlings Blog

Harry Potter

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

1 comment:

  1. As a male writer, it's difficult for me to truly know what it feels like to be in your position. I don't go out of my way to avoid female writers, there just haven't been a lot of books written by women that interest me. Of course, there's J.K. Rowling. And Dorothy Porter. And Cherie Priest. And a couple of really good new bizarro writers; Athena Villaverde and Kirsten Alene. After that, I'm at a bit of a loss. The thing is, most of those issues that female writers often write about, chick-lit, young adult, fantasy, that sort of stuff, I'm not hugely interested in.

    I guess on the other side of things, being a male writer, there's already so many of us guys being published, what's special about me? What gives me the edge over some other guy writing whatever the hell he wants? For me, I think gender is a huge part of things. Women's issues are always a hot-topic for debate. Sexism and feminism, there's just so many places to go with it. The downfall of this is that with you being a female writer, whatever you do will always be shadowed by your being a female writer. Making the awards shortlist would be a marvellous accomplishment for a female writer. You're doing well for a female writer. It sucks but you're always going to have that above your head. But then you might as well just go ahead and write what you want and accomplish as much as you can and let everyone else deal with all the gender politics.

    I guess what bugs me about being a male writer is the lack of expectations. The thing is that gender issues is the area that women deal with because they're the ones who are publicly contesting them. What I'd like to do is be able to tackle the gender politics from a guy's perspective. There's a sort of cultural construction that being a guy means life's just peachy. Guys don't have problems with being marginalised or excluded or talked about and examined, or have problems with feelings or talking or emotions. I like the idea that a woman can do something that challenges society's perception of her and it can be empowering. I'd like to be able to challenge society in that sort of way.

    Great article, by the way!


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