A new committee is being set up to pursue equal rights for women writers in Australia. Besides research, lobbying and setting up mentorships, the committee is looking at establishing a literary prize for Australian women writers, along the lines of the UK’s Orange Prize. The steering committee (including novelist and publisher Sophie Cunningham, critic and former Miles Franklin judge Kerryn Goldsworthy and novelist Kirsten Tranter) feel the move is unfortunately, necessary, due to the unequal recognition of books by women in major literary award shortlists and in the book pages of the major newspapers in this country. Cunningham told the Guardian: ‘we would prefer it if this award didn’t have to exist – if writing by women was rewarded and valued on its own terms, with equal merit to the way that work written by men is.’ She said: ‘Women continue to be marginalised in our culture. Their words are deemed less interesting, less knowledgeable, less well formed, less worldly, and less worthy.’

Tranter brought my attention to the issue of women being underrepresented in the literary pages in an article for the Wheeler Centre blog in March.

The committee and prize are in their nascent stages, and I will be talking to members of the committee in coming months, once their plans have solidified. Cunningham is currently working on an article on the issue for the June edition of literary journal Kill Your Darlings, so keep an eye out for that. She has also answered some questions over at the Meanjin blog, Spike. I hope they don’t mind me quoting at length, because I think these points get to the kernel of the issue:

Zora Sanders: Is part of the problem perhaps that the type of fiction we consider ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ often revolves around men and men’s stories? Is there a bias against genre at work as well?

Sophie Cunningham:I think that’s EXACTLY the problem. Couldn’t have put it better. Also, when men write novels drawn from life, it is still seen as literary, and serious, but these qualities in a work are used to dismiss books by women. And, when Alex Miller writes a deeply romantic novel, like Conditions of Faith, for example, it’s seen as literary, and when a women writes a similar novel (priests, longing, sex, France etc) it’s seen as a ‘romance’.

ZS: It seems to me that much of the problem is the internalised, almost unconscious bias against women’s writing that both men and women seem to be affected by. How do we start to address the impulse that automatically discounts a book as ‘serious’ when we see a woman’s name on the cover?

SC:You’ve put your finger on the problem. It is nebulous. It’s not easily solved. And I certainly agree that women share this bias with men, as well as being the victim of it. I think that making an effort to include more books my women on educational syllabi would help. as Louise Swinn pointed out in a panel we did together a couple of months ago that touched on this subject, there are a series of seminars, running over the next few months, on VCE English texts. Of 15 set texts discussed, only two of these were 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.”

And, I suppose, as this prize makes obvious, I think we all need to be proactive. Publishers have to stop insisting on twee covers for women’s books (have you read the Lionel Schriver article on this subject? ). Literary editors need to review more books by women and publish more reviews written by women. We all need to find ways to continue to advocate for women’s voices, in the face of ongoing marginalisation. And, to get back to your original question, to ignore the inevitable suggestion that to advocate in this way is tokenism.

There’s a fundamental issue here, of perception, which is then perpetuated on many levels (one of them inescapably being sales and marketing). A lot of men (and many women) might feel they are not ‘interested’ in the kinds of things women write about. But what they’re reporting on here, sometimes, is an ingrained cultural bias that says the day-to-day life, the worldview and concerns of women are 1. something that is homogenous and can be boxed, and 2. is not as fascinating as the worldview and concerns of men. And I’m not saying I’m free of this, either. We often read to recognise ourselves, but hopefully also out of curiosity for the lives of others. I think men (and again, many women) may not realise they will be able to do this in books by women – both recognise aspects of themselves, and become curious about another’s viewpoint, whether that be rendered through domestic, romantic, historical, futuristic or other modes. We can all try harder to fight this bias through reading and writing about books by women.

I remember when talking to Alex Miller about Conditions of Faith, which Cunningham rightly calls ‘deeply romantic’, he said that people often assumed it was written by a woman. Some people would ask him ‘how do you do it?’, amazed that a man can inhabit the voice of a woman so well. It’s because Miller has honed that curiosity and empathy, and is not afraid of delving into the life of a woman, in a fictional sense. In the same way, we can hone this curiosity and empathy. And, of course, women write some wonderful male characters. I’ve just finished The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, about aged actor Charles Arrowby. More on that soon (it’s one of my 20 classics for 2011).

I guess, at least, the book industry is slightly better off than the film industry. There are many books written and published by women – it’s just their perception for which we have to fight, their cultural relevancy and legitimacy. In the film industry, women fight for equality at all levels. Director Lynne Ramsay told the Guardian: ‘Let’s be clear – men don’t like having a woman on their back, and someone who is younger than them… they feel unmanned, manipulated, judged. Whereas if it is a man at the helm, they feel simply that they are being directed.’ Four films directed by women are up for the Palme d’Or this year (out of 20), and that’s a record.

To end this on something positive, I want to ask you: what are your favourite books by women? Have you read anything great lately? What about books by Australian female authors? Do you have any favourite female critics? Share the love. I’ll join in the comments or maybe do a whole post on some of my favourites if I get a chance. I’m also thinking next year’s reading project will be to read 20 books by women.

Other links:

Study finds huge gender imbalance in children’s literature

Links to articles on children’s books with strong, resourceful female characters

The Bechdel test (applicable to books and films)

Women writers in the 20th Century

100 best works by women writers[would love to see an Aus list like this]

Professions for women by Virginia Woolf

10 funniest women writers on the internet


Do read Benjamin Law’s wonderful article ‘A prize of one’s own: the case for an Aussie Orange’, which talks about gender bias in other areas of the arts too, ie. theatre and music.