Is it a Woman’s World After All?

The underrepresentation of women writers was one of the big topics of 2011. Australian novelist Kirsten Tranter wrote about it for us on International Women’s Day (8 March) last year, pointing out the skewed gender balance in Australian literary coverage. Presciently, she also argued that women are less recognised by our major awards – which was to become a major issue the following month when the Miles Franklin (which Tranter was longlisted for, for The Legacy) announced an all-male shortlist.

Recently, in a Salon article archly titled, ‘The agony of the male novelist’, ‘midlist’ writer Teddy Wayne argued that complaints about lack of recognition by bestselling novelists like Jennifer Weiner – who has been one of the loudest voices in the US gender debate – were ‘missing the point’.

‘For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.’

Women, he wrote, buy around two thirds of all books and 80% of fiction. They are also far more likely to belong to book groups, which not only drive immediate sales, but are an effective way to spread word-of-mouth. This, says Wayne, increasingly translates when it comes to sales – and publishing prospects.

We asked Sophie Cunningham, novelist (Geography, Bird), former publisher and chair of the Stella Prize committee, what she thought about the claim that women writers sell better than men, though they may not attract the same level of recognition. Cunningham said that in her experience, male writers seem to be better at creating ‘that kind of persona’ around them that helps to attract public attention and thus sell books. However, she’s careful to emphasise that her experience is limited to literary fiction – and she reports hearing from commercial publishers that it’s a different scenario for them. She hears that female commercial authors do ‘at least as well’ as their male counterparts financially, even when they receive little or no coverage.

The book club factor

The CAE has run book clubs across Victoria for decades, providing book lists, reading notes, and even lending out sets of books. We asked program manager Samarra Hyde if it was true that book clubs (which are mostly women) read mostly women writers. The answer seems to be yes. ‘In general, we try to program a range of titles for the main program – both male and female authors,’ she said. ‘But it really comes down to books that we think will be suitable for the list. Over the past four years we have programmed more than double the number of female authors than male.’ Hyde says that out of their ten most popular titles for the year, just two are by male authors. Of the top 25, ten are by male authors. And of 115 new titles suggested for 2011 by the CAE’s groups, 44 were by male authors.

But when we look at two independent Victorian booksellers who run book club programs with a focus on literary novels, the gender divide is very different. The 11 books read by Avenue Bookstore clubs over the past year included six books by men and five by women. At Readings, a look back at the past three years of book group picks reveals a similar story, with an average of six women writers to every five males.

Who gets published?

Wayne believes that it is harder for mid-list male novelists to be published in the first place. He says a ‘book-editor friend’ confided to him, ‘When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real chance.’

Aviva Tuffield, fiction publisher at Scribe Publications (which publishes both literary and commercial fiction), says ‘whether the novel is for women or men doesn’t really come into the equation at all. What matters is: do I love this book?’ She says that if a book is written well enough and the story is strong enough, then ‘I’d assume it will cross over and find readers of both sexes’. For instance, one of Scribe’s most popular books last year was Chris Womersley’s novel Bereft, which appeals equally to men and women. ‘And it’s not a novel of domestic life'.

Chris Flynn, books editor of The Big Issue, has a good overview of new release fiction slated for 2012 and his own first novel, A Tiger in Eden, will be published Text in March. ‘I have noticed that established authors – like Peter Carey and Murray Bail – aside, I seem to be almost the only Australian male fiction author to have a book out this year,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if publishers feel they’re taking a chance on debut novels by men, or if it’s just the case that there aren’t many blokes coming through at the moment, but it does strike me as a little odd to be on my own, pretty much.’

John Hunter, publisher at University of Queensland Press, says, ‘I have never, as a publisher, editor, or reader, paid the slightest bit of notice to the sex of an author.’ However, he says that ‘the general gist’ of Wayne’s article is ‘pretty accurate’.

‘If you want to talk about the literature machine and the kinds of books it produces and honours then you cannot ignore the broader picture. And that, by and large, is a system run by women for women.’

Uptown girls?

Wayne says that arguing about the very upper echelon of coverage concerning the top one percent of writers (as Weiner recently has) amounts to ‘‘uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all’. He says Weiner – blessed with her enviable sales record – shouldn’t complain.

Does he have a point? ‘Publishing’s an “uptown” industry,’ says Sophie Cunningham. “Of course writers want to be taken seriously. I understand that. Dismissing feminist concerns as middle-class is a pretty standard way of dismissing those concerns.’