Why Women Writers Get a Smaller Slice of Pie

On International Women’s Day last year, Australian novelist Kirsten Tranter wrote for us about the under-representation of women writers in the literary pages. A month later, the all-male Miles Franklin shortlist was announced – and shortly afterwards, a group of Australian women, including Kirsten, got together to propose a major national prize for women writers: The Stella Prize.

One year on, Kirsten looks back on what’s been happening since her initial report.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, this year celebrating its 101st birthday. So what do we have to celebrate, as women in the world of letters?

This time last year, women in the literary world were busily putting the question of gender inequality on the agenda. A US-based organisation dedicated to women in the literary arts, VIDA, had just published statistics that showed hard proof of gender disparity in literary publications. Displayed with stark graphic precision in the form of colour-coded pie charts, the results were surprising even to those of us who had always suspected that the situation wasn’t exactly equal. I wrote about these statistics last year on IWD, here on the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies.

Weeks later, as public discussion about similar patterns of gender bias in Australian literary pages was just gaining momentum, the Miles Franklin Literary Award published its controversial shortlist. This was not only the shortest shortlist in the award’s history, with just three authors; it was also comprised entirely of men – as it had been two years previously, in a list that inspired the term ‘sausagefest', coined by blogger Angela Meyer.

(My first novel, The Legacy, was one of three books by women included on the longlist and excluded from the shortlist of three.)

Miles Franklin was a woman

If you count the number of women who have won that award, and other literary prizes, you will discover that anyone who believes we are slowly making progress on this issue is sorely mistaken. After the shortlist announcement, author Sophie Cunningham pointed out in an essay in Kill Your Darlings that ‘since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won 13 times. Four times this woman was Thea Astley, but twice she shared the award. Since 2001 two women have won, from the pool of 10 awards.’

The Miles Franklin Award t-shirt with the slogan 'Australian authors do it better!' Only one of the eight winners listed is a woman.

The Miles Franklin Award t-shirt with the slogan 'Australian authors do it better!' Only one of the eight winners listed is a woman.

Is the Miles Franklin Award a prize that aspiring women writers can realistically expect to have shot at? Are we raising a generation of girls and young women who could be excused for not knowing that Miles was a woman, since the prize is so consistently won by men? If you’re proud of Australian writing, you might like to purchase a Miles Franklin t-shirt with the slogan ‘Australian authors do it better!’, against a list of eight winners of the award. Only one of them, Ruth Park, is a woman. Miles Franklin’s iconic, jaunty image in the centre of the design seems in this context like an unfunny joke. Five male winners on the list are alive. The only two women celebrated there are dead.

The shirt includes Miles Franklin’s ‘clever quote’: ’Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.’ This is true. This shirt inspires a need in me to tell the shirt’s designers that it is insulting.

A prize of our own

We will not stop complaining as long as the Miles Franklin judges and other major awards continue to treat women’s writing as less worthy, of less value, and less literary merit than men’s. But we are tired of waiting. We all know how much excellent writing there is out there by Australian women, and we want to celebrate it, to reward those writers, and to bring more readers to their work.

We need a prize of our own. Along with Sophie Cunningham, I am one of a group of women in the world of publishing and books who are now trying to get The Stella Prize off the ground: an award for an Australian woman writer, open to all genres (including fiction and non-fiction), which takes its name from Stella Miles Franklin. The Stella Prize is not a solution to the problems of gender disparity in the literary world, but it is one place to start.

VIDA: The horror, the horror

The new VIDA statistics for the year just passed are out, and the results are enough to make you cry into your small blue slice of pie. Or throw your pie against the wall, if you’re inclined to anger rather than despair. One publication seems to have shown signs of real improvement: Granta, the UK-based fiction quarterly. But the spike in the number of women authors in their pages appears to be based on just one issue, on feminism, that they published partly in response to the original VIDA numbers. Making this the most depressing form of tokenism, subsequent issues were a return to form: in their issue (on horror), three out of fourteen written contributors were women. The horror, the horror, indeed.

Some women writers, notably Emily Gould, have responded to the VIDA stats by arguing that women are not in these pages because perhaps they don’t want to be there; and that if we care so much about being published, we should start our own publications. It’s also possible that women are writing – and reviewing, and reviewing books by women – in places other than the top-tier publications surveyed by VIDA, such as the blogosphere, and that we should take this alternative world of letters more seriously. Blogger Elizabeth Lhuede started the Australian Women Writers blog in 2011 in response to the gender disparity in our books pages: there, you can join the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, and pledge to read and review a certain number of books by Australian women.

Not much improvement: the count in Australia

The numbers for Australian literary pages do not seem to be showing much sign of improvement in these terms either, even those edited by men and women who support the idea of gender equality and have been trying to actively recruit women reviewers. Journalist Stephen Murray has conducted his own comprehensive count of gender representation in Australian books pages, which he’ll publish soon. Particularly notable is the disparity in non-fiction, both in terms of the gender of reviewers and the authors reviewed.

My own experience of talking with editors has shown me how vital it is for women writers to pitch their ideas. Editors are inundated with calls and messages from writers with their eye on the lists of what’s coming out next month, pushing to review the things that interest them. This is the only way to get the number of women contributors up, I believe. Even editors who want to achieve a better balance will not change their ways unless we hassle them. If you’re looking for a way to celebrate International Women’s Day, pitching your idea for a review is one way that might really make a difference to the count for next year.

And join us at one of the many discussions sponsored by The Stella Prize around the country today, considering the question of whether women write differently than men.

In case you’re still sceptical about the level of full-on sexism out there in the literary world, read this 2011 interview with author V.S. Naipaul, who believes that they are ‘quite different’. He says, ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.’ We’ll be figuring out our own answers to that question.

And discussing ways of getting our pie-throwing skills up to scratch as well.

Today, the Wheeler Centre will be marking International Women’s Day with two free events.

At 12.45pm, The Stella Prize’s Christine Gordon will deliver this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic Feminism is Personal.

And at 7.15pm, conflict reporter Eliza Griswold will talk about her journeys through some of the world’s most fascinating and divided societies in The Tenth Parallel.

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