There has been much talk in book-ish circles here in Australia recently about the place of women in the publishing industry – as writers, reviewers and readers. One event which has helped spark discussion was the announcement of the 8 books (one from each state in the country) chosen in a public vote to represent ‘Our Story’ for the country’s national year of reading and the fact that only one of them is by a woman. This fact has been discussed in disparate snippets in the press and and radio but this Crikey piece gives a fairly balanced take on the complicated issue. The response by organisers of the National Year of Reading to any criticism is, not unreasonably, that the voting was open to the general public. However they’ve been far less forthcoming about how the shortlists were chosen (shadowy ‘independent panels’ were involved) and there were 48 books on the shortlist (6 for each state) and only 18 of those were by women.
Another factor prompting discussion of this issue was the release of a second year’s worth of figures from the US showing the percentage of books written by women being reviewed in the media and also delving into the gender of the reviewers themselves. Locally the ABC’s new daily Books & Arts show took a look at the Australian perspective on this subject last week with a lively discussion between Monica Dux (board member of the new Stella Prize), Jason Steger (The Age literary editor) and Linda Leith (a Canadian writer and publisher). The discussion went for about 20 minutes and is a good one if you are interested in this subject, and the Australian version of the US figures also make for interesting reading.
Of course it could be a coincidence but surely mine are not the only eyebrows to have raised at the announcement of this year’s Miles Franklin Award longlist. The Awards’ historical domination by male authors, including an all-male shortlist last year, was part of the impetus for the establishment of the Stella Prize (an annual prize for Australian women’s writing) but this year its longlist of 11 books contains 6 books by female authors! I am, of course, a crusty old cynic but I can’t help wondering if the Miles Franklin people haven’t been tempted to take the wind out of the sales of the Stella people.
Or it could be that all the discussion of this issue over the past year or so has made everyone, including the judges, more award of author gender as an issue which in turn has had an impact on their thinking. Much of the commentary about this issue has revolved around the idea that the bias towards male authors in many spheres of reading is the result mostly of unconscious biases in all of us so the mere fact of raising awareness of this issue must be having an impact. Surely?
And if you’re worried that you might be suffering an unconscious bias of your own why not join the Australian Women Writers reading and reviewing challenge? It can be as easy or as arduous as you choose and it’s a good way to motivate yourself to read books you might not otherwise read.