Five years and 96 books later (thoughts on the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

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The Australian Women Writers Challenge was born five years ago out of a frustration that books written by women are not taken as seriously as those written by men. Not reviewed as much. Not awarded as often and so on. Rather than whine about this state of affairs Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede decided on a positive course of action: to challenge herself and others to read and review books by Australian women.

I’ve been participating as a reader & reviewer since the beginning of the Challenge and as helper responsible for things criminal for the last four years. For the past few months Elizabeth and all the members of the team that wrangles the Challenge have been discussing its future. Should it continue? If so, in what form? Do we need to shake things up? Has the Challenge had any impact? There will be more to come on some of these questions (though in case you are wondering the Challenge is definitely continuing in 2017, you can sign up now) but it feels like the right time for me to take personal stock too.

Counting

Numerically speaking my own reading habits have clearly been impacted by my participation in the Challenge. In the five years preceding this Challenge I read a total of 56 books by Australian women whereas in the first five years of the Challenge I’ve read 96 books written by Australian women. In percentage terms the difference is more stark (9% versus 19%) because I’ve read less books in total over the past five years than I did during the five years beforehand. As a chart lover of long standing I feel the need to express this distinction visually

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Spreading out

I have read and enjoyed some books I would not otherwise have looked at. Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE is one that sticks in my mind. I had ignored it because the bookshop copies all had a giant “recommended by the Australian Women’s’ Weekly” stamp on the cover and that turned me off completely. I don’t read that magazine even at the hairdresser’s and loathe gender-based marketing. But the Challenge prompted me to give it a go and I thought the book so great I went on to read everything else Wendy James has written and am eagerly awaiting her 2017 release. I’ve tried out other authors too that I would likely not have bothered with if it weren’t for the Challenge. Some of them aren’t even crime writers such as Favel Parrett, Caroline Overington and Romy Ash.

Here are links to each year’s reviews I’ve posted for the Challenge

The bigger picture

Regardless of how much richer my own reading might be thanks to the Challenge I am probably more interested in whether anything anything is different in the wider world. Alas it’s hard to know (though there is some data  analysis coming from an AWW intern so I may revisit this question).

I could choose to be buoyed by the fact that over the past five years the country’s most prestigious literary prize has been won by female authors four times (in the preceding 10 years it had only been won twice by women writers). Though of course there is no evidence of a causal link between the Challenge and this fact. The creation of the Stella Prize in 2013  cannot be ignored as a factor. Nor can coincidence.

But I could also choose to be saddened that Challenge participants are still, by and large, women. I can’t do actual percentages because I don’t know for sure the gender of all the people who sign up or post reviews. However as someone who regularly peruses all the reviews posted by participants and an administrator of the Challenge’s new Facebook group for readers I’m pretty confident in saying that more than 90% of the people taking part in this Challenge are women. Some men try and can’t do it as this brave admission by Sydney bookseller Jon Page attests to (hey at least he tried). It seems there is a long way to go in getting men to accept that women writers have as much to offer as the blokes. Sigh.

I don’t think I can sensibly comment on whether the Challenge has had an impact on the quantity or quality of reviews of works by Australian women writers in mainstream publications as I just don’t have enough data to go on. And so many other factors must surely be influencing what data there is given changes in the media landscape over recent years. Hard to publish a review in a publication that no longer exists. I do have to say that the quality of reviewing amongst challenge participants varies greatly. There is a lot of enthusiasm but as a reader looking for a way to find good books to read I generally want more than plot synopses and gushing. That said, I’ve come across some reliably good reviewers over the course of the Challenge which has helped guide my book choices. The blogs I look to for thoughtful reviews include

There are of course other people writing good reviews too but when I looked back over my bi-monthly wrap ups for the crime fiction/true crime genre these are the blogs that make multiple appearances.

Looking ahead

aww2017-badgeI’m going to keep on as a Challenge participant and co-host. I was sorely tempted to bow out on the basis that it’s not making much difference but that was a bit defeatist even for me (cynical old curmudgeon that I am). Our tireless founder is gathering new blood in the hosting team and generating enthusiasm with behind the scenes changes and I decided this is one of those cases where it’s better to whine from inside the tent than outside it. Dammit I will find a way to get men reading crime fiction by Australian women writers.

In 2017 the Challenge is going to focus on classics in interesting ways. I’ll be looking to highlight classic crime fiction by Australian women writers and my first hurdle will be to get my hands on some (I do have a couple on hand but not nearly enough). Feel free to send me recommendations.

You can participate too

Do consider signing up even if you’ve never done a reading challenge before. You don’t need to have a blog or Goodreads account and the Stella level of the Challenge only requires you to read 4 books. Easy peasy. For ideas of what to read, news and discussion about the Challenge

 

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14 Responses to Five years and 96 books later (thoughts on the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

  1. Thanks for a great wrap-up, Bernadette. So gad you decided to stick around with us a while yet – the challenge wouldn’t be the same without you. It’s interesting to see your stats over this period, too. Hope you find some excellent crime reading for #aww2017, old and new – and reviews worthy of your attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for recommending my reviews – I have a few more to add to the Challenge – and a few true crime sitting on my TBR to be read sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kathy d. says:

    Oh, this is really tough for readers in the States. I want to read more books by Australian women writers. Read Kim’s list at Reading Matters and want to read nearly every book from Oz, and many mysteries at Reading, Writing and Riesling.
    Await your best reads of 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So glad to hear you share my love for Wendy James’s work, Bernadette. Her 2017 release, ‘The Golden Child’, scared the hell out of me in the nicest possible way 😉

    I’m glad you’re persevering with the AWW Challenge. I read more Australian women writers than any other demographic; hopefully my reviewing with pick up once the PhD is behind me.

    Here’s wishing you a happy 2017, in life as in reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Best wishes for you in 2017 too Angela, especially with that PhD. Of course I’m being selfish there because the sooner you finish the sooner you might write something more for me to read 😉

      And I can’t wait to be scared by The Golden Child.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Bernadette, for sharing your thoughts on this. That chart you show tells it all, really. I’m not sure of the impact that the challenge has had, either (haven’t done the research), but I do know this. More people are reading more books by more Australian women authors than would be without the challenge. To me, that matters. I haven’t ‘officially’ taken part in the challenge before, but I know that I’ve paid a lot of attention to what bloggers I trust have said about different books they’re read for the challenge. And I’ve read them, too. So I’m glad you’re continuing being a part of it all. And – wait a minute – there’s a new Wendy James coming out this year? Now I must read it.

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  6. I hadn’t heard about this challenge before so will check out your lists of Australian women authors to try.
    I have a WorldReads post series on my blog where I reminisce about five books I’ve read from a particular country each month. I just popped back to see what I chose to represent Australia and, phew!, four of the five are women authors!
    http://stephjb.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/worldreads-five-books-from-australia.html

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    • That’s a nice idea for a series of posts Stephanie and I’m always pleased to see people reading books by Aussie women, regardless of whether they’re part of the challenge or not. That Tracy Farr book you highlight is a favourite book of a friend of mine who is a musician – she’s always trying to get me to read it but I have a tin ear and somehow I can never find a way past the first few pages.

      Like

  7. kathy d. says:

    Thanks a lot. Will eagerly print out your “best of 2016” list and add titles to the TBR list. I only managed to read two books from that darned pile.
    Have a great year, reading and otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. tracybham says:

    I echo Kathy D’s comment that this is tough for readers in the US. But, I have checked your lists and I have checked my book catalog, and I do have more books by Australian women authors than I realized, plus at least one I plan to buy anyway. I wasn’t going to add another challenge because I don’t follow up as well as I should but I will add this one, because it will remind me that I want to read these authors. The authors I plan to read are: Sulari Gentill, Kathryn Fox, June Wright, Angela Savage, Kerry Greenwood. I have signed up to follow email and get the newsletter, and I will do a sign up post in January.

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