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.
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
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
- Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (18 books)
- Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 (20 books)
- Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 (18 books)
- Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 (18 books)
- Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 (22 books) (Though one of my finished books is by a father/daughter writing duo so technically that only counts for half?)
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
- Reading Matters (Kim has read only Australian literature during 2016 and has 35 reviews of AWW authors for this year alone) (most of them aren’t about crime fiction but they’re worth reading anyway 😉)
- Reading, Writing and Riesling
- The Newtown Review of Books
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.
I’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
- follow @auswomenwriters on twitter and/or use the #aww2017 hashtag
- join the new Facebook group for lovers of books written by Australian women (it’s open to anyone because we figure if you’re not signed up to the Challenge when you join you soon will be when you hear about all the great books everyone is discovering)
- browse the Challenge’s searchable database of reviews (five years of review links and counting)
- join the AWW Goodreads group (you will need a goodreads account for this one)