New Australian Fiction Prize for Women
The Australian literary world has been abuzz today with the news that former Meanjin Editor Sophie Cunningham, along with Kerryn Goldsworthy and Kirsten Tranter, are looking to establish a prize for women’s fiction, along the lines of the U.K.’s Orange Prize.
I spoke to Sophie earlier today about the risks and rewards of setting up a prize just for women, and the underlying biases against women’s writing in Australia and the world.
Zora Sanders: Do you think there’s a risk that a women’s writing prize could in some ways ghettoise women’s writing, making it almost easier to ignore? The Orange Prize in the UK has avoided that, but do you think it’s a risk for a new prize?
Sophie Cunningham: It would be harder to ignore women’s writing more than it has been in recent years, I think! I also think it’s a good sign that the Orange Prize has avoided that accusation by and large and it is a new prize, really. It only started in 1996.
Inevitably people will express that concern, but I genuinely don’t share it. I feel that it’s more of a risk to do nothing. As I said in the Guardian article, sexism is ingrained in the arts industry (and many others). It is, unfortunately, necessary to find ways to draw the public’s attention to the work of women writers. I’d like to quote Alison Croggon on the subject – she expresses this better than me – ‘A world loaded in favour of one sex accounts for the pyramidal structure of gender. At the wide bottom of the writing world – the world of amateur writers on the internet, for instance – women, if anything, dominate. The closer you get to the top, the fewer women there are. And at the very top, as in this year’s Miles Franklin, the presence of women is an exception. What to do about it? One thing is certain: passively assuming women are equal and will gradually work their way to equal status doesn’t work. We need some different tools.’
This notion of needing different tools is behind our desire to set up the award.
I do find it interesting that people who would argue (correctly) that you can’t deny climate change because we have a few cool days in a row, or it’s been raining in Victoria this year – that is, who say you have to look at long term trends, are more than happy to say that it’s just been a bad year for women’s writing in the years in you which women are excluded. But I would say that while you can argue the toss about any given year you can’t argue with decades of systematic exclusion.
ZS: Is part of the problem perhaps that the type of fiction we consider ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ often revolves around men and men’s stories? Is there a bias against genre at work as well?
SC: I think that’s EXACTLY the problem. Couldn’t have put it better. Also, when men write novels drawn from life, it is still seen as literary, and serious, but these qualities in a work are used to dismiss books by women. And, when Alex Miller writes a deeply romantic novel, like Conditions of Faith, for example, it’s seen as literary, and when a women writes a similar novel (priests, longing, sex, France etc) it’s seen as a ‘romance’.
ZS: It seems to me that much of the problem is the internalised, almost unconscious bias against women’s writing that both men and women seem to be affected by. How do we start to address the impulse that automatically discounts a book as ‘serious’ when we see a woman’s name on the cover?
SC: You’ve put your finger on the problem. It is nebulous. It’s not easily solved. And I certainly agree that women share this bias with men, as well as being the victim of it. I think that making an effort to include more books my women on educational syllabi would help. as Louise Swinn pointed out in a panel we did together a couple of months ago that touched on this subject, there are a series of seminars, running over the next few months, on VCE English texts. Of 15 set texts discussed, only two of these were by women. “These are kids going through school and this is what they’re reading,” she said. “And then we tell the girls that their voices are just as worthwhile.”
And, I suppose, as this prize makes obvious, I think we all need to be proactive. Publishers have to stop insisting on twee covers for women’s books (have you read the Lionel Schriver article on this subject? ). Literary editors need to review more books by women and publish more reviews written by women. We all need to find ways to continue to advocate for women’s voices, in the face of ongoing marginalisation. And, to get back to your original question, to ignore the inevitable suggestion that to advocate in this way is tokenism.
You can read more about the proposed prize at the Guardian.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
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- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
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- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
05 May 11 at 15:10
I find chick lit covers one of the most insulting things ever. I refuse to buy them, yet there are probably interesting, worthy female writers under there, covered in a pale pink cartoon picture of a woman in high heels with oversized sunglasses, drinking a cocktail.
Also, this prize is a wonderful idea. Go Sophie....
05 May 11 at 15:18
Amazing that the subject is getting no traction in the Australian media but has been covered in the UK, US and online....
05 May 11 at 15:31
I keep coming back to the idea that the women’s revolution must become school curriculum along with the French, Russian, Industrial, etc.
A most excellent development and I look forward to the unfolding....
05 May 11 at 15:40
Those are all good points, and I completely agree about the covers. Did you see the awful one poor Lionel got for her last book? It looked like some trashy beach novel. Just awful.
And I think the point about starting this stuff in schools is really, really important....
05 May 11 at 15:52
Great idea. I’ve never understood why writing by women is not seen as “serious” as writing by men. Look forward to seeing how the prize unfolds (& may it court much controversy to get women’s writing in the headlines where it belongs)....
05 May 11 at 15:54
There are a couple of things going on here, I think: firstly, this situation is an extension of what Susan Sheridan talked about in the 1980s in relation to the 1890s: a long-held association of “Australianness” with masculinity, and also with a set of judgements about what Sheridan says “formed a scarcely noticeable sediment of common sense about what constitutes literary value” – that is, realism (as opposed to romance) and vernacular or folk (as opposed to popular or commercial). So women romance writers, wonderful writers who were very popular at the time (Ada Cambridge, Tasma, Rosa Praed) get left out of the national tradition in favour of male “realist” writers Lawson, Boldrewood, Kingsley etc (even though half of them were writing in modes of romance adventure). That association between masculinity, genre and nationhood seems to be hanging on.
Also, with the twee covers etc, long-held assumptions about women readers as frivolous, passive, easily influenced seem to be lurking around here.
It’s a bit depressing, really – just goes to show that despite several decades of feminists and literary critics talking about this stuff, it persists in the broader literary culture…...
05 May 11 at 16:25
Fantastic comment, Julieanne. I would love to hear more about some of those forgotten female writers....
09 May 11 at 18:34
@Amber – This is so true. Melissa Bank is one of my favourite writers. Yet somewhere along the way, her publishers decided that in order to sell her books, they needed to cover them with the kinds of illustrations you find in Christmas stocking books about fashion and shoes....
27 Nov 11 at 17:20
Thanks Zora and Sophie for an illuminating discussion.
I’m trawling through the archives for the gender debate for a 2012 National Year of Reading reviewing challenge. It’s great to find this discussion, especially Zora your questions regarding the importance of genre in the gender bias debate, Sophie’s replies and the thoughtful comments by Julieanne Lamond and others, as well as the extensive reference to Alison Croggan’s article.
Recently I set up the new Facebook page supporting Australian Women Writers, and I’m now in the process of launching a companion website. As part of the background, I’ve been trawling through blogs and reviews for the year and I’m discouraged to report that while literary works may be receiving front-page attention, novels by women writers of romance (no surprise there) and crime (? after Peter Temple’s Miles Franklin win with Truth, this does surprise me) continue to be overlooked for review. Fantasy, kids books, cooking books, the odd memoir and nonfiction – as well as books where the author has “star” quality looks or a media background – seem to be doing okay.
I agree, however, genre is crucial to this debate and more discussion is needed about women readers and reviewers and either a shyness in “outing” (and validating) their reading tastes or an examination of the process of internalised misogyny....