‘We only deconstruct that which does not suit us.’
—David J. Tacey, Meanjin, Summer 1990
Tegan Bennett Daylight, author of The Stella Prize shortlisted Six Bedrooms, recalls being taught by Drusilla Modjeska about women and literature at the University of Technology Sydney. She couldn’t quite grasp what the feminine in writing actually was—she knew was that she read more women than men, so she wrote letters to Helen Garner, Shirley Hazzard, Iris Murdoch and Toni Morrison. ‘It still seems madly ambitious, as it was, but I got replies from all of them except Morrison.’
Although she no longer has Garner’s response, Bennett Daylight feels Garner expressed that when her writing became forced, she knew she was trying to write like a man. Bennett Daylight also remembers Hazzard and Murdoch being frustrated with the idea that there may be a difference between men’s and women’s writing.
‘I understand this now,’ she says, ‘there’s a concern that’s still common about identifying one’s work as women’s writing. You spend years fighting for recognition, years writing and being recognised as a great writer next to male writers—why would you subscribe to the idea that you were doing something different? Murdoch and Hazzard were argued that they what they were doing was no different in that it was just as good, thank you very much.’
With these long-ago responses in mind, Bennett Daylight comes to a similar conclusion. ‘A woman’s voice is whatever the hell she wants it to be. A woman will write what she wants to write, and is capable, if her talent should match it, of tackling any subject. She doesn’t need to write about kitchens and bedrooms; she can write about war or cybernetics or anything she wants.’ The refusal to differentiate between women’s and men’s writing echoes to this day. ‘I’ve found in myself this same resistance to defining women’s writing and a woman’s voice, for fear of being reductive.’
Bennett Daylight nevertheless does not discount the value of women who have for so long documented the domestic; love, houses, children, food. ‘If I deny that this is true, I deny its importance. And it is important.’
These responses to my queries come in the form of a generous narrative; a clear, assured read. Bennett Daylight mentions Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a text which maintains relevance to this day. Woolf lamented that ‘football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’’. It seemed that the masculine always prevailed over the feminine. Feminine writing and masculine writing have their respective origins, and it is female writers who are reclaiming and validating the space of their own writing, which has been traditionally regarded as ‘feminine’. To do so, Daylight argues the origins of feminine writing must be given the recognition they deserve. ‘What you call a ‘female space’ is learning to properly respect this documenting of the domestic’.
Jennifer Down, author of debut novel Our Magic Hour, doesn’t believe in ‘manly’ writing, explaining that we merely expect different things from male and female writers. Like Bennett Daylight, Down believes women writers have, historically, gone unappreciated. ‘The subjects and skills that have traditionally been associated with women writers—the domestic and familial, the observation of relationships, a certain emotional candour and acuity—have been given less value historically.’
Though Down does not believe in manly writing, she cites Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children as a fantastic example of what is known as domestic fiction. ‘Only a woman could have written that book,’ she however says, as the book is also furious and terrifying; qualities which may traditionally be expected from a male writer.
Down argues that female authors are less published, less reviewed and less awarded, although the literary sphere has been undergoing a seismic shift, particularly in the last three to five years. Literary platforms such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Stella Prize, and the Express Media Kat Muscat Fellowship are just a few prominent examples of female-only awards which work to level the playing field and give female writers and editors the financial, critical and cultural support they need to continue their work.
Down is in favour of women writing however they choose, be that masculine or feminine. ‘The writer should not need to change the way she engages with and presents the world. It’s not that there’s a lack of women’s voices out here. The onus is on readers, publishers and the wider literary community to ensure they’re being heard.’
From a grassroots perspective, walking into almost any independent bookstore and peering at the Australian Fiction shelves will pique your interest. Granted, there are several fantastic debut female writers popping up on shelves, but it is also now a challenge to spot up and coming male writers in contemporary literature. Along with Tegan Bennett Daylight and Jennifer Down, women are doing so well that they are now overshadowing men. Fiona McFarlane, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Emily Bitto, Eliza Henry Jones, Stephanie Bishop, Ceridwen Dovey, Abigail Ulman, Peggy Frew, Hannah Kent, Charlotte Wood, Ellen van Neervan, Alice Pung, Anna Krien—the list goes on. Older, established writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Carey, Tony Birch, Tim Winton and Gerald Murnane stand out as male writers. Two newer male voices are Luke Carman and Michael Mohamed Ahmad, both published by Giramondo.
As a voracious reader who almost inhales literature on a weekly, often daily or hourly basis, I am relishing the stories of several homegrown, talented, diverse Australian women.
Melanie Basta is a Melbourne based writer, editor and founder at literary tastemaking magazine Mala Maza.