Reviewed: Katerina Gibson, Women I Know, Scribner
In a recent interview with Alice Allan, James Jiang laments the ‘prize culture’ that permeates Australian literature, arguing that readers who avoid ‘bad’ books may be left with a superficial sense of what’s ‘good’.1 At present, what’s considered worth reading—by mass audiences, at least—is limited to a select handful of gold-stickered texts, deemed palatable by institutional marketing, with snappy quotes on back covers. A triumph, they say. Dazzling. A fresh new voice! In the age of social media, readers are eager to read the right books and have the right takes, which makes reaching for a prize-winning text a no-brainer. To be sure, many of these texts are well worth reading—take Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear (2021) and Shastra Deo’s The Agonist (2017), for example. The problem isn’t that judges have bad taste. Rather, as Jiang highlights, selecting all your reading material in this manner takes the element of adventure out of reading. For me, reading only prize-winning books is a form of algorithmic reading, which prevents us from thinking critically about literature, and potentially limits the future of #ozlit itself.
Katerina Gibson’s debut collection of short stories, Women I Know, is exactly this kind of prize-winning text. On paper, Gibson is an up-and-coming young Australian writer set to become canonical: the collection is published by Scribner, an imprint of ‘Big 5’ international publisher Simon & Schuster, and the cover announces the book as the ‘Winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific Region)’. It’s widely available too—I picked up my copy in a Melbourne Dymocks, and later spotted copies in Wellington’s literary mainstay, Unity Books. The title is presented in an italicised serif font not unlike Instagram stories, and the accompanying cover image merges the pale necks and lips of two women, suggesting the book is marketed to insufferable white ladies (myself included). At first glance, Women I Know checks all the boxes for the mainstream literary success story. It makes me want to hate this book. Unfortunately, Gibson is just too good.
Women I Know comprises 17 juicy caricatures of women you’ve definitely encountered: queer vegans, career-obsessed girl bosses, downtrodden mothers, sort-of sex workers, bourgeois grannies, intolerable eco-warriors. Gibson demonstrates her talent for succinctly painting nuanced caricatures, and the short-story format is one of the book’s strengths. The author knows what her average reader wants: not a story, but a selfie; a slice-of-life glimpse with all the self-indulgence of perusing one’s own carefully curated Instagram profile. With a deliciously dark-humoured Queensland sensibility, Gibson dishes ourselves out to ourselves with a twist, crafting a literary Venus flytrap that calls white Australian femininity uncomfortably into question.
‘Preparation’, for example, is presented in two columns as a series of Instagram captions. We’re invited to cringe at the privileged, #wanderlust-obsessed, eco-feminist protagonist, whose ‘travels started with a whirlwind trip to Europe for [her] eighteenth birthday’. Naturally, she reassures us, this ‘was all before [she] knew about how bad flying is for the environment’. Her superficial self-awareness develops over the course of the story, driven by ‘#projectplastic’, where our protagonist keeps ‘all the plastic [she] can’t avoid or recycle in a jar’ to the point of absurdity. Each vignette begins with a heart symbol and like count, opening with ‘❤ liked by treesglobal and 3123 others’. These numbers change over the course of the story, adding a refreshing undercurrent to its narrative layers.
Beyond the innovative format, ‘Preparation’ is a double-edged critique of digital consumer culture—in particular, greenwashed influencer marketing. Through the protagonist’s questioning of her own sustainable habits, readers are prodded to consider their own purchasing habits given the accelerated capitalist inequality perpetuated by frenzied influencer marketing and the pressure of keeping up appearances. Although the protagonist’s self-awareness remains limited, ‘Preparation’ presents the coming-to-consciousness of the careerist influencer, which in turn calls into question the way digital self-representations serve to mask us even from ourselves.
In Postfeminist Digital Cultures, gender studies and digital media scholar Amy Shields Dobson writes that:
Women’s entry into media production … and the proliferation of digital self-representation, may not be the cause of lasting or deep shifts in ideologies of gender, as representations and self-representations are tied to markets and systems of profit-making, and gendered identities intersect with racialized identities and socioeconomic-based positions of status.2
But representation does not necessitate change, especially under patriarchy where women arguably remain relegated to objecthood. In ‘Preparation’, the protagonist’s inner life is presented and set exclusively in the aesthetic realm as a complement to an imagined digital image. This prompts further questioning: how do the forms proliferated by social media constrain our inner narratives? And how do we fictionalise them?
In the opening story, ‘Glitches in the Algorithm’, the narrator walks us through extensive efforts to control her self-image by manipulating social media algorithms. The story reads like a confessional: ‘Truthfully … I didn’t know what I was doing, or I’d convince myself I didn’t know. In what I now see as the beginning stages of my work on The Algorithm, self-deception was the defining feature.’ The Algorithm functions as an aspirational mirror, eventually driving the narrator towards petty crime to fund the habit of constructing a hyper-idealised self online. Gibson amplifies the function of the mirror, and most of her characters in these stories remain unnamed, creating a series of everywoman narrators many readers will identify with. While Women I Know may fit neatly within the problematic prize culture of Australian literature, these stories do the surprising job of challenging this very culture. Like a selfie that can speak back, they prompt readers to question who they’re reading for and why.
As Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, ‘women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure [of man] at twice its natural size’.3 This sentiment is echoed by French philosopher Luce Irigaray, who in 1974 was expelled from the Freudian School of Paris for her gendered critique of Lacanian psychoanalysis in Speculum of the Other Woman. Like Woolf, Irigaray critiques the role of woman as a mirror for Western masculinity. Nearly two decades later, in Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, Irigaray replies to the German philosopher, condemning his patriarchal ‘love for a looking glass eternally set opposite [man]’.4 She asks, ‘who is still resting within some mirror? And will their final prayer be addressed to the sun? Will their final chance of life rely on the gaze?’5 In ‘Glitches in the Algorithm’, the narrator is maximally self-conscious about her participation in social media, and the revelatory tone suggests she is aware her chance of life relies upon an imagined gaze, both by social media followers and the panopticon of The Algorithm. She gradually tweaks her algorithm to the point where the ‘caustic parts’ of her self are removed:
The film that separated us dissolved, which isn’t to say that I became more authentic, but rather that I had made another self that I could, without irony or self-loathing, be … I had removed my knowledge of the world from Her, and in inhabiting Her, was able to inhabit the world.
Here Gibson captures the paradox of digital representation, creating pause for reflection.
Many of Gibson’s stories deal implicitly with the sheer weight of consciousness in an age of catastrophe, to demonstrate the mental protection afforded by certain self-delusions. In the final story of the collection, ‘As the Nation Still Mourns’, the daughter of a David Attenborough-type takes up a dream job as an ecologist, only to find she has been hired as a glorified poacher for a wealthy woman’s private home aquarium. In ‘The Shape of ——’, another woman provides a unique service for lonely men. Halfway through, an internal monologue ensues: ‘She was not, nor had she ever claimed to be, a therapist. She suspected that was part of the appeal. Rather, she imagined herself sitting somewhere in the middle of therapy and sex work, although she was qualified for neither.’ Most of Gibson’s characters seem to be in denial, unwilling or unable to accept themselves. Many appear to be settling, or aspiring towards something unreachable rather than taking ownership over their fates, seemingly for the sake of their own mental health.
In theory, the increased and immediate access to publishing brought on by the proliferation of social media has made our various oppressions much more visible, at least in the West. While white women appear to have enjoyed their mass #girlboss moment for some years now, Gibson’s stories ask whether we will remain a reuptake inhibitor for masculine narcissism. Moreover, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes in The White Possessive, ‘the intimate relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation in Australian society is reinforced by a consistent pattern of expectations and interests’.6 Given Women I Know is set in Australia, with characters who read, at least ontologically, as white Australian women, the absence of First Nations characters or cultural signifiers in these stories is curious: while Gibson thoroughly investigates white femininity, it isn’t clear whether this absence merely mirrors the projected expectations and interests of white Australian women, or whether the absence is meant to prompt further thinking. This calls to mind what Khalid Warsame refers to as a limited imagination, which manifests ‘in certain inescapable ways by the borders of our being, and for us to suddenly set this notion aside isn’t so much a failure of wokeness but a failure to fully embody our own capacities, and, I’ll contend, responsibilities, as writers’.7 Perhaps Gibson is simply writing responsibly.
The title of this work suggests an existential problematic. These are caricatures of women the author knows. They’re women I know, women you know: they’re our besties, our grandmothers, our nemeses and our co-workers. But the way Gibson has cast these women—with rich, complicated, beautiful, sometimes sad and often extremely cringeworthy inner lives—makes us ask how deeply we know them, and by extension, ourselves. Do we really know these women? And more importantly, how free are we, in an age of digital representation, where the mechanisms that underpin white patriarchy have merely been adapted to new technologies? These are questions that haven’t yet been asked by the golden books of Australian prize culture. Until now. •
Elese Dowden is a writer and recovering philosopher.
1 ‘James Jiang and Alice Allan, ‘A certain claustrophobia’, Poetry Says, <https://poetrysays.com/ep-196-james-jiang-a-certain-claustrophobia/>.
2 Amy Shields Dobson, Postfeminist digital cultures: Femininity, social media, and self-representation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 27.
3 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929, Gutenberg, <http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html>.
4 Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Gillian C. Gill, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 33.
5 Irigaray, Marine Lover, p. 50.
6 Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 77.
7 Khalid Warsame, ‘If Every Portrait is a Self-Portrait’, Liminal, <https://liminalmag.com/liminal-review-of-books/if-every-portrait-is-a-self-portrait>.