Stella Miles Franklin did not want readers of her novel My Brilliant Career to assume that its author was a woman. She wrote to its publishers, asking for the ‘Miss’ to be removed: she intended readers to believe it to be written by ‘a bald-headed seer of the sterner sex’. When Henry Lawson first read it he was flummoxed by the gender of the author. He wrote to Franklin, asking her: ‘Will you write and tell me what you really are? man or woman?’1 This confusion is nowhere apparent in the preface he wrote for the novel’s publication in 1901. This preface outed Franklin as a woman writer and stated, in a bald-faced lie, that upon first reading the novel he could tell the gender of its author immediately:
I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once—that the story had been written by a girl. And as I went on I saw that the work was Australian—born of the bush. I don’t know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book—I leave that to girl readers to judge; but the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me, and I know that, as far as they are concerned, the book is true to Australia—the truest I ever read.
As Franklin had feared, gender inflected the critical reception of her novel. Her identity as a woman writer made judgements about its literary merit and nationalism awkward in Australia; as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gender has remained awkward for some parts of the Australian literary landscape. When the short list for this year’s Miles Franklin Award was announced, it prompted an immediate storm of commentary because it consisted of three novels: all historical, all set in rural areas and all written by men. Blokes, the past, the bush. The problem was not this particular short list, but rather that it indicated a longer trend among this and other literary prizes in Australia. This was the second time in three years that the Miles Franklin shortlist had been all-male, and the prize has been won by a woman only fourteen times in the fifty years it has been awarded (four times by the same woman, Thea Astley). Over the past twenty years, it has been won by four women.
The Miles Franklin Award has long prompted controversy about the nature of ‘Australian literature’, conceived in such national terms. Franklin’s specification that the winning work present ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ has provoked some hand-wringing about what does and does not constitute a representation of Australian life, as apparent in the higher profile exclusions from the award over the years (most notably Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days in 1994). As Patrick Allington suggests in his recent piece on the history of the ‘Miles’, as he calls it, Franklin’s two stipulations—‘highest literary merit’ and ‘Australian life’—are ‘not necessarily a natural fit’.2 There have been concerns that the prize perpetuates the idea that certain kinds of experiences (blokes, the past, the bush) are more representatively Australian than others. It has also been entangled in debates about why Australia’s literary sphere seems so dominated by historical fiction.3
The recent debate about gender and the prize has had some force because it came hot off the back of international discussions about the representation of women writers in the world of reviewing and publishing. A study by women’s literary organisation VIDA late in 2010 revealed a very clear disparity within journals such as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement in terms of the proportion of women writers reviewing and being reviewed. This prompted some local ad-hoc gathering of statistics, which found a similar story in this country.4 The marginalisation of women in various mechanisms for working out and rewarding literary value is nothing new. But in Australian literature, this has a history of its own.
The consensus in recent discussions seems to deny any conscious or systematic exclusion of women writers, either in Australia or internationally. Nonetheless the underrepresentation of women is real, and has continued over time. There is bias at work here, but it is bias that is embedded in the structure of our thinking about literary value, seriousness, importance, about gender difference, reading and writing.
These questions have been at the forefront of my mind lately because as people were wondering whether Australian literary-prize culture was a ‘sausagefest’, I was in the middle of judging another literary prize, the ALS Gold Medal, and it was looking increasingly likely that we (an all-female panel) were going to give it to a man. This experience showed me, quite clearly, how difficult and subjective judgements about literary value can be. Ideas about what constitutes literary value are contested, and have changed over time. Somewhere in that morass of ideas about what constitutes a work of literary merit are assumptions that some kinds of books—or some kinds of stories—are more important, serious or literary than others. There are ideas about the authority of the writer, both in terms of the reception of their previous work and in terms of the authority, confidence or ambition of their writing voice and project. Since modernism, and then the New Criticism of the mid twentieth century, we have inherited ideas about the depth, richness or sheer difficulty of a work we might regard as having literary value. And somewhere among all this, tied up with it all, is gender.
In the process of judging the ALS prize, and in reading the discussion about the Miles Franklin, I have been wondering how far Australia’s literary history has influenced whatever unconscious biases are at work here. How much of Lawson’s awkwardness about gender and Australian writing remains in the contemporary literary landscape? Is this a disheartening replay of earlier periods in which our women writers were overshadowed by their male counterparts?
Literary histories, like prizes, tend to narrow and distort the literary field. They end up presenting a list of names or an easily comprehensible narrative that focuses on certain kinds of writers (and readers) at the expense of others. In Australia, for quite some time, the narrative went something like this: the 1890s saw the flowering of a distinctive national literary tradition, fostered by the influential journal the Bulletin (‘the bushman’s bible’) and exemplified by that journal’s instructions to prospective contributors: ‘boil it down’. Realism was the name of the game here, particularly realist accounts of masculine independence and life in the bush, mateship, nostalgia for life on the goldfields and the ‘pioneering’ days of exploring and settling the Australian landscape. The names that tend to be associated with this period in the development of our writing are Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy, Rolf Boldrewood and, though in slightly awkward relationship to the rest, Miles Franklin.
In reality, things were more complex than this account suggests. Franklin’s My Brilliant Career was acclaimed by the Bulletin’s A.G. Stephens as ‘the first Australian novel to be published’. It wasn’t, of course. There were plenty of writers working in Australia earlier than the 1890s as well as during this period whose names, until the 1970s at least, tended to be left off the list. Many of these writers were women, such as Rosa Praed, Ada Cambridge, ‘Tasma’ (Jessie Couvreur), Catherine Martin, Barbara Baynton, Mary Fortune. I’m guessing you haven’t heard of them. The question—and it is a contentious one—is, why not?
Their relative obscurity cannot be attributed simply to the quality or quantity of their work, or to a lack of biographical interest. Rosa Praed, for example, wrote some forty-three novels between 1880 and 1916. She spent much of her adult life in London, where she became a literary celebrity, was discussed in the social pages and moved in the theosophical and spiritualist circles of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde and his mother, Lady Wilde. Her novels were controversial, sometimes scandalous, in their overt representation of women’s sexuality, childbirth out of wedlock and domestic violence (for example, Nadine from 1882 and The Bond of Wedlock from 1887). Nadine was famous enough for its heroine to have a hat named after her and its author to be invited to dinner with the Prince of Wales. Praed also courted controversy over a very thinly veiled and not entirely flattering portrait of Wilde in her roman à clef Affinities: A Romance of Today (1885). As well as these tales of London life, Praed wrote many novels set in Australia and several astute political romances (some in collaboration with Irish politician Justin McCarthy) set in both countries and popular not only in England and Australia, but in America too.
Ada Cambridge has received increased critical attention in recent years for her collection of poetry, Unspoken Thoughts, which was damning in its representation of, among other things, marriage as a form of legally sanctioned prostitution. It was published anonymously and later withdrawn from circulation, no doubt in part because of the discomfort its publication might have caused for her clergyman husband. In her own lifetime, however, Cambridge was most famous for her work as a prolific and popular novelist. Her novels, including A Marked Man (1888) and The Three Miss Kings (1883), are interested in questions of marriage, liberalism, social reform and class. She wrote about the upper class in Australia and England with an ironic eye, often using this irony to question the conventions of romance itself.5
When Tasma (Jessie Couvreur) published her first two novels, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill and In Her Earliest Youth, in London in 1888 and 1890 she was likened by reviewers to George Eliot and Jane Austen.6 She later went on to be foreign correspondent in Belgium for the London Times (extremely unusual for a female journalist at the time) and a famed lecturer throughout Europe, largely on the subject of Australia. Mary Fortune was one of Australia’s first and most prolific crime writers; Barbara Baynton wrote a brilliant and confronting collection of short stories, Bush Studies, illuminating the dark underside of life in the bush in Australia, particularly for women.
Impressive careers, fascinating and adventurous lives. Why have you not heard of them? Corralling these writers together into an essay like this of course only reiterates what has long been done to them: herding them into a box (or a chapter, or a paragraph, or an essay) with the title ‘women writers’ as though they were more or less the same. They are not: the kinds of books they wrote, how they were published, who read them differ considerably. What they have in common, though, is that for some time they disappeared from the critical and cultural landscape, and for the most part they have remained unread outside the academy. Literary critics in Australia continue to disagree about the reasons for this. Most recently, it has been suggested that these writers suffered from unfortunate publishing decisions and shifts in taste in the British and Australian book markets.7 One older account seems to me to be particularly relevant in light of the recent debates about whether and why the Australian literary landscape is, or ever was, a sausagefest.
In an article first published in 1986, Susan Sheridan puts forward an account of the relationship between masculinity, genre, nation and literary worth that it seems to me might still be at play in judgements about women and literary value. She argues that during the 1890s, and in subsequent accounts that cemented this period’s position in our literary history, critical discourse tended to mobilise the following set of oppositions:
independent and original vs conventional and derivative egalitarian and democratic vs class-bound and ‘aristocratic’ Australian nationalist vs British colonial vigour and action vs emotion outside (the bush or the city) vs inside (the domestic, the home)
Most relevant to recent debates is an added set of terms that, Sheridan suggests, ‘were especially salient at the turn of the century but which have by now formed a scarcely noticeable sediment of common sense about what constitutes literary value’:
realism vs romance vernacular or folk vs popular or commercial.8
Sheridan argues here that a set of ideas that came to define what it meant to be distinctively Australian were defined in opposition to a set of values that were identified with femininity and that ideas about what constitutes literary value in Australia are also gendered in favour of realism and the vernacular (à la Lawson and Rudd) as opposed to popular romance (à la Praed and Cambridge). These are, of course, false dichotomies but they have been compelling in discussions of Australian literature ever since the turn of the twentieth century. It is in these terms that Cambridge, Praed and Tasma, in particular, were denigrated as ‘Anglo-Australian’, ‘lady novelists’ whose cosmopolitan romances were considered derivative, commercial, frivolous and irrelevant to the new national literary tradition. At the same time, writers working in a more masculine tradition of adventure romance (Henry Kingsley, Rolf Boldrewood) can be claimed as Australian and authentic. It is also in these terms that we see Lawson claiming the realist aspects of My Brilliant Career as ‘Australian’ and the ‘girlishly emotional’ aspects as something else.
In his preface to My Brilliant Career Lawson is at pains to claim the ‘realistic’ aspects of the novel as genuinely Australian and genuinely good, at the same time disowning its ‘girlishly emotional’ parts. Tied up in this is a distinction between himself and ‘girl readers’. His shoe horning of Franklin’s novel into a nationalist, realist, masculine mode ignores the novel’s deep ambivalence about all of these things. At the same time, his association of realism and masculinity with Australianness exemplified what had become, as Sheridan suggests, a kind of consensus about literary value in this country—a consensus that Franklin herself, in her literary criticism, seemed on some levels to share.
Franklin was complicit in some of the literary criticism that marginalised writers such as Praed and Cambridge in the literary tradition, especially in her book Laughter, not for a Cage (1956). As recent commentators have been suggesting, this is not as simple as a case of men upholding male privilege in the literary field: women, too, have internalised these assumptions about literary value and national culture.
These assumptions did not spring from Australian nationalist criticism alone. It is easy to overstate the independence of Australian literary culture, when Australians writing in English have always, from the very beginning, been implicated in global literary markets and trends. Up until 1840—when novels were seen to be a morally dubious art form—most British novelists were women. Gaye Tuchman has argued that men began to enter the field in greater numbers as the cultural status of the novel—and its author—grew throughout the nineteenth century.9 Katherine Bode has suggested that something similar was going on in the Australian context, if a little later. Her analysis of novels published in Australia shows that women writers had a significant presence in the field from 1855 to 1885, after which male writers took the lead.10
As feminist critics in Australia have pointed out, the involvement of women in literary publishing increased in the early part of the twentieth century, with the emergence of major writers such as Henry Handel Richardson, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (writing under the pseudonym ‘M. Barnard Eldershaw’) and Katherine Susannah Prichard. Overall, however, gender trends indicate that men continued to dominate the field of the novel from the 1920s.11 Susan Sheridan’s recent project looks at a series of women writers from the postwar period, such as Dorothy Green, Amy Witting and Jessica Anderson, who were in some cases ‘eclipsed’ by their male counterparts for a variety of reasons, including their responsibilities as wives and mothers and the higher cultural value attributed to work by men.12 Gwen Harwood voiced the most memorable protest against this situation. She was incensed about the fact that her work was much more likely to be accepted for publication when it was written under a male pseudonym. So she sent a series of sonnets to the Bulletin (under the pseudonym Walter Lehmann), one of which read, acrostically, ‘Fuck all editors.’ The response in the newspapers? ‘Tas housewife in hoax of the year.’13
In reprising these arguments about the fate of women in the Australian literary tradition, I don’t want to suggest a deliberate project on the part of any of the judges of Australian literary prizes to occlude women’s writing. Rather, I want to pose the question of how far, in the difficult decisions about the relative merit of books in the running for such prizes, this older association between masculinity, nationhood and genre comes into play, especially in the case of a prize so explicitly bounded by the nation as the Miles Franklin Award. In particular, I wonder about what Sheridan calls the ‘scarcely noticeable sediment of common sense about what constitutes literary value’ distinguishing between different literary forms and genres in the Australian context and how far this has influenced the gender balance of our awards and our literary pages.
Underlying the processes noted by Sheridan and Bode are older ideas about what women are like not just as writers but also as readers. Women have long been associated with the aspects of reading, particularly novel reading, that involve escapism, the pleasures of convention, salaciousness and plot, rather than the more cerebral notions of reading for metaphysical or intellectual illumination.14 These assumptions about the nature of women as readers have clearly hung around: in response to the VIDA statistics, Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard told the Guardian that ‘while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS’.15 Women readers continue to be associated with ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘serious’ literature.
The distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction broadened throughout the twentieth century and we now find ourselves with a deeply segregated book market, where ‘literary fiction’ occupies its own space on bookshop shelves, and the apparatus used to market fiction (covers, titles, author publicity) marks out potential sectors of the market. This impacts on the literary end of the spectrum and on our literary prizes in terms of how publishers, critics and prize judges treat novels that speak across the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ fiction. In what we might consider to be a reprise of literary judgements of Praed and Cambridge, in particular, when women write genre-crossing fiction these days I suspect it is less likely to end up in the ‘literary fiction’ box than when men do. Much contemporary Australian fiction reaches beyond the narrow designation of literary fiction and engages with other generic conventions: high-profile examples from the past few years would include much of Andrew McGahan’s work, Peter Temple’s 2010 Miles Franklin winning Truth and Christos Tsiolkas’s book club bestselling barbecue-stopper The Slap. Are genre-crossing novels by women treated differently by publishers, marketers and literary critics?
The three novels by women longlisted for the Miles Franklin this year all engage with conventions of both literary and genre fiction and were, I suspect, marketed and edited to appeal to a broader audience than that for ‘literary fiction’. This might impact on, at the very least, perceptions of their literary value. Does this matter? To some extent, no. These are wonderful novels and will no doubt find a readership. But we should be concerned about a situation in which women are edged out of the mechanisms for attributing literary value in this country in what seems to be such an intractable way.
The question of genre and literary style has particular salience in these debates because it has been tied up with constructions of Australian national identity and with definitions of our literary tradition or culture. Lawson’s confusion about My Brilliant Career was not just about the non-gender-specific name ‘Miles’ on the title page: it was about the nature of the novel itself, which engages with and questions the conventions of both realism and romance. Its protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, tells us at the outset that what we are about to read will be ‘a yarn—a real yarn’, ‘not a romance’, but it does of course become a romance, complete with competing suitors. It is also a novel about being born ‘out of one’s sphere’: being constrained in so many ways as a woman, as working class, at this moment in time. As much as anything else, My Brilliant Career is about the particular problem of being a woman and a writer (or a creative artist of any kind) in Australia. For Sybylla, as for Franklin herself, this was a subject position that involved conflicting loyalties and imperatives. It was difficult, then as now, to speak for the nation as a woman. Given this, I can think of no more apt title for a new, women’s-only literary award in Australia than the Stella Prize.
© Julieanne Lamond 2011
- Cited in Elizabeth Webby, ‘Introduction’ to Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2004, p. vi.
- Patrick Allington, ‘What is Australia, Anyway?: The Glorious Limitations of the Miles Franklin Literary Award’, Australian Book Review, June 2011.
- See Malcolm Knox, ‘Stories in the wrong tense’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2001, Spectrum; and David Marr, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’, Colin Simpson Lecture, delivered at Redfern Town Hall in Sydney, 29 March 2003.
- See, for example, Rebecca Starford’s statistics in Jo Case, ‘Women in Print: An International Women’s Day Discussion’, Kill Your Darlings Blog, 11 March 2011.
- See Elizabeth Webby, ‘Colonial Writers and Readers’, Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 50–73.
- Patricia Clarke, ‘In the Steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical Trails’.
- Paul Eggert, ‘Australian Classics and the Price of Books: The Puzzle of the 1890s’, JASAL special issue 2008, pp. 130–57.
- Susan Sheridan, Along the Faultlines: Sex, Race and Nation in Australian Women’s Writing, 1880s–1930s, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995, p. 28.
- Gaye Tuchman, with Nina E. Fortin, Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers and Social Change, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1989, p.1.
- Katherine Bode, ‘Graphically Gendered’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 23, no. 58 (2008), p. 438.
- Bode, p. 446.
- Susan Sheridan, Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2011; and ‘Generations Lost and Found: Reading Women Writers Together’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 24, nos. 2–4 (2009), pp. 39–52.
- Cited in Cassandra Atherton, ‘“Fuck All Editors”: The Ern Malley Affair and Gwen Harwood’s Bulletin Scandal’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 72 (2002), pp. 151–7.
- See Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, 1837–1914, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.
- Cited in Benedicte Page, ‘Research shows male writers still dominate books world’, Guardian, 4 February 2011.