Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cock-forests and sausage fests


A couple of weeks ago, I went to the launch of the Stella Prize — a new Australian prize for women's writing, modelled on UK's Orange Prize.

A group of women felt inspired to establish the prize earlier this year in response to the announcement of yet another all-male shortlist for our premier literary award, the Miles Franklin (aka the "sausage fest", as blogger Angela Meyer called it back in 2009, another all-male year).

An audible collective groan could be heard among women when the 2011 shortlist was released: since the Miles Franklin award began in 1957, it has only been won by a woman 13 times. Ironic for a prize established through the will of someone who, like so many female writers of her time, felt it wise to publish her books under a male name and is best known for her novel My Brilliant Career.

Stella Miles Franklin (hence the name of the new prize) knew first-hand the role major literary awards can play in enabling writers to continue their literary careers. She herself struggled to make a living as a writer and was the beneficiary of two literary prizes.

So what is going on here? In a country where some of our best-known and critically acclaimed authors are women — Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Joan London, Toni Jordan, just to name a few (all of whom published books in 2009) — why is their work so under-represented when it comes to Australia's literary prizes?

For more dismal statistics regarding the gender divide in lit award recipients, check out Sophie Cunningham's thoroughly researched essay, "A Prize of One's Own: Flares, Cock-forests, and Dreams of a Common Language" in Issue 6 of Kill Your Darlings journal. There she also discusses the shocking new stats on the disproportionately low number of books by women being reviewed in the world's leading literary publications (something I ranted about in an earlier post).

Thankfully the Stella Prize, which will be awarded to the best book (as deemed by the judges) written by a woman that year, will go some way in redressing this inequity. But the questions about its need to exist remain...

Critic and editor Morag Fraser, who sits on the Miles Franklin judging panel, has insisted the judges are not deliberately favouring books written by men. But then what explanation is there for this obviously skewed outcome?

Could it be possible that, even in the year 2011, an unconcious bias persists? At the very least, this is surely a question Australia's editors, judges and critics need to be asking themselves.

5 comments:

Melita said...

I think it's deeply cultural. There are fewer women at the top of any game, anywhere you look. Except maybe beach volleyball. Women write 'fiction' not 'literature'. Women do more housework, earn less, spend more time with their children. They are in the minority in politics, business, and other seats of power. In the context of all this, it makes absolute sense that women don't win big literary prizes very often. Women are simply not taken as seriously as men, in general.

Kerry said...

It's not just possible, it's proven. Read "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine. It's absolutely beyond doubt that even among people who honestly believe in gender equality, that unintentional discrimination against women is taking place all the time in every field. As Melita pointed out, this is not confined to writing - the lack of women being shortlisted is a symptom of a wider problem. We have come a long way, but in recent times have slipped back a bit in many areas.

Damon Young said...

There's definitely something amiss in literature.

But I think Cordelia would be the first to say that this requires more study. There are all kinds of forces at work in gender inequality, and only some are discrimination (however subtle or unconscious).

Put another way, an empirical study on gender bias in literary appreciation is needed.

Frances said...

Perhaps http://stilllifewithcat.blogspot.com/2011/09/thinking-about-alexander-mccall-smith.html
provides a clue as to why nuanced writing is not valued.
Or perhaps it's the ideas of Clive Hamilton that suggest an idea that's better followed:
http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/feminisms-frontline-killer-blow-20110929-1kz8u.html

bill watson said...

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