Literary editor of The Age, Jason Steger has written that while ‘female writers are still doing it tough’, data produced by Bookseller & Publisher shows the situation is improving – at least on Sundays with The Sunday Age percentage split between men and women 45-55 and the Sunday Territorian 50-50.
‘That we are still talking about women’s writing is a sad reflection of patriarchal society’, says Clare Strahan. Strahan, contributing editor to Overland Magazine, took part in a panel discussion over whether women’s writing is different to men’s. It was International Women’s Day 2012 and the event at Readings bookshop drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Sophie Cunningham, author and chair of the Stella Prize for Australian Women’s writing believes that a gender difference exists but ‘it is one that women writers often choose to make’ she said. Representing the men was books editor and author Chris Flynn who admits that ‘men are good at making things up and talking shit’ whereas ‘women will tell you exactly how things are’.
The reality is that women’s writing is not valued as highly as men’s with women’s books less reviewed and women less likely to be awarded many literary prizes. In 2009 and 2011 the Miles Franklin Award had all-male shortlists and in the past 10 years, women have won the Franklin twice.
Associate editor of Kill Your Darlings, Jo Case laments the fact that in spite of producing eligible and critically acclaimed books,authors such as Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Joan London and Amanda Lohrey failed to even make the 2009 Miles Franklin longlist.
So what is the problem?
Sophie Cunningham suggests that maybe they were considered ‘too modest in scope’ or maybe ‘too domestic’. That women do write about the reality of their lives should be celebrated and in Case’s opinion the finest writing is about human relationships including the domestic from which we are able to make sense of our lives.
Author Rachel Cusk, fears that women ‘might cease to produce “women’s writing” not because they are freer but because they are more ashamed, less certain of a general receptiveness, and even, perhaps, because they suspect they might be vilified’. This would be a terrible shame with women writers in their concern over equality with men losing ‘their integrity-in the attempt to join male literary culture’.
Women writers remain optimistic and resilient however. Feminist author and publisher Susan Hawthorne says books and writing are about making you think. Spinifex Press, an independent Australian feminist press co-founded in 1991 by Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein turns 21 this month. Over the years Hawthorne has indulged in ‘a solitary kind of thrill’ of reading all the Spinifex books well before anyone else and being ready to spend the money and get women’s writing out on the shelves.
To raise the profile of writing by women and encourage a future generation of women writers, and significantly increase the readership for books by women, the Stella Prize has been established. .As to what you write about, author and chair of the Stella Prize committee, Sophie Cunningham says, ‘do what makes you feel good’.