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In The Count, Kirsten Tranter, Sophie Cunningham and Stephen Romei discussed why articles by and about men dominate our book pages, when so many women write and buy books and work in the publishing industry.

Kirsten started us off with some figures, including the fact that the Times Literary Supplement reviewed works by 330 women in 2010, as compared with 1036 men. The Paris Review published interviews with one woman author and seven men. The New York Review of Books reviewed works by 59 women and 462 men. The figures vary, but they are consistent in one respect: women writers are under-represented in these pages, in terms of both the reviews that are written and the books that are reviewed.

Although it's easy to assume that gender bias is lessening as people of all genders become increasingly aware of their internal biases, Sophie Cunningham observed that in her experience things are getting worse, not better - the industry is now even more skewed toward books and reviews by men. And these disparities have repercussions right through the industry. Women buy more books than men, but how well are their interests represented when the majority of reviews to which they have access are of books by men and the reviews are written by men?

The panellists pointed out that this phenomenon does not arise from some kind of obscure or malevolent intent - it's an unconscious bias that permeates our culture. For example, the Miles Franklin prize has been won only fourteen times by women since its inception in 1957 - and on four of those occasions the prize went to the same writer, Thea Astley. This year, for the second time in three years, the shortlist is all-male despite the presence of three women on the longlist.

Nobody is saying that the Miles Franklin is intentionally excluding or devaluing the work of women writers. But the recent shortlists, especially, say a lot about how literature is valued and judged in today's society.

Similarly, this is not some great patriarchal conspiracy. Women judge prizes; women review and buy books. Women sometimes believe they read/review more or less equal amounts of writing by women and men, and are taken aback to discover that they read far more works by men (Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, was used as an example here, but I can't find a specific link to back this up).

Stephen Romei (literary editor of The Australian) acknowledged that there is a problem, although he feels that The Australian's figures for fiction reviews are better than most. He gave an example of a book on Gallipoli - when thinking of who might review the book, his first thought would be that he was looking for a man, simply because he (and many other people) think of war historians as being male rather than female.

He also commented that men are more likely to offer to review books. To generalise, women are more likely to turn down a review chance because they're "not an expert" on the subject, whereas a man's response might be that he isn't an expert yet, but he will be by the time he's finished with the review. There also seems to be a perception in some literary publications (like the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement) that women are more tentative in their reviews and that this does not fit the tone that the publication wants to evoke.

Sophie Cunningham corroborated this, and added that when she edited Meanjin, she found that women were more likely to write from personal experience rather than as "authorities" on certain subjects.

The subject of the kinds of books that are reviewed came up, along with the fact that women are often perceived as writing genre books, books not "worthy" of review. Jonathan Franzen writes about family and suburbia and his books are hailed as great novels of the American condition; women writing on those subjects are shunted off into women's literature, romance or chicklit. Recent Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller is an Australian writer whose books often contain strong elements of romance, but nobody would consider calling him unliterary for it.


So what to do about all of this? Part of the task is simply to raise awareness of the problem, which events such as The Count are doing. It does seem that people are increasingly conscious of the issues, particularly since VIDA's figures made such a splash earlier this year - and yet, that almost makes the Miles Franklin all-male shortlist feel more like a slap in the face than ever.

Work is also underway on the development of a literary prize for women writers in Australia, along the lines of the Orange Prize in the UK. Tentatively named the Stella Prize (Miles Franklin's real name was Stella), its stated goal is the recognition and representation of writing by women. You can keep track of developments by "liking" the prize's facebook page.


Further links for the curious:

New Australian fiction prize for women - Meanjin interview with Sophie Cunningham.
The Miles Franklin: another "Sausagefest" - Stephen Romei's reaction to the recent shortlist announcement, plus some pithy comments.
Is it a man's world, literally? - Alison Croggon on the implications of the shortlist.
A prize of one's own: the case for an Aussie Orange - Benjamin Law.
The Stella Prize on facebook.
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