‘Who cares about gender at a time like this?’

According to a post on the SPUNC blog last week, independent Australian publishing does.

Laurie Steed wrote that there aren’t enough women submitting to journals and publishers in Australia:

Of the 200 submissions received by Affirm Press, around 80 percent have been from male writers.

This year also sees the release of the next Sleepers almanac, a collection which often features the best women writers in the country, and yet, according to Sleepers Editorial Director Louise Swinn, the majority of their submissions are also from male writers, be they brilliant, brooding, or mildly unhinged.

Which begs the question: where are all the broken-hearted women today? Where are the open-soul, pen scratching into the page of the first-draft, thesaurus-scouring, story-shaping women when we need them?

There we have it – the myth of the male writer. He’s brilliant, he’s brooding, it’s okay if he’s mildly unhinged, because he’s brilliant. And women? Well, they probably just aren’t willing to sacrifice as much.

Writers hope, perhaps naively, that they’ll be judged on merit alone, yet there’s so little transparency in publishing and the selection process that they are at the subjective whim of the publisher.

It would be interesting to see actual statistics of how many women are submitting versus how many women make it to publication in Melbourne, and in Australia. Are publishers and editors actively considering diversity when putting a publication together?

Because I suspect we’re talking about something other than mere diversity in publishing. We’re talking about what is recognised as ‘literature’.

Maybe it’s time to ask the following – again:
• Is there a difference between what women and men write?
• What do we judge as good writing?
• Where do we get these ideas about good writing from?
• How important is voice and experience to good writing?

And it’s not just in Australia. The American book The Anthologist was amusing and yes, well written, but if I have to read one more story of a middle-aged man bemoaning the weight of his genius – or lack thereof – I’m returning the book to the publisher, with a note requesting some diversity in their editorial readers.

We need more writers who do not fit within the white, heterosexual, male writer paradigm. Because white, male writers are multitudinous – they’re practically the entire literary canon.

But there needs to be a recognition that writers who don’t fit this mould, won’t be writing from that same position of privilege. Their writing will be different.

Lizzie Skurnick has worked as an editor, writer, and literary judge,
and says in the world of publishing in the United States, this discrimination isn’t viewed as sexism, they just ‘feel like Philip Roth’s output is impressive while Joyce Carol Oates’ is a punchline.’

It has been a very strong two years for female writers and a weak two years for male ones, and the fact that the latter have garnered unseemly armfuls of praise and prizes for their tepid output is a scandal.

I will give this to PW editors – they did notice. “We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration,” they inform us cheerily. “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz . . . It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”

Well, that’s comforting. Except the “no other consideration” and “ignored gender” part. Because, as someone who’s worked as an editor, writer and critic for almost two decades in the literary world, I’ve concluded, like most of my half-sentient colleagues, that the publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician.

Our default is to call John Updike a genius on the basis of four very wonderful books and many truly weird ones, while Margaret Atwood, with the same track record, is simply beloved. Our default is to title Ayelet Waldman’s book, “Bad Mother,” while her husband’s is “Manhood for Amateurs.” Our default is that women are small, men are universal.

So why just women? Why not diversity in general? Why aren’t independent Australian publishers seeking non-heterosexual writings? Where is the call for ethnic diversity in Australian writing?

Voices of people who face oppression in society are incredibly important. We need to foster them in Australian publishing, because there are people who dominate the world of literature, and their voices are already heard everywhere.

‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ is an amazing short story by Nam Le published in Overland 187. It reflects on, among other things, the pressure on writers to explore their ethnic identity in their writing. Perhaps tellingly, this piece was first published in the US.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. All of this is true. But it extends beyond literature. Think about the newspapers and the usual pundits who write for them or opinionate on TV. Very stale, pale, male bunch.

  2. How about scholarships which provide 20 hours a week paid childcare for writing mothers for any/all children they might have?

    How about writing scholarships designed specifically to be undertaken part-time for mother-writers.

    How about education courses for the partners of writing women on when, why and how they write and how they can best be supported?

    How about month-long writing residencies with childcare facilities available?

    How about more drink-free venues for female slam poets or spoken word poets, so there’s less likelihood of them being leered at / feeling uncomfortable.

    How about more awards specifically for women, and female-specific publishers?

  3. Maxine! Where are all these great opportunities! Please, email me the details, I’m in! A residency with childcare? We can only dream…

    Jacinta, everything you say is true. Maybe the publishers are just going with the safe bet, afraid to try something new…

  4. Yes, I agree. There are economic and social factors to consider, and it is particularly difficult for women who have to balance a job and the assumption or reality that they have the primary responsibility for childcare.

  5. Having a family does have a real material impact on women writers – but it’s not just the mechanics of the situation we need to examine.

    What if you’re a woman without children? Are you then just as likely to be published as a white, heterosexual, male writer?

  6. I thought we were talking about submissions, rather than publications, though these hurdles are one behind the other.

    More analysis needs to be done.

    But looking at the most recently published Australian female novelists, particularly those which were critically acclaimed – is either one, or no children the trend?

    I don’t intend to polarise, I’d just be interested to know exactly how much of a problem the carer’s commitment is, as opposed to other perhaps discrimatory practices, in the submission process.

    The birth of my child resulted in much more writing, rather than less, but my ability to still set aside time to write is probably largely due to having a writer as a partner who has an understanding my compulsion to write, and a desire to ensure it’s realised.

  7. hey jacinda, i think absolutely women find it harder to find a publisher and in my experience, the intellectual output of women is less valued or respected than the male equivalent. i think this has to do with a perception about “women’s writing”, what women are ‘allowed’ to write about, ideas that readers have about women writers, the way they’re promoted and publicised – it’s endless. or rather, it’s structural.

    so as jeff points out, it’s apparent in just about every area of cultural production [and other fields like sport, politics and govt, the corporate sector]. women are tragically under-represented in radio, tv, theatre, you name it, as well as in literature. isn’t this because the respective canons of those artforms is mostly white men? so therefore women are writing to/within/against a different history to what men are? didn’t virginia woolf talk about this very problem ie. that the financial means for writing are not the whole answer. a woman could not have written ‘war and peace’ because she wasn’t part of that milieu/history/tradition/canon, and because she lacked access to power and money and freedom. it wasn’t just that she wouldn’t have the means to write it, she would not have ‘known’ or invented that story.

    i was reading an article about this the other day, and it made me think very hard about what ‘women’s writing’ is, as opposed to writing by women. the author’s definition for the former was ‘writing that could only be by a woman’. so ‘oranges are not the only fruit’ or ‘the bell jar’ could not have been written by a man, just as plainly as ‘song of solomon’ could not have been written by a white woman.

    so maybe it’s not only that writing by women is sometimes rejected by publishers and readers, but that the whole project is fraught in terms of class, race, sexuality, identity, and market economics as well as gender?

  8. That’s actually a really interesting point Karen, about ideas readers have about women writers. I read somewhere that eight out of ten fiction readers are women. What part do they play in the equation?

    I’ve been told three times in the past (once by a woman, twice by mean) that I ‘write like a man’. What the f*ck does this mean? Is it supposed to be an insult, a compliment or an observation? I don’t find it offensive, I find it hilarious. I kind of take it to mean ‘You are too aggressive, to political, too antagonistic and too bloody loud, get out of my face or write a love poem.’

    My response is usually, ‘That’s probably because I have a penis.’ Very effective in getting people to back slowly away.

    There are so many preconceptions about who ‘is allowed’ to write what.

    I’m in two minds about the virginia woolf ‘different histories’ argument. Financial/access/time constraints aside, there could have been a women’s parrallel to War and Peace. It would have been a completely different world, but a co-existing history.

  9. On the other hand, women do have some advantages when it comes to literary careers. A young man embarks on such a career at his peril; the odds of gaining money or status from such creative pursuits are low and this can then affect his ability to partner. It can be a choice of literary ambitions or family. A lot of men just decide it’s not worth the risk and choose stable employment.

    And women do make up a large percentage of successful non-fiction authors. In 2002, 66.67% of the fiction paperback books on the bestseller lists of the New York Times Book Review were written by women.

  10. Mark, you quote a figure from 8 years ago, from one list. Relating this to the discussion in this post is akin to saying ’66 of the top 100 CEOs in 2002 were women, therefore sexism does not exist in any workplace in 2010. I’d be happy to hear some relevant statistics. Perhaps Australian, perhaps in the last three years, and perhaps overall industry publication figures.

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