The literary scene sexist? Well, call me Betty Draper.

Betty DraperBack in May I attended a panel discussion at the Sydney Writers’ Festival entitled, ‘No Country for Young Women’ which sought to answer the question: ‘Can a young women thrive in our newly retro Mad Men world?’ The panel consisted of Kirstin Tranter, Emily Maguire and Karen Hitchcock and was chaired by Susan (Lionheart) Maushart. The answer they reached, rather swiftly was, ‘Of course!’ Followed by, ‘Since when is our world “newly retro”? I mean, I like mid-century modernist furniture as much as the next person, but seriously, what the?’ (Okay, I embellished that a little, but you get the drift.)

I left the session confident that I could carry on pursuing my literary career without changing my name to Craig and safe in the knowledge that I was unlikely to ever be propositioned in the offices of Allen & Unwin by a chain-smoking man drinking a Bloody Mary in a sharp suit. Case closed.

Or was it? (Cue three-note suspense-inducing music from Law & Order.)

The following day at the festival, I was standing in a queue for a session when the woman next to me struck up a bit of a conversation. (I don’t own an iPod, you see.) She asked what sessions I had been to. I mentioned ‘No Country for Young Women’. She asked what conclusion they reached. I told her that in the experience of these three women, gender hadn’t been a barrier for them in the Australian literary scene. She looked at me with utter disgust and asked me if I was kidding. I said no. She said, ‘That’s rubbish’, by which I took her to mean that the conclusion was rubbish, rather than she thought I was a liar.

Turns out my new friend had worked in the publishing industry for years, eventually starting her own company in an effort to escape what she perceived to be entrenched sexism. Now, at that point I began to wonder if she wasn’t, a little, you know, bonkers. She did have quite an alarming hair-do*, after all. I gently told her that in my admittedly limited experience I hadn’t found the industry to be male dominated at all – I had worked for a few publishers and all my colleagues, bar one, had been women. To which she replied, ‘What about the CEOs? The ones who make the final decisions?’

Yes, they where men, but that doesn’t make the industry sexist, does it?

After about half-an-hour, in which I was given some insight into the woman’s general loathing of the male species, our association ended and I was left thinking she was a little … eccentric. It’s just not like that anymore, surely.

Or is it? (Repeat suspenseful music.)

The other day I was listening to ABC Radio National’s Book Show while I was folding the washing (no joke) and guess who should be on? None other than Overland’s very own Jeff Sparrow. He was joined by former associate editor of the Griffith Review, Sally Breen, and they were discussing Forbes newly released list of highest-earning authors. It was noted that only three of the top ten were women and the topic quickly turned to whether the literary world was sexist. Breen certainly thinks it is to a degree, sighting AS Byatt’s comments about the Orange Prize for women writers, while Jeff Sparrow told of how the Overland folk had recently done a tally to see how many female writers they have published compared to male. (The result, Jeff?) The Jonathan Franzen question came up: Would his work receive the same amount of attention if he were female? Or, would Joanna Franzen be ‘just another’ female writer writing about domestic relationships?

It seems impossible to have this discussion without mentioning Louis Nowra’s article about Germaine Greer that appeared in the Monthly. (Although it’s unclear whether this is explicit sexism, or just a confusing ramble that made it to print because of the author’s name.) One is also forced to consider the ‘Australian Legends of the Written Word’ stamp series issued by Australia Post, which – as commented on in the Guardian – included only one female writer.

Which leaves us where, exactly? No country for young (or any-age) women?

As declared by my Year Ten maths teacher, I am not and never will be a statistician, however I thought I might do what might be perceived to be the proper thing and have a look at some numbers. So, I studied the previous four editions of an internationally renowned American literary journal and using my limited mathematical skills was able to deduce that about sixty-five percent of the published writers were men, the rest, you guessed it, were mermaids. No! They were women, silly.

But what the hell does that mean, anyway? Is it evidence of sexism? Maybe not, maybe it’s just evidence that thirty-five percent were female authors and sixty-five percent were male. Using a similar technique, I was also able to discover that of the sixty books short-listed for the Booker Prize in the last ten years, thirty-seven were by male authors, twenty-three by female. Yet, surely the aim of every award should be to honour quality writing, not fulfil a predetermined quota of female writers. Which brings us back to the Orange Prize and Ms Byatt. I have to admit that I, like AS Byatt, find the idea of special awards for women a wee bit patronising. It makes me think of the infants’ playground at primary school – are we not yet ready to play with the ‘big kids’?

As a closing note, of the four Australian books I have read in the last three months, two were by men (Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole; Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones) and two were by women (Sonya Hartnett, Butterfly; Nikki Gemmell, The Book of Rapture). All four of them explored ‘traditionally female’ themes to do with family and relationships, except The Book of Rapture, which also engaged in the ‘political, big idea’ stuff normally associated with male writers …

*Thank you, Louis Nowra for pointing out how well a woman’s hair-do can indicate her intellectual capacity.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

More by Claire Zorn ›

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. I think there is a massive amount of sexism in the Australian publishing industry. What most seem to be missing is that the sexism is directed towards men, or more specifically, male authors.
      Take a look at the literary agencies list of agents and tell me how many men there are, its likely the list is nearly all women. Look at the publishing houses, all women again, with a few men sprinkled amongst them. This has developed slowly over a few decades, as more and more women have found a place in these companies due to many factors, such as higher university attendance by females, the industry being viewed as not a masculine field etc
      Once the balance tipped in women’s favour, it was inevitable that the work these agencies began to take on would be of a more feminine nature. This is impossible to avoid as a women can no more think, or read, like a man than a man can a women. Therefore the majority of authors finding representation will be female. This trend is accelerating and if something is not done to address the rampant (though unintentional) sexism in the publishing industry we will find less and less male authors, and 50% of humanities literary voice will be lost.
      I always find it a little annoying when the topic of sexism is brought up and everyone assumes its by men to women. Times have changed, and that is no longer the case. We will see more and more sexism directed towards men in many field due to cultural patterns shifting, university attendance drops etc.
      A great shame, think of all those great male writers whose voices would never have been heard of they had to deal with the sexism we find now

  1. If you interview three successful woman authors on whether sexism is choking the development of female talent, either they can say: “Yes [but I am amazingly lucky]”, “Yes [but I am super-talented and sexism only affects the weak/mediocre]”, or “No”. So we know what answer we’ll get.

    The next panel on the topic should consist of women who aren’t published because all their writing is about boring stuff/girl stuff/lesbian stuff, or who are published and gave up writing because they have to do housework while their husband develops his career, or who are working full-time while their husband develops his artistic career. But who would want to hear from such sad people? Better a panel of Dr. Panglosses, talking about how easy it is to get published in this, the best of all possible literary scenes. Call it the fair anthropomorphic principle: the laws of the universe seem to have been tweaked to perfection and set in motion just to guarantee the career success of Kirstin Tranter, Emily Maguire and Karen Hitchcock. What a surprise!

    The sexism doesn’t even have to be in the publishing industry for it to wreck women’s careers. It can be in their homes, or their workplaces, or their legislature. Anything that drives women away from the keyboard or notepad, and back to the mill, the skillet, or the cradle. There’s a lot of money to be made in ruining people’s lives, and women have a very special and important place in that economy.

  2. I am undecided as yet. I suspect the Orange prize is a wee bit patronising, but I also know we’re not really getting the representation in the Booker… so I don’t know.

    Also, reading my way through the Orange prize is so much more attainable than the Bookers! And I heart Ann Patchett.

    Did you like Butterfly? I got about two chapters in and threw the book in the ‘give away’ box.

    1. I adored ‘Butterfly’! I find it endlessly fascinating hearing about what people, writers in particular, do and don’t ‘like’. I had to read Patchett’s ‘Bel Canto’ when I was studying, totally not something I would have picked up otherwise. But I actually really loved it… I wonder if it is a good example of something that, had it had a man’s name attached to it, would have received far more recognition.

  3. My recollection of that session is very different. I’m pretty sure we didn’t agree with each other on much at all and certainly not on the answer to the question in the program. I remember a lot of discussion about how sexism operates in publishing as compared to other industries, about how it intersects with things like class and education and age. We also talked quite a bit about the problem with grouping together 3 individuals whose writing and career paths have been very different and trying to reach any conclusion about women or the industry in general.

    My personal conclusion, by the way, was and is, that some women can and do thrive despite the sexism found in and out of the literary world. This doesn’t make the sexism non-existent or unimportant or negate the need to talk about it.

    1. Emily, I apologise if I was a little simplistic in my summary of the session. I do remember a lot of discussion about sexism in our wider culture, but not a lot specifically about the publishing industry. I thought the general consensus was that women can thrive in today’s culture – and this was evident in the accomplishments of the panellists. You make a valid point, however, that this is despite inherent sexism, as opposed to because it does not exist.

      The conclusions I drew may be a result of the expectations I took with me into the session, largely perhaps because of the title. Maybe because there were no anecdotes about bum-grabbing and ‘casting-couch’ style propositions (slush-pile couch?)I naively believed that ones gender no-longer has any relevance to ones literary success. The reality is though, that sexism isn’t necessarily so blatant.

  4. Claire, my recollection of the session is that it was really all over the place, and also that there was a significant amount of disagreement, particularly between Emily and myself on the one hand and Karen on the other, who doesn’t seem to think that sexism is as much of an issue as Emily and me. The topic wasn’t very clearly defined – it grew out of a discussion I had before the SWF with director Chip Rolley about Mad Men and how I think it reflects the present moment when we are seeing a return to some “retro” sexist attitudes. My suspicions were confirmed by a study described in the SMH this week confirms that more people now think that full time mothers are better mothers than ones who work. I see evidence of this all around me, a kind of new feminine mystique.
    But the panel topic turned into a kind of baggy monster as they sometimes do.
    Surely it’s not even a debate as to whether or not Australian literary culture is sexist or excludes women. Look at the present issue of ALR: 2 out of 16 women contributors. No major state literary awards so far this year have even short listed novels by women in the fiction category (have they? please correct me if I’m wrong). Since 1995 when Helen Demidenko/Darville won the Miles Franklin only two women have taken the award. But women do thrive all the same, as you point out. The publishing industry may be sexist but being a woman is not an obstacle to getting published (just to getting reviewed in the New York Times, or winning a literary award). And I like to think that this is some kind of transitional moment: the future belongs I hope to bloggers like Crikey’s Angela Meyer and not to the chauvinist old guard.

  5. The idea that some women ‘work’ and some women ‘do housework, family and look after children’ and that these things are different at some fundamental level – that one is ‘real work’ and the other … I don’t know: what? Subjugation to an outmoded feminine ideal? Whatever. It makes me SCREAM! It is SO PATRIARCHAL to pigeon hole women as important (doing what men do) or unimportant (doing what women have traditionally done) – dividing the sisterhood according to WHAT THEY DO! Good mother/bad mother … aaarrgghghghle!

    Of course publishing is sexist – EVERYTHING IS SEXIST! The whole society is set up on patriarchal sensibilities from times when women were CHATTEL.

    I believe this age-old patriarchal set up has also entrapped men.

    No country for young women? Try being an old one! No one
    says, there goes that distinguished-looking woman with the grey hair. Why not? Because she’s dyed it scrabbling to exist in a truly sexist paradigm that she bought into years ago and doesn’t even know it, it’s so deeply entrenched into her psyche … unless she wakes up and goes arghghghle!

    Or is that just me?

    end. rant. now.

    Thanks for the article, Claire Z 🙂

    1. Not just you! The ‘young woman’ part of the title was a topic of great discussion, too. I have had more than one man tell me that being female is an advantage in the media because the media loves pretty young women. Um, okay, so the advantage for ugly old women is what? And according to the mainstream media’s narrowly definition of ‘beauty’ we’re all ugly old women sooner or later.

      Highly recommend Virginie Despentes ‘King Kong Theory’ on this, by the way.

    2. Clare, when it comes to the whole ‘real’ work verses motherhood thing, I too come very close to pulling out my hair and rendering myself bald. (At least then I wouldn’t have to face the colour conundrum. BTW I know quite a few women, you will be pleased to know, who refuse to colour and are the epitome of distinguished and sophisticated because of it.)
      I chose to give up a career that was just kicking off in order to stay at home when I had a baby. I wasn’t forced into it by a patriarchal society, it was a choice I made. And I often feel a little scorn from women who feel I’ve let the side down by taking on a ‘traditional’ role…

      This aside, I am fortunate that I am able to combine writing with motherhood, if I were a bio chemist or something, I dare say I would be feeling far more frustration than I am now.

  6. The publishing industry can only reflect the broader society in which it operates and so it’s no surprise that men are employed in its upper echelons.

    And while it’s great, and again not surprising that women are successful in spite of the industry’s patriarchy and sexism, that’s not good enough.

    The bigger question is how can we change things so that talented women have the same chance as talented men to succeed as publishers, senior editors and award winning writers.

    I’m hopeful that Gen Y will be much less chauvinistic than the generations preceding them and that new media forums will change the status quo and increase opportunities for women to get the recognition they deserve.

    Thanks for great blog Claire and the interesting discussion it has prompted.

  7. It’s an interesting question. Certainly, publishing is an industry very much dominated by women. But that’s partly because it was historically seen as a field in which it was OK for ladies to dabble for a while before they got married. So, yes, there were jobs for women but they were accompanied by remarkably low wages — and it’s still a very underpaid industry.
    Furthermore, you need to look at the particular roles that each gender takes on. Publicists in Australia are overwhelmingly female, as are copyeditors, proofreaders, etc. Yet the senior management of publishing houses is almost exclusively male. What’s more, the more macho parts of the industry — like printing — are still male.
    On the writing side of the business, the more you move into serious non-fiction, the more men dominate. The gender balance in fiction is, for instance, much better than in, say, politics.

    1. Jeff, I think you’re right, and it’s significant that historically women have always been associated with the novel, as both readers (esp of derogated, supposedly corrupting, feminized genres such as romance & mystery) and writers (think Aphra Behn, author of one of the first novels ever, Oroonoko). That hasn’t changed. My impression is that overseas in US & UK there is a slightly different gender balance in publishing especially in editorial but here it’s still very female dominated except at the senior management level as you say.

  8. Yep, it follows that wherever large numbers of women are employed – nursing, community sector, teaching, publishing, retail – low wages predominate.

  9. No worries, Claire. I think that the problem is we had several different but related conversations all crammed into an hour.

    One issue is that the publishing industry is not the same thing as the ‘literary scene’. So we had three authors on the panel, and while we have some insight into the publishing world, we’d really need to hear from publishers and editors and publicists who work in that industry because their experience is going to be totally different to that of the authors they publish.

    Then there’s a different conversation about who gets published, who gets promoted, how their work is promoted & reviewed etc.

    And then there’s the ‘young woman’ thing, which means talking about age.

    And then there’s the ‘newly retro world’ part of the topic, which means talking about whether it’s retro at all and if that’s new or not and if parts of the world are more retro than others and how publishing and literature fit into that and….

    So, yeah, a lot going on in that topic and its very easy to think the answer to one aspect is an answer to the whole big mess. Thanks for bringing the discussion to this blog where we’re not constrained by time limits & program questions.


  10. Interesting discussion, thanks for starting it Claire. Yes, I agree Emily that there’s a difference between working in the publishing industry and being an author. I’ve found (as an editor) that Australian publishing is dominated by women not only in lowly jobs but also in senior positions. Off the top of my head I can think of three women MDs at major publishing houses (Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins) and the vast majority of the senior editors/publishers I know are women.

    I think the industry is less sexist than many. But I think it’s a whole other question when it comes to women writers. I’ve not yet read the new Franzen but going on ‘The Corrections’, which I thought was pretty good but didn’t LOVE, I was surprised it got the massive response it did and do seriously wonder, as you say Claire, what the response would have been to this domestic melodrama if it had been written by Joanna Franzen.

  11. Can someone tell me if a recording or transcript of ‘No Country for Young Women’ is available to listen to or read on the internet. If not or even if is, could Kirsten, Emily, Karen and Susan do it all again in Melbourne?

  12. As someone who works in publishing and is trying to write, I think about this often and I feel I run up against it a lot.

    One of the first posts I wrote for Overland was on this subject and was inspired by the idea that there weren’t enough ‘really committed’ women writers in Australia – women who would stay up all night, scribbling by candlelight, to finish that story. A commitment that men are clearly born with.

    Yes, I believe society is fundamentally sexist and so this kind of discussion, as Trish says, needs to look beyond how many women vs men are published (which in itself is an interesting statistic: there are far more women writing, right?). We need to examine the kinds of writing, the kinds of intelligence and the kinds of experiences we privilege, which are still that of the white heteronormative male – despite the fact that these writings constitute practically the entire literary canon.

    So even if you are a woman in publishing, these will be your margins and the expectations. If you’re a woman writing, look at the Age or Drum or any other publication (or bookshop) on any given day, and see the topics women writers are relegated to.

    About a year ago, Lizzie Skurnick wrote an article about the literary scene in the States, ‘Same Old Story: Best-Books Lists Snub Women Writers’. Sitting on award panels, she found that this discrimination wasn’t sexism, it was simply that the judges felt ‘Philip Roth’s output is impressive while Joyce Carol Oates’ is a punchline.’

    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.

    To expand this beyond gender, this was Zetta Elliott writing on race and reviews on Justine Larbalestier’s blog in February:

    This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. […] Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

    And, I would add, primarily for white men, which is why Franzen’s book would be barely noticed if written by a woman.

    1. Far more women writing … and reading, they say. Certainly editing and it seems, publishing. And shopping for food, commodities and educations … and yet there are still these questions, frustrations, needs for feminisms.

      It’s only just 100 years since women won the right to vote for men in an all-male parliamentary system. Like all forms of slavery and oppression, there is a whole psychological revolution to unfold.

      Oh, all this thinking is making me faint and overheating my delicate brain – I shall leave it to the men and steady my nerves with a little tapestry – I’m making a lovely sampler to commemorate Mary MacKillop’s sainthood.

  13. I think it would be interesting for someone to actually do the stats on male-female ratio in the various \ranks\ of publishing companies in Australia, in order to fairly analyze whether it is a sexist industry or not. I worry there is too much assumption going on above, and perhaps if we dig deeper we might actually realise there is a lot more balance than has been given credit.

    I work in a publishing house with a male CEO and publishing director, but the majority (not ALL I say loudly) of our publishers acquiring our books are female. Jane GW rightly points out at least three female executives at other houses. Random House, with a female MD and Publishing Director, also has a male non-fiction publisher and three male editors – fancy that! Pan also has a male publisher. And, in terms of authors, I feel like I work with a very balanced number of men and women across both our fiction (both literary and popular) and non-fiction lists.

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