13 October 201014 October 2010 Main Posts The literary scene sexist? Well, call me Betty Draper. Claire Zorn Back 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. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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