Attack of the 50ft heroine

Shearer's Bookshop event

Ah, women. Give them the vote and the next thing you know they’ll be writing books and jumping up and down about equality. In pants!

Recently, on a particularly cold Sydney night, four such women braved the elements, gathering in Shearer’s Bookshop, Leichardt, to discuss heroines and all the messy stuff that goes with them, including yeast infections. (It’s okay, chaps, stay with me. Last time Ill mention it. Promise.) This, the second of a series of author events titled ʻWhen Genres Attackʼ, featured PM Newton, Kirsten Tranter, Mardi McConnochie and Georgia Blain. The discussion traversed Bear-Grylls style across many a rocky terrain, including: the apparent gender bias in The Miles Franklin Awards, the expectations and baggage loaded on female characters, and the ways in which books by female writers are marketed. It is on this last point that I will pause and feast, before building a small waterproof shelter for myself from the carcass. (No, stay! It’ll be fun.)

One of the aforementioned authors (Iʼll let you guess which one) chooses to go by her initials because it means men are more likely to pick up her book. Sad but true. It appears some men are reluctant to be seen in public reading the work of a female author. PM Newton said that she had heard many a tale of said menfolk rushing through an airport, spotting her book, buying it, reading it and later declaring to their wife/girlfriend*/cat how great it was. Only to be informed by their wife/girlfriend/particularly-literate cat that The Old School was written by a woman, leading them to declare, ʻBut I never read books by women!ʼ Then, presumably, going out to kill a defenseless animal in order to cleanse themselves. My goodness, what poor insecure sods these individuals must be. Perhaps publishers would do better to fund some sort of national therapy for these chaps, help them feel a little more self-assured in their masculinity. It would open up a whole new market.


Just as some men find it difficult to purchase certain books for fear of contracting girl germs, marketing experts (and I use this term loosely) believe that once a woman has borne fruit from her womb she will find herself uncontrollably attracted to terracotta flowerpots and little cottages tucked away beneath the heather. Enter, the ʻMumsʼ Bookʼ, a term suggested to Georgia Blain by Debra Adelaide. Ugh. You see, Overlanders, if a woman dare write a novel engaging ‘domestic’ themes – not because she is woman but a PERSON living in the WORLD – it will get a cover with pink tones/patterns/flowers/someone in a dress. (The glimmer of hope here is the cover for Emily Maguire’s Smoke in the Room, which managed to escape the ʻdecorativeʼ touch. Not so for the Kindle edition, though.)

Which leads us nicely to romance.

Consider Alex Miller, an author in the habit of adding more than a dollop of romance to his novels. As the panel all agreed, Miller is celebrated as a great writer of literary fiction – as he should be – yet if a woman dare write a relationship-driven narrative, she is billed by her very publisher as a romance writer. And given a cover with a soft-focus character shot and swirly font. ʻHold on there, lassie!ʼ You may well say. ʻYou just described Lovesongʼs cover!ʼ Why yes, as our fair panel did point out, Lovesong has a very ʻfeminineʻ cover. Yet it still falls into the category of literary fiction rather than romance. It was awarded the NSW Premier’s prize, the Age Book of the Year prize for fiction, as well as overall Age Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. (In a year where, surprise, surprise, only one female author was shortlisted.) Methinks it is worth pondering whether such acclaim would have been given to the novel were it written by an alien. I mean, a woman.


McConnochieʼs novel The Voyagers, which she herself dubbed a ʻlove storyʼ, certainly received the girly treatment cover-wise, although she accepts that covers have to act as a sort of shorthand for would-be readers. She hopes that readers will experience her work in all its nuanced complexity, rather than within the narrow parameters suggested by the cover (which she does quite like). Of course, the chronic disease that is gender-specific marketing spreads across all genres. McConnochie spoke of writing a comic novel and having it packaged as chic-lit, complete with pink cover. She didn’t specify which novel she was referring to, yet it’s fair to suggest the offending cover belongs to Fivestar. I don’t know what kind of women HarperCollins thought they were targeting there, but I don’t know any half-literate woman who would pick up a book that looks like that. It says, I’ve misplaced my Cosmo, but I, like, totally love the way my reading glasses make my eyes look a bit bigger!ʼ Whereas closer inspection (i.e. reading) reveals that this title is more in the realm of Ben Elton than Candice Bushnell. In fact, I’ve just ordered a copy. (Will rip cover off.)

So, what’s to be done? Well, as our panel noted, hopefully the Stella Prize for female Australian authors will be up and running soon. The committee includes Sophie Cunningham, Kirsten Tranter, and Jo Case and Rebecca Starford of Kill Your Darlings. (Sophie Cunningham spoke about the prize on Radio National’s Book Show.) I believe they are in need of sponsors, so if you happen to have some cash that you’ve nothing to do with other than prop up the legs on your wobbly footstool, then please, they’d love to here from you. As for marketing, we can only hope that if titles by women receive a little more attention from the gatekeepers of the literary set (i.e. judges) then they won’t need to resemble fragranced soaps to get off the shelves of the bookshop.

It’s a shame the prize is needed in my opinion, yet it’s glaringly obvious that something has got to change. And soon.

*These types of men are NEVER EVER gay.

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 ›

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  1. Fantastic stuff, Claire. You managed, like many women are, to address the topic with a good dollop of humour without avoiding the seriousness of the matter. I agree about the Stella prize being necessary while, at the same time it being a shame that there’s a need for it. Sexism woven so intricately into our most prestigious accolades: men in sport, men in cooking, men, men, men really! It’s enough to make one want to do something unbecoming.

  2. I agree with everything … EXCEPT the patronising (matronising?) quip about men not being able to read about yeast infections without becoming squeamish.

    I could do without being patted on my quivering hand when I’m reading about reading, thanks.

  3. Great piece Claire! Really made me laugh.
    It’s seems funny that women still find the need to go under ‘anonymous’ or initialized names instead of their actual name. Last time I checked, this wasn’t the 19th century? Women can vote now! Do stuff! Seems impossible.
    Oh feminism; how I miss thee.

  4. Oh boy this is a raw nerve in me. I realised (like the well worn thunder bolt from the blue) a little time ago, that while there is a genre called ‘women’s fiction’ there’s no male equivalent – ie ‘men’s fiction’. Presumably books featuring largely women characters are only supposed to be of interest to women, while books/movies with male characters, no matter how phallocentric, are supposed to be of interest to all of us. Similarly, with movies, as a heterosexual female I take no pleasure in having other women’s bits waved in front of me every five minutes, but when the movie The Full Monty came out, when I mentioned to any male within my acquaintance that I’d like to see it, they invariably expressed indignation bordering on outrage. “Why would I want to see a movie about men stripping?” they all huffed. Given the gratuitous female nudity we’re *treated* to every five minutes, I couldn’t believe they’d take such exception to the possibility that they might catch a glimpse of another man’s wang. I mean, what are they doing at those urinals? “Cover me, Frank, I’m going in blind!” Makes sense of the bathroom floor, though, doesn’t it? I think I may have wandered off topic.

  5. Considering this is a recap of a panel on genre, I’m quite disheartened by the snobbery against romance. Questioning why Lovesong wasn’t marketed as romance demonstrates such a lack of understanding of the genre that I don’t know where to begin. Most romance readers would hurl that book against a wall if they started reading it expecting a romance.

    1. Hi Kat, the panel wasn’t questioning why ‘Lovesong’ wasn’t marketed as a romance so much as asking whether it would have been if a woman’s name were on the cover. There was no snobbery against romance on the panel and I didn’t certainly didn’t intend for it to appear that way. McConnochie’s latest novel is titled ‘Voyagers: A love story’, and she was expressing frustration that it may be pigeon-holed (as much romance is) as ‘women’s fiction’ rather than be appreciated for the complex, nuanced work that it is.

      1. (Sorry for taking so long to respond, Claire. I didn’t realise you had replied to my first comment!)

        So I think I have two issues. To think that Lovesong could be marketed as a romance in the genre sense shows a lack of understanding of what the romance genre requires. (Namely, a central love story and an optimistic–but, really, we mean happy–ending.)

        Whether it would be marketed as a love story (or small ‘r’ romance in the non-genre sense of the word) is probably a valid point, but it’s not really about genre then.

        My second issue is around the idea that being labelled as women’s fiction or genre romance pigeon-holes a book. There’s an implication that romance readers can’t appreciate or don’t seek complexity and nuance in their reading. That’s not necessarily true. For me, personally, I’ll often accept lack of depth as a trade-off for the guarantee of emotional justice, but stories with deeply conflicted characters are those that I end up keeping instead of donating to the library.

        I do agree, however, than if we’re talking just about literary awards, then being marketed as women’s fiction or romance would scuttle a book’s chances. But I blame the judges for that–not the books.

        In case you’re interested, for some examples of good literary analysis of the romance genre, I’d recommend Teach Me Tonight and Read React Review as well as the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, as I’m hopelessly unqualified for that sort of in-depth discussion!

  6. “yet if a woman dare write a relationship-driven narrative, she is billed by her very publisher as a romance writer.”
    How dreadful. Can’t have any of those romance germs floating around. Sigh.

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