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2012: The year of Australian women writers

I declare 2012 the year of Australian women writers.

And I’m thanking the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And the happy chance that two novels by Australian women published this year have dominated the literary prizes: Anna Funder’s All that I Am, which won seven awards including the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which won among others the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Created in September 2011, partly in response to the all-male 2011 Miles Franklin Award shortlist, the Stella Prize came into its own this year. In 2012 the Stella has run a series of thought-, conversation- and blog-provoking events – and inspired many others.

Perhaps the most significant ‘event’ inspired by the Stella is Elizabeth Lhuede’s Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge (AWW), a flourishing website which reviews books written by Australian women created in late 2011. Since then, over 370 people have signed up to review books and so far they’ve generated 1250 reviews. Impressive stats.

As part of the AWW challenge Overland’s fiction editor Jennifer Mills read for the first time five Australian ‘classics’ written by women, which she reviewed last month. Mills wrote: ‘Knowing these women readers and writers have gone before makes me feel that I am part of an active culture, a living thing.’

The indefatigable Lhuede has just wrapped up the achievements of AWW so far at the Huffington Post, where she gives a fascinating overview of the books by women reviewed on the AWW blog this year.

The first thing that struck me on reading it was range of genres it includes. As Lhuede says: ‘The reviews haven’t all been of literary fiction. They cover nonfiction and poetry, as well as genres that rarely, if ever, get reviewed by traditional media such as horror, romance and erotica.’ The genres covered include literary, classics, historical, crime, mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, young adult, history, memoir, biography. Comprehensive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women writers this week in preparation for a Stella event at the State Library of New South Wales on Wednesday – Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers. I’ve been thinking especially about the ongoing marginalisation of women writers in Australia – and one word that keeps recurring is ‘genre’.

A Stella event in Sydney earlier this year asked ‘Do women write differently from men?’ Of course we don’t – the range of women writers and writing is as vast as that of men. But I can’t help feeling that something like an idea that women write (and read) differently from men lurks at the heart of the marginalisation of women writers in the prevailing western literary culture (as suggested by the VIDA statistics).

Sometimes this is overt, as in Times Literary Supplement’s editor Peter Stothard’s remark that ‘while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS’. And other times subtle, as in Helen Garner’s comment on the Stella website, which has been bothering me all year: ‘The Stella Prize, with its graceful flexibility about genre, will encourage women writers to work in the forms they feel truly at home in, instead of having to squeeze themselves into the old traditional corsets.’

The question of genre was explored by Rebecca Giggs in the Spring 2012 issue of Overland in her essay ‘Imagining Women: On gender and genre’. Prompted by a question asked to Anna Krien about Into the Woods and why it was that the best nonfiction in the country was being written by women (Helen Garner, Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper, Amanda Lohrey), Giggs teases out the terrain of these nonfiction writers who defy generic conventions. They ‘incur upon the narrative; they let the narrative trespass upon them. They use the lyric, the language of poetry, and swear and slang with equal grace.’ In her exhilarating conclusion, Giggs argues these genre-bending women write to destroy all traditional categories and boundaries, including those of gendered discourse: ‘In short, these are writers who use nonfiction to burn down the barriers between masculine and feminine discourse, inner and outer worlds, form and content.’

These questions of genre and gender have a particular inflection in Australian literary history which dates back to that formative decade, the 1890s, and the strongly masculine style of fiction – realism, bush tales, lean prose, laconic characters – championed by the Bulletin’s AG Stephens. This particular brand of Australian fiction has shaped our thinking about national literature and ‘the great Australian novel’ – and is reflected in many of the Miles Franklin shortlists, notably the sausagefest (thanks Angela Meyer) of 2011. The terms of Franklin’s will – that the novel ‘must present Australian Life in any of its phases’ – seem to encourage this.

Julieanne Lamond explores Australian women’s writing in the context of this history in her brilliant Meanjin essay, ‘Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia’. Lamond draws on Susan Sheridan’s work on Australian women’s writing, saying that Sheridan ‘puts forward an account of the relationship between masculinity, genre, nation and literary worth that it seems to me might still be at play in judgements about women and literary value’. As Lamond tells it, Sheridan argues that during the 1890s and in subsequent accounts that upheld its values, ‘a set of ideas that came to define what it meant to be distinctively Australian were defined in opposition to a set of values that were identified with femininity and that ideas about what constitutes literary value in Australia are also gendered in favour of realism and the vernacular (a la Lawson and Rudd) as opposed to popular romance (a la Praed and Cambridge). These are of course false dichotomies but they have been compelling in discussions of Australian literature ever since the turn of the twentieth century.’

In my attempts to clarify my thinking about Australian women writers for the Stella event this week, I keep returning to the recent case of Kate Grenville and the different fates of her two historical novels, The Secret River (2005) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). Especially as it seems to me that, crudely speaking, the novels fall across the realism versus romance divide.

The Secret River (realism) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and several others, and was shortlisted for most literary awards, including the Miles Franklin. In contrast, Sarah Thornhill (romance) has won one award and been shortlisted for four. It does not seem to have had the critical attention that The Secret River received. And yet for me, Grenville’s achievement in Sarah Thornhill is at least as great, if not greater, than her achievement in the earlier novel. Except that Sarah Thornhill’s is a subtle and unambiguously feminine achievement: Grenville has conjured from nowhere, almost, with very few archival records of early nineteenth-century women’s voices, the vivid voice of an early Australian colonial girl, woman, lover, wife, mother. The novel is told in the first person, from the constrained, socially restricted, uneducated viewpoint of a girl. Does such a voice carry weight in our broader Australian literary culture? Not much, it seems. Or not as much as a third person account of Sarah Thornhill’s pioneering, nation-making father, the protagonist of The Secret History.

I’ll be chewing over these questions and more on Wednesday night with Geordie Williamson.

This will be my last blog post for Overland. For the foreseeable future anyway. I’m riding off into the dawn to do some genre bending of my own.

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

Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Alison.
    And thanks Jen. I like your line ‘paradigm-shifting year’. Good way to describe it I think.
    And I really loved your wrap of the five classics on the AWW website too. Had so many great quotes from you, could only fit in one above.

  2. That was such an excellent article, Jane, and thank you so much for mentioning all the hard work that Elizabeth Lhuede has put in this year. Australian Women Writers owe her a great debt. The AWW site and review site have done such a lot to showcase some great writing and air some very pertinent issues.
    Good luck with your genre bending!

  3. Surveying the major 2012 Australian literary awards (i.e. The Miles, The Age, The PM’s Award, and the State Premiers’ Awards), only two authors–Gillian Mears and Anna Funder–have been shortlisted for more of the major awards than Kate Grenville, whose three nominations ties her with Gail Jones, Janette Turner Hospital, Alex Miller, and Frank Moorehouse. Grenville was also, according to an article released by Bookseller and Publisher last week based on Neilsen Bookscan data, one of the top-selling authors at independent bookstores before Christmas in 2011. To claim that her most recent novel, Sarah Thornhill has not carried much “weight in our broader Australian literary culture” is inaccurate by any measure. Surely, it was one of the most successful works of Australian literary fiction last year, both commercially and critically. In any case, it is extremely rare for the author of a breakout, international success to duplicate that success with a subsequent release–but Grenville has come very close to doing so.

    I applaud Gleeson-White’s desire to change the unacceptable gender imbalance in Australian literary reviewing and prize culture, but this essential and important argument needs to be backed up with hard evidence (and there is plenty of hard evidence available!). For these reasons, the choice of Grenville’s novel seems unfortunate in this instance.

  4. Thanks Emmett for your thoughts.
    Yes, in your terms I suppose I was wrong to say that the voice of Sarah Thornhill carries ‘not much’ weight in the broader literary culture. But I was comparing ST to The Secret River which carried a lot of weight and suggesting that it carries less.
    And yes, your point about follow up books rarely doing as well as break out ones is a good one.
    My thinking on ST v TSR has come mostly from their relative fortunes in prize culture (not the greatest measure, but it does reflect a broad brush view) and from anecdotal evidence: conversations with friends who’ve thought SH a lesser novel, and with the author herself about their relative success. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
    I will now temper my views in light of your comments. So thanks very much, Emmett. I always appreciate your view.

    • And there is definite legitimacy to your claim in that regard. E.g. the category Sarah Thornhill won at the Australian Book Industry Awards was the “General Fiction” category, NOT the “Literary Fiction” category (for which Grenville wasn’t nominated). And my impression was that it seemed to be marketed less as a literary book and more as a general trade one–but I also wonder if this is because literary books don’t sell well?

      • Very interesting, thanks Emmett. Especially fact that Sarah Thornhill won the award in ‘general fiction’ category – and your suggestion that it was marketed more as general trade book, rather than literary. I think you’re right, with its moody cover + woman.
        (And you sure have the stats at your fingertips!)

  5. Great article Jane on an exciting year. I’m a blogger who has never done “challenges” this year because I hate my reading to be driven my external demands, but the AWW was a no-brainer. It was a challenge in the very thing I love to read most – Australian women. It has, though, been astonishing to me to see how many Aussie women are out there writing in genres. I had no idea. It’s fantastic that Elizabeth has decided to continue it.

    As for Sarah Thornhill, I must say your comment rang true with me. I haven’t read it (yet) but I think its reception, critically has been mixed compared with The Secret River. I’m fascinated by what you say because I’d heard such negative comparisons with The SR that I wondered about reading it. You’ve changed my mind on that (I do like Grenville as a rule anyhow…)

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts Sue and great to hear you’ve been reviewing for AWW! All power to you.
      And very interesting too to hear your impressions of the reception of Sarah Thornhill. Thanks for that!

  6. Mmm… with all this genre bending euphoria, and given also the prose emphasis here, and given too the Stella Prize ruling on what constitutes Literature(raised by Kent MacCarter at Cordite Poetry Review), I’d suggest not all women writers are feeling so celebratory at the moment.

  7. Excellent observation, Dennis. Thank you. Yes, Australian women poets are missing from the above discussion.
    But they make up the majority of the key Australian women writers I’m keen to discuss tonight at the State Library, you might be pleased to hear. (Which I write about here: http://bookishgirl.com.au/2012/12/03/barbara-baynton-henry-handel-richardson-mary-gilmore-et-al-as-sleeping-beauties-reviving-australias-forgotten-women-writers-at-the-state-library/)
    And as for the Stella decision to exclude poetry – I know the board agonised over that decision, and as far as I know it’s still open to discussion in the future.

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