This September, Black Inc. is publishing an all-male anthology of short stories called Where there’s smoke. It’s going to feature people like Nam Le, Tim Winton, Shane Moloney, David Malouf and JM Coetzee.
When I first heard about this all-men anthology, I thought it was a joke. Then someone told me it was being released as a companion volume to Something special, something rare, Black Inc.’s recent all-women short story anthology, featuring people like Cate Kennedy, Joan London, Kate Grenville, Alice Pung and Sonya Hartnett. I thought that was part of the joke, too. Then I checked the Black Inc. website. It wasn’t a joke.
I really wish it had been.
The single worst way to follow up an anthology celebrating the cream of Australia’s women writers is to turn right around and publish an all-men book less than six months later. Why would anyone even do that? Is it some kind of attempt to ‘balance things out’ – to make sure that in all the focussing on women’s writing we don’t overlook men’s writing?
That’s doubtful: as has often been discussed in literary circles, men’s writing is hardly at risk of being overlooked. Statistics provided by the Stella Count and the VIDA Count make it clear how much gender imbalance has existed in the history of publishing, and how differently writing by men and women has been treated.
These differences manifest themselves in many ways including the way women authors are reviewed, the amount of time or column inches devoted to reviewing writing by women, the relative numbers of male and female reviewers (and their prominence, both in terms of page layout and frequency of publication), and the way that books by men and women are marketed.
In every single instance, male authors receive more consistent and more prominent publication and promotion than women authors. Even writing that focuses on the experience of men, whether written by women or men, is generally treated as better than writing that has female protagonists.
All of these differences support the false assumption that, because more male writers are written about – and written about more prominently – male authors must be more worthy of being written about than women. It also supports the assumption that the opinions, views and ideas of male writers are worth more than those of women writers, and thus that the opinions of men in general are worth more than the opinions of women.
Until very recently there has been a distinct lack of public acknowledgement of this longstanding bias, except in specialist circles. This has allowed it to continue unchallenged for a very long time. To a large proportion of the reading public, these differences aren’t a result of bias at all – they’re simply how things are.
The titles of these two anthologies are a perfect example of this kind of bias in action. The all-men book gets a title evocative of the power of fire, while the all-women book’s title implies that talented women writers are difficult to find. Now it may be the case that these books’ titles came from titles of the stories in the collections themselves, but surely there were other, better choices on offer.
I contacted Black Inc. to ask them about their motivation for publishing Where there’s smoke. They responded with the following:
Just as it’s interesting and valuable to consider women’s writing as a collective body or canon of work (as we did in our recent collection, Something Special, Something Rare) it is interesting and valuable to observe men’s writing in this way too (not as the default, but as a formal exercise). Within each group there is great diversity of voices – there’s no one ‘women’s writing’ or ‘men’s writing’ – and this becomes even clearer once their respective canons are separated.
But publishing a collection that focuses on the work of women writers isn’t ‘interesting’. It’s essential if you want to push back against the gender bias that exists in the Australian publishing industry. Publishing an all-male anthology isn’t interesting either. In fact, it’s an incredibly loaded gesture.
If a natural response to an all-women anthology is to publish a collection by men, do we also need an all-male literary award in response to the Stella Awards? Perhaps as a formal exercise to see what kind of diverse male authors’ work such an award would celebrate? Maybe we need more anthologies featuring only white authors in response to anthologies that focus on Indigenous Australian authors or writers from non-European backgrounds?
Of course we don’t. Male (particularly white male) authors already get more than enough column inches, airtime and accolades to illustrate and celebrate the diversity within their ranks.
In a culture where privilege sits most with men, any attempt to shift gender imbalance is going to involve telling men, ‘this is not for you’. This is a problem for some men. But given that most publishers, editors, producers and reviewers are also men, they can often overlook such challenges.
The issue is this: we don’t get social equality by making sure that everyone gets an equal share. We get social equality by questioning and rejecting the long-standing inequalities that have shaped society over centuries by creating false assumptions about people’s relative value.
We do that by working to make sure the people who are the beneficiaries of that inequality (directly or indirectly) are challenged, even provoked, into becoming aware of their privilege and prevented from blithely taking advantage of it. The hope is that they won’t respond to genuine attempts to address that inequality by saying, ‘Where’s mine?’
Challenges to gender bias in publishing have been taking place for a relatively short time. It’s far too early to start pushing back and arguing for equal treatment for men. What’s confronting for some about this is the need to accept that men already have a more than equal share of things. Indeed, men are going to have to give some things up if they want to make a difference to the way things are – things like salary increases, job opportunities and, yes, the chance to be published in an all-male short story anthology.
There’s no need for a book like Where there’s smoke. The Australian reading public doesn’t need another ‘celebration’ of men’s writing. None of the authors in this anthology need help getting published (none of them are particularly hard to find in bookshops, either).
The same cannot necessarily be said for the authors in anthologies that focus on excluded writers. Such writers need the help of specialist collections to raise their voices above the loud and pervasive promotion of men and their writing. Men don’t.