That literary sexism, in all its eruptions and perversions, exists in Australia is no huge surprise. Natalie Kon-Yu’s ‘A Testicular Hit-List of Literary Big Cats’, in the current Overland, confirms what has been known by women writers in this country since Stella Miles Franklin was first compelled to submit her work under a male pseudonym, and AG Stephens of The Bulletin counseled Barbara Baynton to switch the title of her feminist story ‘The Chosen Vessel’ to ‘The Tramp’, deftly reasserting the male figure as subject. If we needed any further proof, the latest Stella Count reveals that although two-thirds of Australian authors are women, almost every publication surveyed reviews more books by men, with the worst being the Australian Financial Review, at just 17 per cent by women writers.
As Kon-Yu identifies, literary sexism works not solely against a writer’s gender – women have won the Miles Franklin (albeit in gross minority) – but against subject, setting and theme. Thea Astley shunned the idea of being a ‘feminist writer’, wanting to write like a man — a strategy vindicated by four Miles Franklins. Of course, the bias against subject and setting is not limited to Australian literature. Kon-Yu quotes Margaret Atwood – ‘when a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it’s realism; when a woman does it it’s an unfortunate genetic limitation’ – prompting my recollection of a passage from Don De Lillo’s The Body Artist in which the male protagonist, Rey Robles, pours himself an orange juice:
He sat down and got up. He went to the fridge and got the orange juice and stood in the middle of the room shaking the carton to float the pulp and make the juice thicker. He never remembered the juice until the toast was done. Then he shook the carton. Then he poured the juice and watched a skim of foam appear at the top of the glass.
Recently, I used this example in a tutorial, posing the question, ‘Why do men writing about domestic stuff garner more attention than women writing about the same stuff?’ To which one male student replied, ‘It’s interesting because we don’t expect men to care so much about orange juice.’ Right, so I do?
But I’d argue that literary sexism (in subject, setting, and theme) maintains a particularly tenacious grip here because of our exceedingly masculinised history, as identified by Marilyn Lake, and its connection to nation-building – a tradition forged in polar opposition to Britain and its feminine associations, including, of course, its rich literary heritage of women writers. And yet, despite the seemingly intractable bias our ‘macho’ history exerts on questions of literary merit, I hope I am not being too optimistic in reading a heartening shift in recently shortlisted books by women. Of course, the Stella Prize is no indicator of a groundswell, encouraging as it does women writing about female experience (as well as male). Indeed, the current Miles Franklin shortlist (4 women to 1 man) must be attributed, at least in part, to the Stella’s work in promoting writing by women to the mainstream media’s attention.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve chaired a university reading group (Contemporary Australian Novels by Women) which meets monthly and mostly attracts female academics eager to discuss new writing by women. Our mission: to read the 2016 Stella shortlist, plus the additional two novels by women shortlisted for the Miles Franklin – Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek and Myfawny Jones’s Leap. (Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things appear on both lists.) Our group has one regular male attendee, committed, but dispiritingly outnumbered. To date, no other ‘bloke’ has set toe inside what I‘ve considered rebranding, ‘The Coven’, though each month I am hopeful. Of course, when I established the group I anticipated a female majority, but not to this degree. Why don’t they come? Next year I’m tempted to convene Contemporary Australian Novels by Men just to see who comes.
But, year to date, what has our group discovered?
Most refreshing in terms of subject matter is a pronounced shift toward so-called female concerns (family, children, home life, relationships) through which urgent societal issues are being explored and critiqued. With this comes a welcome dismantling of outmoded binaries aligning space and place with narrative relevance – that is, the idea that a novel about a thirty-something mother set in suburbia, that most maligned and feminised of Australian literary locations, cannot speak to wider human concerns. By asserting the centrality of domestic life, books like Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, and Myfanwy Jones’s Leap comment on how late capitalism, climate change, childhood trauma, utopianism – not to mention gender politics, parenting, marriage, and childbirth – affect us all. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection Six Bedrooms equally affirms the importance of the domestic territory as a critical, formative space in which children struggle to become adults. Fiona Wright’s essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance fixes the female body as a subject and a place through which the writer considers philosophical questions related to belonging, love, identity, technology, and globalisation. That this particular body suffers and is undersized, is, to some extent, beside the point against a tradition of objectification of the female body. At least this body, Wright’s work attests, looks out – at least it sees, rather than just being seen, and is thus strangely powerful despite its smallness and its pain.
Most exciting though is the return of overtly feminist writing, not seen since the 1970s and 80s. Echoing Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ in setting and theme, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things qualifies as dissident fiction. Wood is angry and it shows. Why, in 2016, are we still in this place? Why, if anything, are things getting worse? In her collection of stories A Few Days in the Country, Elizabeth Harrower also rages, however elegantly, against the limitation and containment of women by men, themes repeated from her earlier novels but arguably made more potent by their smaller scale. This semester, I’m convening a first-year university course (Introduction to Australian Literature) and the final novel on the reading list is Wood’s book, provocatively set alongside Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda and its unapologetic exploration of masculinity and sport, those longstanding chestnuts of Australian literature (not forgetting war and the bush). In this very modest way, I’m setting out to even up the score, to promote contemporary writing by women as vital and important to all readers, regardless of gender.
For me though, most troubling in Kon-Yu’s essay is her professed turning away from fiction writing on the grounds that she is not being paid attention due to the ‘femaleness’ of her work. Look at the statistics and she has a point – no writer wants to slave away, ignored and unpublished by dint of their gender. It’s tempting to take on, as many have before, a pseudonym so that when I write about period pain or childbirth or heavens, pouring orange juice into a glass, that some editor somewhere will think it’s genius the way I write ‘with male thrust’ about a woman’s world. Or else, keep on being a chick, but write about more blokey things like … cripes, the queues at Bunnings on a Saturday morning or riding a wild brumby down a snowy mountain.
But this won’t do. I won’t give in. I’ll keep writing about being a woman in my misogynist country, in my misogynist world. I’ll keep writing about my experience, my body, my daughters, my home, my work, my suburb, my marriage, my fears, my dreams, my imaginings, my desires. I’ll write about men too, create male characters, but I won’t censor the questions that fuel my writing as exploration, as sense-making, as protest, because most often these questions relate to female experience. So shoot me.
Meanwhile, I’ll champion books like Charlotte Wood’s dystopian portent, set in that most revered of literary locations – the Australian bush – to my students and say, ‘Read this. It’s about being a woman in Australia in the twenty-first century. What it’s like right now, and how it could get a hell of a lot worse if we don’t keep fighting, if we don’t keep writing.’
Image: A shearer / Flickr
Writers and artists, enter our Fair Australia Prize!
*How do we make a fair society? What are the things that need to change?
*What would a sustainable future or a just justice system look like?
*How can we improve labour or employment practices?
*What might a fairer planet look like in twenty years?
If you’re thinking about entering but don’t yet have a subject, check out the reading/watching recommendations from some of the judges or the background material for the Fair Australia Prize.
Closes 31 August. Visit the 2016 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize page for details. Entry is free.