Women are not actually a minority group, nor is there a shortage, in the world, of female writers.
So began the open letter to the New Yorker from subscriber Anne Hays, a letter that noted the remarkable under-representation of female writers in that journal.
Since then, VIDA – a group for women in the literary arts – has conducted a survey about how various British and American literary and cultural magazines treated books by male and female writers in 2010.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they discovered that the most influential outlets reviewed nearly two books by men to every one book by a woman.
There’s no recent comparable study in Australia, but one suspects that the figures would be comparable. In the wake of this year’s Miles Franklin Prize, Alison Croggon wrote: ‘It is the second time in three years that the Miles Franklin shortlist has been all male. In the past ten years, the big prize has been won by a man eight times.’
But the argument about female writers can be extended more broadly. If the literary world under-represents half the population, what does it do to those from actual minorities?
Last year, Overland was attacked by some conservative professors, aggrieved that the journal would not reiterate right-wing talking points about Palestine. But we were chagrined to discover some truth to their allegations of bias (albeit not in the way that they’d meant) – in our discussion of the Middle East, we had published no Arab writers at all.
Again, this is typical. If Australian literature is male, it’s also very, very pale, both in terms of writing and in terms of readership. Where are the Sudanese novelists? Who is publishing Muslim poets? Where are the essayists from Indian backgrounds? Why do so few people from the Vietnamese diaspora attend Australian writers’ festivals?
The literati are often mocked for representing the inner cities. But you only have to compare the ethnic composition of the average book launch with that of an urban streetscape to see how silly that is.
In Overland 202, we published, with assistance from the CAL Cultural Fund, the first in a series of essays designed to highlight emerging writers from under-represented backgrounds. The next CAL-Connections piece will appear in Overland 204 – and you can find details of how to become involved on our website.
But opening up the literary culture entails more than merely making space for new writers, as important as that endeavour is. The obstacles to literary diversity are structural, not symbolic, and, in the end, we get the literature we deserve, with the books we read reflecting the society in which we live.
Or, to put it another way, shifting the culture entails changing the world.
That’s always been the Overland project – and it’s the spirit that unites the contents of edition 203.
© Jeff Sparrow
Overland 203-winter 2011, p. 3