‘A testicular hit-list of literary big cats’

Sometime in 2001, I decided to stop reading books by male authors. After a degree in English Literature and an Honours thesis on Samuel Beckett, I had grown weary of reading books by men about men.

I read Carol Shields’ last novel, Unless, in the summer of 2003, a book that examines, through the fictional life of author Reta Winters, the ‘callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds’, and the differences in how our culture values books by women and men. It is also the novel from which the title of this essay is taken. Unless helped me realise that all my years of reading books – so-called great books – by male writers had left me fairly clueless about women’s lives. Through my literary education, I had come to embrace a world in which I, as a woman, saw myself as marginal, ephemeral, vague.

Unless proved to be one of those prescient novels, and I’d like to think that if Carol Shields were still alive, she’d be satisfied to see how Reta’s realisations about the sexism in our literary culture have moved into the mainstream. In the United States, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts publish an annual count that reveals, each year, how little women are reviewed compared to their male counterparts. Here in Australia, the Stella Prize was established in reaction to the noticeable gender imbalance in the shortlists and winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Like VIDA, Stella also undertakes an annual count, which again demonstrates a gender bias against reviewing women’s work. When it began its formal count in 2010, VIDA noticed that in prestigious publications from the Paris Review to the London Review of Books, women’s work was only commanding one-quarter to one-third of reviews. They also found that women reviewers comprised a similar proportion of review staff and were far more likely to be assigned books by women. In Australia, the first Stella Count found that in the Weekend Australian, for example, the review pages were brimming with the work of male authors (70 per cent).

For more than a decade, I’ve been researching women’s writing – the assumptions about it and its reception. Lately, I’ve been focusing my academic research on literary prize culture, as I think that prizes show us, quite clearly, whose work we value and whose we don’t. Part of this was the result of reading Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. I was unsettled that the novel won the Miles Franklin, not because the writing isn’t beautiful or the story isn’t urgent, but because the book features a female protagonist who, for most of the novel, could have been a male character.

When a woman wins a national writing prize, we, as a culture, are prompted to see that as a major achievement for women, an indication that we are living in a meritocracy. So it is troubling when a female-authored book occupies hard-worn male territory, and when it is rewarded for precisely that reason. The novel’s protagonist, Jake, is moody and insular and lives on her own with her pet, Dog, for company. Praised for her physical skills, Jake – already masculinised through her name, short hair and manly clothing – is told by one of the shearers she works with that she is ‘a good bloody bloke’. In his review, Geordie Williamson writes that ‘wearing a self-cut fringe and habitually clothed in grimy dungarees, Jake has so successfully erased her gender that the reader is driven to confused re-reading’.

Even more troubling to me, though, is the praise that Wyld’s book elicited from the Miles Franklin judges, who begin their citation by characterising the book as a ‘road-movie-in-reverse’. This reading of masculine tropes within the text continues: the novel is also labelled an ‘upside-down pastoral elegy’ and as being ‘replete with adrenalin-fuelled escapades’; all characteristics that have historically been used to describe men’s, rather than women’s, fiction. This is echoed in the reviews for the book: the Sydney Morning Herald praises Wyld for her skilled use of the ‘aesthetics of omission’ à la Ernest Hemingway, ending the review by stating that ‘Evie Wyld can look forward to a career as successful and distinguished as that of old Papa himself’. To proclaim this as a victory for women, or for women’s writing, seems highly problematic.

Compare this to Olive Kitteridge, the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009 (unfortunately the Pulitzer doesn’t publish detailed judges’ reports). The New York Times opined that Olive wasn’t a nice person, citing passages from the book –‘Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology’ – yet the review also noted that as the novel progressed ‘a more complicated portrait of the woman emerges’. Olive is a complex woman, emotional yet acidic, large and yet fragile. She has a husband and son; she lives an ordinary, yet completely intriguing, life in small-town USA. That Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for this novel-in-stories about the eponymous Olive can, I think, be seen more clearly as that rare and tricky thing: a win for women writers.

But more often than not, when a woman wins a major literary award, she wins for writing like a male writer, for writing about men, or for setting her work in an unmistakenly masculine environment.

Of course, prizes are subjective, but they are important: they carry significant cash incentives – critical when you consider that in Australia, according to a recent Macquarie University study, most authors will earn only $12,900 each year from their writing. Prizes let an author know their work matters. Prizes function as harbingers of literary quality, too. Beth Driscoll writes that literary prizes ‘declare themselves sober consecrators of genius, ignoring the market-driven successes of bestsellers to honour outstanding works of literature’. Ivor Indyk states that literary prizes function ‘as the last bastion, in this world, for the literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace’; both touch upon the ways in which prizes measure literary quality rather than popularity.

Prize-winning books are those books that, according to former UQP general manager Laurie Muller, serious readers know they should read. Prizes, then, work for a mainstream audience the way the canon once functioned within academia. Since the 1970s, the literary canon has been critiqued by academics and writers who observed that it tended to include only the work of white, middle-class, heterosexual men. Although the flaws of the canon are widely acknowledged within academia now, there remain academics – such as Harold Bloom – who cling, white-knuckled, to the canon as the hallmark of genius, regardless of the overwhelming evidence of its inherent biases.

Given their exclusion from the canon, it is no surprise that women, writers of colour, working-class writers and non-heterosexual or non-cis writers do not win prestigious prizes as often as they should. For now, though, I want to focus on three prizes and examine their fractured relationship with gender, as this is fairly easy to account for, and since women comprise half the population and easily outnumber men in the publishing world.

Since its inception in 1969, the Man Booker Prize has been awarded to 16 women and 31 men. The Pulitzer, established in 1917, has been bestowed on 67 men and only 30 women, and, in Australia, only 14 women, compared to 28 men, have won the Miles Franklin. (None of these figures include joint winners.) This ratio is particularly shocking when you consider that, as Macquarie University found, 65 per cent of literary fiction authors, 76 per cent of genre fiction writers and 87 per cent of children’s authors in Australia are women.


By and large, the women writers awarded the Miles Franklin in the last twenty years write novels either about male protagonists, or about historical events such as war (the province of man for so many years): Anna Funder’s All That I Am, Alexis Wright’s Carpenteria, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Other books, such as Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Thea Astley’s Drylands, are set in the Australian bush – and while there have been a few women who have written feminist work about the bush (most notably the great Barbara Baynton) the bush figures largely in the white male imagination. An epic struggle between white man and nature. Patrick Allington notes that ‘part of that discussion about the Miles Franklin involves the historical privileging of male novelists (and, so often, men-centric stories) as well as non-urban stories’. We can see it plainly in the work of white male Miles Franklin winners from the last twenty years: The Ballad of Desmond Kale, The White Earth, Breath, Dirt Music, Journey to the Stone Country, The Glade within the Grove, Eucalyptus. It’s a tradition that goes back to Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.

Things aren’t much better overseas. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker award twice for her novels on Thomas Cromwell, and Eleanor Catton’s award-winning The Luminaries features a predominantly male cast. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch follows a male protagonist, as do Geraldine Brooks’ March and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. As novelist Nicola Griffith wrote last year, ‘The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.’ Perhaps even more damning is that prize-winning male authors don’t write about women. In the Miles Franklin’s past twenty years, only Alex Miller’s and Rodney Hall’s winning novels have featured a central female character.

Yet it is difficult to say what makes a book masculine and even harder to categorise what masculine writing actually is. In any given library catalogue there are hundreds of books and articles with titles that mention ‘women’ and ‘writing’, or ‘women’s writing’, but none that feature the phrase ‘men’s writing’. Bookshop visits will reveal shelves titled ‘chick lit’, but none called ‘dick lit’ or, as Linda Z, a book editor turned agent, puts it, a ‘white-guy shelf’. I’d posit that masculine writing and good writing are actually the same things because we are told, time and time again, what isn’t good writing. According to Anthony Burgess, Jane Austen’s novels fail because her writing ‘lacks a strong male thrust’. Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul categorised women’s writing as unequal to men’s because of women’s ‘sentimentality’ and ‘narrow view of the world’. William Gass declared that women ‘lack that blood congested genital drives which energises every great style’ (italics mine). These comments indicate that men’s writing is just writing and everything else is a sub-classification.

For me the interesting question is not whether men or women write differently, but rather how men’s and women’s work are read differently. That is, a man’s work will be uplifted by virtue of what Siri Hustvedt has termed the ‘masculine enhancement’ effect.

There are countless examples. Writer Catherine Nichols set up a fake email address and pitched her manuscript under a male name, only to find that the same manuscript was requested seventeen times under the male pseudonym, as opposed to twice under her real name. Alice Sheldon and Gwen Harwood have demonstrated that their work is received differently when they publish under male names, even when, in Harwood’s case, that work is purposely sub-par and contains messages like ‘Fuck All Editors’. In using a pen-name for her Neapolitan series, Elena Ferrante has left herself open to speculation that she might be a man, an allegation she scorns: ‘Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, “It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?”’ When it was rumoured back in the 1970s that James Tiptree Jr might have been a woman, Robert Silverberg scoffed, saying that ‘there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing’, calling the work ‘lean, muscular, supple’. Hustvedt writes that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sprawling My Struggle wouldn’t receive anywhere near the same amount of attention if it had been penned by a woman. Even books on the same topics are categorised very differently: Cheryl Strayed states that women’s writing is seen as ‘smaller, more particular and personal’. Conversely, as Reta notes, male authors are seen as ‘taking a broad canvas of society’ in their work. Pankaj Mishra has written that suburban novels are elevated to the status of ‘microcosmic explorations of the human condition if they are by male writers’ – or as Margaret Atwood put it in 1971:‘when a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it’s realism; when a woman does it it’s an unfortunate genetic limitation.’

It is problematic when women are seen as literary appendages in a world in which women are still subject to a litany of messages about their physicality – looks, size, desirability – and a world in which women and girls continue to be subject to sexual and violent crime. If we cannot fathom the idea that women can be interesting, complex and worthy of serious contemplation in those books we cite as the best in our culture, then we continue to cast women as marginal and inconsequential.

Maxine Beneba Clarke has written that discussion about issues of exclusion in literary prizes is necessary, that it ‘makes our literary prize culture robust, and keeps prize panels accountable’. But, she also notes, ‘Writers – particularly those most marginalised among us – don’t speak more openly about these things because voicing our concerns makes us fear for our future prize prospects, or more immediately, for our reputations and livelihood.’ This is a critical point. As well as being an academic, I’m also a writer: I’ve been a co–commissioning editor for two successful anthologies (itself a publishing miracle) in the last two years. Notably, our first book, Just Between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship, came out at about the same time as the English translation of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. But we had no knowledge of Ferrante or her work when we sat down and planned our anthology in a pub in Carlton in 2011; we only knew that platonic relationships between women get short shrift in our culture. Our book garnered a lot of publicity – reviews in The Age and Australian Book Review, as well as features in Good Weekend, the Canberra Times, Australian Women’s Weekly, the West Australian, Cosmopolitan and Vogue. I wrote on the book for Guardian Australia and was flown to Sydney to be interviewed on Radio National and ABC’s News Breakfast. Still now, I get interview requests from places as far away as Canada and the US. People were interested in the book and the topic – but this interest was limited to women.

Not a single review of JBU came from a male critic. The same with Mothers and Others, except that this time, my co-editor and I were interviewed by a male host on ABC Radio. His first question: ‘How come you haven’t commissioned any work by men?’ The book’s central premise is that motherhood is tied up with notions of femininity in an insidious way, which doesn’t hold for fatherhood and masculinity. It would have been obvious to anyone who had read the book, or even the book’s introduction.

I don’t know what it is about our books that make them seem uninteresting to men: is it that we actively seek out female writers, or that we are tackling so-called feminine subjects? Why, for example, aren’t friendship and parenthood viewed as universal themes when they are written by women? Hustvedt reminds us that women writers attract mostly women readers (about 80 per cent, according to a 2015 Goodreads survey), while male writers tend to attract an audience that is fifty-fifty, or as Hustvedt puts it, ‘men who write fiction have an audience representative of the world as a whole while women don’t.’

The expectations of limited appeal don’t just affect women’s writing, or books about women, but also those by or about Indigenous, culturally diverse, queer, working-class and transgendered people, who are all subject to a narrowing of their experiences within fiction. In ‘They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist’, Jenny Zhang talks about the exotic lure of the non-white writer, and the limitations placed on such writers in terms of representation or tokenism and subject matter. In 1987, Toni Morrison declared that she was reclaiming the label of ‘black woman writer’, stating that those who wouldn’t label her as such ‘were trying to suggest that I was “bigger” than that, or better than that’. Instead, she says,

I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.

Interestingly the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2015 has confirmed a bias in the world of North American publishing, revealing it to be a world where white straight women dominate, which confirms Marlon James’ statement that ‘we writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman’.

While the Lee & Low report found that women made up 78 per cent of the publishing industry, this number decreased to 59 per cent at the executive level. A recent piece on the Toast demonstrates that publishing is a gendered industry and, like all feminised professions, chronically underpaid. Obviously the prevalence of white women in the publishing industry needs to be tempered by the inclusion of other minorities, but prevalence itself does not mean that their work is valued in our culture. Prizes remind us that what matters most are stories written by men or about men, or in an acceptably masculine way (non-sentimental and with sufficient thrust). Women may dominate the publishing fields, they may have more of these jobs and have an easier time getting into print, but this seems like a poor consolation. Does it matter if more work is being published by women if it’s not reviewed, if their texts don’t end up on school book lists or aren’t featured in our most recognised publications?

Anyone who works in this field knows about what Claire Vaye Watkins has termed the ‘little white man deep inside of all of us’ – the standard of literary excellence that has been ingrained by our education, by the books we are pushed towards and the ones that never appear on reading lists. She’s talking about the people whose approval we seek as we write our work, the opinions that matter most. I know what she means. In the last few years I have found myself turning away from the idea of being a fiction writer. It wasn’t a choice, but something that has happened slowly, quietly. It has probably been helped along by all the lovely rejection slips I’ve gotten for my quiet stories about women. I collected quite a few of these polite notes, thanking me for my interest, telling me how beautiful my writing is and, sadly, that it doesn’t fit right now. Please feel free to send us more work, they encourage. But I don’t feel encouraged.

I see my imaginative world shrinking. I dismiss ideas before they have the ability to announce themselves properly. I don’t give enough time to the things that bother, concern or move me. I fear that ‘othered’ writers – women, writers of colour, queer writers – have, in the face of such overwhelmingly obvious bias, started censoring themselves too. That they might limit their imaginations, scrabbling around in half a world trying to say something that might get heard. Anyone who argues that good work will always be published and valued is not paying attention to the way in which our literary culture dismisses, maligns, or limits the work of anyone deemed to be other to the white male writer.

I think that what lies at the heart of our current literary culture is not a matter of writing but one of reading – specifically, who we read and how. So how do we fix this? Maybe we need to introduce quotas on school and university text lists. Or as Kamila Shamsie suggested, devote 2018 to publishing only books by women. I’d personally like to see a policy created in academia for those of us who referee scholarly articles to reject, outright and without question, any work that does not include women in their reference lists. I spoke at an event recently where an audience member suggested that all manuscripts be reviewed blind – an idea that makes more and more sense to me. In a culture where sexism – and racism, classism and homophobia – continues to thrive, we need to ensure that the books deemed to be the very best in our culture act as a buffer against these issues, and that the definition of great literature is widened to include creativity not only at the line, sentence or structural sense, but in its ability to show us what the world really looks like.


This essay has been peer-reviewed.



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Natalie Kon-yu

Natalie Kon-Yu is a lecturer at Victoria University and has been published nationally and internationally. Most recently, she was a contributor to and co-editor of the collection #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement (2019).

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