Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge - Elizabeth Lhuede
Because I was invited…
Or, Why looking for a kangaroo isn’t going to cut it for Australian Women’s Writing
[Lindy says: NSW writer & mentor Elizabeth Lhuede has been VERY busy on the interwebz in the last month or so – and all because of a blog our own Tara Moss wrote after SheKilda.
Elizabeth is guest-blogging with SinC-Oz to catch us up on the ‘story so far’.]
Hi Sisters in Crime, thanks for asking me to contribute to this blog.
A lot can happen in a few weeks, can’t it?
As most of you probably know, on 11 October, Tara Moss wrote a wrap-up blog of the previous weekend’s SheKilda Women Crime Writers’ Convention. Friends of mine, Jaye Ford and Keziah Hill, had attended the conference and Keziah passed on the link to Tara’s blog via Facebook – not because of what Tara had written, but because of The Age reviewer Cameron Woodhead’s comments.
Tara called her blog: Are our Sisters in Crime (still) fighting against a male-dominated literary world?
The theme was in keeping with the nature of the piece which celebrated the origins of the Sisters in Crime and reflected on the male-dominated shortlist of the Miles Franklin award over the past few years, the Vida statistics on the under-representation of women in reviews in the US, and Tara’s own observation that many lists of “My Favourite Books” and “Top Reads” featured 80-100% of books by men, lists often made by women.
The blog wasn’t male-bashing.
Yet Mr Woodhead sought fit to comment: “This is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me.”
(Did Tara’s comments about women readers even register?)
The explosion of responses that followed may be familiar to some of you. If not, Tara wrote an After blog which listed many of the responses, and I’ve been trawling the internet for precursors to the discussion which I’ve posted as discussions on gender bias on the new Australian Women Writers website.
And now, Sisters in Crime Co-Convenor Lindy Cameron has asked me here to discuss how Tara’s blog inspired me to get involved in championing Australian women’s crime fiction written and the reading challenge that has developed into.
First, some background.
I’m no stranger to how women can be written out of literary histories.
In the early 90s, I wrote a PhD while simultaneously trying to teach myself how to write. These days there are postgraduate courses for aspiring writers; back then, if I wanted a scholarship, the focus had to be academic and literary. The topic for my PhD was The “new” Australian poetry, an area chosen because I’d discussed the work of Australian poet John Tranter for my Honours thesis. Why Tranter? I’d originally wanted to discuss Michael Dransfield, the doomed young drug-addicted Aussie poet, whose work sang to me while I was still coming to terms with the tragic life of my own brother, also a Michael, a heroin addict and lover of poetry. It was my brother Mick’s endless quoting of TS Eliot and Dylan Thomas that had inspired my passion for poetry as a teenager. But Dransfield wasn’t considered quite… literary enough for the English Department at Macquarie University in the late 80s.
So I chose Tranter instead – and how could I resist a poet who wrote ‘The Alphabet Murders’, and who came out with lines like: “Sure I want to be a great poet? What do I have to do? Shoot somebody?”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea. I’m a sucker for genre, crime in particular, even in poetry.
It wasn’t much of a jump to discussing other so-called “New Poets” for my PhD. The problem was – which I only realised years later – the anthology of new poets which Tranter edited and promoted as among the best Australian poetry of that time, and which became the focus for my research, was heavily gender-biased: only 2 out of the 24 poets were women.
Why was such a statistic transparent to me?
Why wouldn’t it be?
I’d grown up being taught that English Literature was written by men. At 15, when I decided to be a poet (after reading Ayn Rand’s epic romance Atlas Shrugged, ironically), I decided to read everything I could. Without ever having come across Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “Make it new!” I got it into my head that I needed a good grounding in what had already been written. So when it came to selecting units for my first degree, I chose all English (apart from one unit of History), and read my way through the canon.
The canon? [You can skip the next paragraph, if you like: you won’t miss any work by women.]
It started with old English, Genesis B and the Anglo Saxon chronicles; then came the medievals, Chaucer, the Gawain poet, the lyrics, the bawdy religious mystery cycle plays; I read my way up through the renaissance and beyond with Wyatt, Spencer, Herbert, Shakespeare, Marlow, Herrick, Carew and Donne; entered the 18th century in the company of Milton, Pope, Swift, Dryden, the Spectator and Tattler writers, Richardson, Fielding and Defoe; swooned with the Romantics and Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley; went transatlantic to Hawthorne, James, Melville, Henry James, TS Eliot, ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Robert Duncan and Galway Kinnell; zipped back to England to Dickens, Thackeray, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Conrad and Auden; celebrated the Irish with Yeats, Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Seamus Heaney; explored the postcolonial world with Leonard Woolf, Salman Rushdie and Narayan; kept up with the poetry of Ted Hughes; read in translation Homer, Ovid, Sophocles, Chretien de Troyes, Dante, Tolstoy, Hesse, Chekov, Strindberg, Brecht, Tagore, Rimbaud and Mallarme; discovered AusLit through the eyes of Charles Harper, Henry Kendall, Charles Brennan, Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, the Vision Poets, the Jindyworobaks, James McAuley, Douglas Stewart, Ern Malley, Jack Davis, Ray Lawler, Patrick White, Bruce Dawe, Les Murray, Bruce Beaver, John A Scott, Alan Wearne, Michael O’Connor, Robert Gray, Robert Adamson, Peter Carey, David Malouf and Tim Winton. In my spare time, for pleasure, I read the genre writers, Morris West, Richard North Patterson, Michael Palmer, John Grisham, Ian Rankin, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Rowbotham, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Asimov, Tolkein, CS Lewis, Stephen Donaldson, Phillip Pulman…
Did I forget to add that I read Jane Austen?
As for the lack of other women writers, well, women didn’t write much, did they?
I’m exaggerating, but not by much. And the above tally of male writers and poets whose work I devoured is far from exhaustive.
So it wasn’t exactly obvious to me that I was deliberately choosing to discuss a male-dominated canon of Australian poets to discuss for my PhD. Australian women, I assumed, didn’t write much poetry. Or, if they wrote, they didn’t publish. Or, if they published, they weren’t good enough to be selected to appear in anthologies, or on university reading lists. Not back then, anyway.
By the time I got to the end of my PhD – too late to have the will or the energy to do anything much about it – I discovered how wrong my assumptions had been. The period of the ‘new poetry’, the 70s and early 80s, was a flowering of creative energy among Australian women poets exemplified in Kate Jenning’s anthology, Mother I’m Rooted, and later, The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.
But somehow – how? why? – the women poets weren’t getting selected for the mixed anthologies of representative ‘Australian poetry’. There the debate was raging between two camps: the urban, hip and young, versus the rural, old-fashioned and traditional; both camps were dominated by men. Women, barely part of the battle, were rendered invisible; they were the real casualties.
This is a long way round to say what? That when Tara wrote on her post SheKilda blog that she “noticed a shocking number of ‘My Favourite Books’ or ‘Top Reads’ lists featuring 80% or in some cases even 100% work written by men”, lists made by women themselves, I knew how and why this could happen. I put up my hand as being part of the problem in an open reply to Tara on my blog.
Sure, in the years since finishing my PhD, I’d made an effort to read more work by women. But I’d chosen to read – and write – romance, the most derided, the most pilloried of all genres; also the most popular genre among women. I made that choice deliberately, politically.
But when it comes to work by contemporary Australian women crime writers? My record wasn’t great. Most of the work published by members of Sisters in Crime is new to me. After reading Tara’s blog, and the reactions it generated, I decided to change my habits once again, just as I’d changed the genre I was writing in. I made a personal commitment not only to track down and read, but also to review work by other Australian women writers, especially crime fiction.
That weekend, I went to my local library and asked whether they had a list of contemporary Australian women authors. No list, sorry. Well, how about a few names then?
This, roughly, is the exchange that followed.
Library assistant: Australian women authors? Well, let’s see. There’s um… What’s the name of that…? Um. Elizabeth Jolley?
Me: Thanks, I’ve read her books. Anyone else? [Anyone living? Any crime?]
LA: Oh, well, I remember reading one. What was that called? It had ‘clouds’ in the title. It was very good. [Delia Falconer’s The Service of Clouds?]
Me: Oka-ay. What about the library’s bookblog? Does that have recommendations? [Hopefully by date of publication and genre.]
LA: That’s a good idea! Goes to computer. Oh, that link isn’t working. The weekday staff handle all that. Can you come back on Monday? By the way, did you know you can always find books by Australian authors by looking for the kangaroo on the spine?
No disrespect to this library employee is intended here, by the way. She stayed with me a good 20 minutes trying to help, and was kind enough to remember me the following week when she gave me a new title, a book her friend had published in Canberra (which I wrote down on a piece of paper and promptly lost – sorry!).
Still, armed with the knowledge to look for a kangaroo on the spine, finally I began getting somewhere.
I borrowed Heather Rose’s The Butterfly Man, hoping against hope I’d like it. I’d never read back cover blurbs and wasn’t about to start now: I usually go on friends’ recommendations. But I was happy to take a risk with this book as part of my solidarity with other Australian women authors of whatever genre – and the result? I loved it! The bonus, I discovered it’s literary crime, a genre I’d been itching to read since stumbling across and devouring Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy. Only later did I discover Rose’s book had won the 2005 Davitt award. Those library acquisitions people had been paying attention to Aussie women’s writing – at least to the prize-winners, anyway.
Now I’d got the taste, soon I was craving books by Aussie women authors like a junkie craving a fix. No… Not the right analogy. Like an Australian women looking for stories that reflect a smidgen of her own real, lived experience.
But where to find them?
First I set up the Australian Women Writers Facebook page, hoping friends of friends would join and I’d find new authors that way. (They did and I have.) Next I set up an Aussie Bookshops page and ‘liked’ as many booksellers on Facebook as I could find, so I could watch their newsfeeds, discover more authors, and help publicise events involving Australian women writers in the AWW group. To my dismay, there weren’t many such events, or books to promote…
Thinking that maybe booksellers were under the mistaken impression that Facebook catered for teenagers, I went to bookshops’ websites to search for titles they’d reviewed; I followed their Twitterfeed. What I discovered disturbed me. The majority of the books reviewed were written by men. Among the books by women, the proportion of work by Australian women was woeful.
Wondering whether a communication gap between booksellers and publishers might account for the poor number of reviews, I set about trawling Aussie publishers on Facebook. But the stats there were little better. Those newsfeeds, too, were dominated by books by men; while the books by women were for kids, or on cooking, or were nonfiction. Sure, I was running into publication schedules in the lead-up to Christmas. But, even so. Where was the crime? The romance? The mainstream women’s fiction? The literary novels? Then the newsfeeds started spewing out more ‘best of’ lists for 2011. Talk about disheartening!
Yet this was no a male conspiracy.
As Tara Moss wrote, a lot of the ‘top picks’ lists are written by women, and women dominate the publishing industry (even if not proportionally represented in the top positions).
And I’m not exaggerating. As an example, this year Readings reviewed 72 crime authors for their Dead Write page: only 16 were women, and only two of those were Australian – Kerry Greenwood and Nicole Watson.
No wonder the Readings ‘Top 10 Crime Picks for 2011’ featured 9/10 books by men. Thankfully, when these statistics were pointed out to the fiction editors in charge of Readings’ page – both women – they invited Angela Savage to create a list of Best Crime Fiction by Women in 2011. As you probably know, Angela’s list features 7/10 Aussie women. (Yay, Angela! Thank you, Readings.)
But the gender bias in Readings’ reviewing is by no means isolated.
I’m not into casting blame. As should be obvious by now, I well know how such reading preferences arise – especially among women of my generation and older. I want to help change things; I want to help create a reading environment where the reason male writers appear at the top of such lists, if they do appear there, is because their books are better written – more enjoyable, more insightful, more moving, more intellectually stimulating, more challenging, more aesthetically pleasing – however “better” is defined – not because they’re the only ones the people compiling the lists have read.
The next obvious step was to set up a website to promote Australian women writers, to provide lists of books in all genres, so other willing readers – readers like me – wouldn’t have to go to such extraordinary efforts to find them. Beyond that, I thought I might be able to use such a website as a vehicle to encourage reviews, and to promote other Australian women writers. For the lists, I especially wanted to include prize-winning books, to promote the best of Australian women’s writing.
Also, I wanted to feature books recommended by readers. On Twitter, I’d already started following bookbloggers and reviewers, teachers and librarians. Now I began tweeting my requests for books and discovered that the bookbloggers were discussing their ‘reading challenges’ for 2012.
This was all new to me. And fascinating.
Some of these bookbloggers, I discovered, are dedicated – some might say, obsessive – bibliophiles who read and review hundreds of books a year. Bloggers from all around the world regularly fill the blogosphere, sharing their recommendations, reading each other’s reviews, and posting links to their reviews via Twitter. If these readers extraordinaire were starting to sign up and commit to a year’s worth of reading in 2012, I wanted Australian women writers to feature on those reading lists. But I had to act quickly.
Thus the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge was thrown together.
Via Facebook, already a few writer friends and acquaintances had volunteered to review one book each drawn from outside their own published genre as a way to foster inter-genre conversation and inspire more reviews.
In creating the challenge, I decided to take this a step further: to invite as many published Australian women authors I could to sign up to a similar commitment; and to feature those reviews – and authors – on the AWW blog throughout the year. It would be a double promotion: the books of the reviewers, as well as the work they chose to review. With luck, it would also help break down the genre barriers that continue to support the marginalization of Australian women’s writing and segregate commercial women’s fiction from the literary.
By now, time was running out. Bookbloggers were busy making their commitments. I had only a couple of lists ready – books by Australian women’s crime writers which had been published in 2011, a list I’d cheekily tweeted to Readings; the Miles Franklin longlists; and award-winning poetry back to the 1940s – but I hardly knew where to go for the other genres. I needed help. I turned to Twitter, published a draft version of the website, tweeted the link and put out a call for help. And help came.
Help came from bookbloggers like Shelleyrae, of Bookdout, who created and sent me a challenge ‘badge’ to put up on the site. Help came from many, many individual ‘tweeps’ –that’s what people using Twitter are called, right? – authors, readers’ groups, editors, bloggers, teachers, librarians, media celebrities and the odd bookseller, who sent me recommendations and links to different prizes.
I discovered the GoodReads Aussie Readers group, and Brenda and Laura kindly allowed me to post a link to the challenge there. Shelleyrae, once again, weighed in and set up a dedicated Good Reads Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge group which went public earlier this week.
Momentum is gathering.
People have started tweeting the link to the challenge to friends, signing up, adding the badge to their blogs, requesting the Guest Author review badge (which Shelleyrae also kindly created). Tarran Jones of Collins Edwardstown Booksellers in Adelaide, posted a link to the challenge on their blog. Angela Meyer of LiteraryMinded mentioned it in her response to a guest blog which featured a young man’s (Jack Heath) year of reading works only by women. Someone from Shearers’ Booksellers tweeted to the effect that Shearers might be interested in supporting the challenge. People behind the scenes started discussing how to get the Stella Prize’s backing and that of the Australian Booksellers Association, maybe even Readings...
I don’t know if any of this other support will materialise. I do know already nearly 50 people have signed up for the challenge and committed to read and review work written by Australian women in 2012.
And while all this has been happening, what of my own writing?
It’s on the backburner, for now. I hope to get back to polishing my manuscript once the challenge is launched in the New Year. I intend also to do some serious reading over Christmas of other Australian women writers, not only crime, but also literary fiction and romance, mainstream and paranormal – maybe some nonfiction, too, who knows? I’ll have to check out those lists.
As for the website, there are plans for it to come out of draft mode officially in January. I have asked May Morris, an unpublished Aboriginal poet/writer/singer here in the Blue Mountains, to participate in a little ceremony to launch the challenge. May has kindly offered to sing in the website, to draw on her mixed heritage and tap into the strength of our planet’s oldest, continuous living history, to give this endeavour a blessing. Her song will aim to encourage, inspire and embrace all women, writers and readers, indigenous and non-indigenous, across Australia and across the world, inviting us all to discover and explore the finest of Australian women’s writing in 2012.
It’s going to be a great year.
And the fact that some men have also signed up and committed themselves to read and review more writing by Australian women? That’s a bonus. But male readers and reviewers were never at the heart of this problem. That heart is us: Australian women. It’s up to us to breathe life back into our collective consciousness, to nurture our minds, bodies and spirits with our own stories, to share the creativity we have in abundance and celebrate together.
Acclaimed Australian poet and environmentalist Judith Wright once published a book of her talks and essays called Because I was invited. I’ve borrowed that title for this piece. Why? Because I believe that ‘pushing’ and promoting ourselves as writers, as some have exhorted us to do, isn’t the way to go forward with this; such a strategy asks us to work from our weaknesses, rather than our strengths. It assumes an idea of subjectivity which is individualistic, rather than one that is collective. And it’s this individualistic view, in my opinion, which has helped to create the world’s many injustices, which has oppressed – and continues to oppress – many disadvantaged groups, not only women. It is a way of being in the world, I believe, which threatens the survival of our beautiful planet, one we cannot allow to persist. My personal preference is to see all of nature, human beings included, as part of a living, intelligent, creative system, a network that supports and nurtures even the weakest among us – if we allow it to work in us and through us.
Rather than pushing, therefore, I choose Wright’s idea of the invitation. Inviting, collaborating, sharing – these are the strategies that feel right for me, as a woman, and as a human being, facing the greatest challenges of the 21st century, that of our collective survival.
So I invite you now to join me, to share and celebrate together the best of Australian women’s writing in 2012. How about it, ladies?
7 December, 2011