I completed the 2014 Australian Women Writers’ (AWW) Challenge. I signed on to read ten books by Australian women and review six, but I ended up reading and reviewing fourteen.
Towards the end of 2011, Elizabeth Lhuede, the founder of the AWW Challenge, read an article by Tara Moss on her blog about book reviews in Australia. Moss commented on the fact that books authored by men were more likely to be reviewed than books written by women—reviews of books were about 70% male compared to 30% females. (Incidentally, this issue isn’t unique to Australia, and a quick google search reveals many articles and essays on the topic in the USA and Britain, including the furore caused by Jodi Picoult when she raised it in 2010.)
So in 2012, Elizabeth began the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge as an attempt to correct this gender imbalance and raise awareness of writing by Australian women.
This hasn’t been the only initiative set up to increase public awareness of works by Australian female authors. The Stella prize, a literary prize for women writers, began in 2013 after it was noted how few women authors had been shortlisted, let alone won, the Miles Franklin Literary Award—to date, there have been 13 female winners in its 57-year history.
The other day I listened to an interview with the two past winners of the Stella Prize, Carrie Tiffany and Clare Wright, on podcast from the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Clare’s book, ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’, puts the women at the Eureka Stockade in the spotlight for the first time. Until this book, the story of Eureka had been told only from the male perspective, with the women almost invisible. They were so silent, Clare thought she’d have to do serious digging to find them. However, when she went to the archives, there they were—thousands of them, about a third of the people in Ballarat at the time. Their names, their roles—wives and mothers, teachers, midwives, storekeepers, sex workers—and their stories, all recorded.
Why hadn’t they been mentioned before? Other researchers had read the same documents but it seemed they only wanted the stories about the men, and had discarded the tales of the women. So, Clare decided to write the women’s stories for her PhD, and from her research came her prize-winning book.
It seems that women and their work are less visible to the public. Recently, Maxine Beneba Clark started the Twitter hashtag: #writingwhilefemale. To say it took off is an understatement—it was picked up after about an hour, and spread internationally. Women writers talked about the sexism they’d encountered, from their writing not being taken seriously and other put downs, to the way their book was categorised.
By the way, this isn’t limited to writing and publishing. I remember when, as a mother of three young children, I wanted part-time work in a hospital training programme. I had to find someone with whom to job-share, which wasn’t easy, and both of us were still expected to do after-hours and weekends. This added up to a 38-hour week, when I wanted about twenty hours. I couldn’t do it. They came back to me with an offer of two shifts a week, with no after-hours, but also with no pay. I declined, and was told by the Director of the Training Programme that if I was really committed to my training, I’d do it. I remember feeling guilty for wanting to be paid, but I couldn’t help thinking, They’d never ask this of a man …
I’d wager that every female who’s ever worked has a similar story, one that insults their knowledge and skills. Luckily, we’re resilient—we put it behind us and keep on going, doing our jobs, going above and beyond, often without the recognition or financial remuneration we deserve.
Prior to joining the AWW Challenge, I was ignorant of the gender bias in reading and reviewing works by Australian writers. Actually, I probably was aware of it but dismissed it, just as I dismissed that I could be asked to work without pay, and just as I dismissed most gender-biased aspects of our society—resigned to the fact that banging my head against a brick wall was not going to shift the brick wall.
This challenge, however, has shown me that things can be done, positive things that help raise awareness and which might lead to change. And I can be part of it. I now read more works by women in general, and by Australian women in particular, and I do my bit to publicise their works.
In 2014, I read and reviewed twelve books of fiction and two works of non-fiction by Australian women writers. Here’s a run-down of my reading:
Five of the fiction novels were set in contemporary times:
Sea Dog Hotel, by Marlish Glorie
Lost and Found, by Brooke Davis
Let Her Go, by Dawn Barker
And I reviewed two novels by Favel Parrett: Past the Shallows and When the Night Comes.
I also reviewed five novels of historical fiction:
The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman
Cicada, by Moira McKinnon
Foal’s Bread, by Gillian Mears
Gilgamesh, by Joan London
And Letters to the End of Love, by Yvette Walker, which won the WA Premier’s Award for an Emerging Writer.
I revisited my romance-reading days and indulged in Fairway to Heaven by Lily Malone. Lily was also a guest in my attic—you can read her interview here. Since my review and interview, Lily’s novel has been picked up by Escape Publishing and will be republished later this year.
Not only did I read historical and contemporary fiction, but I also read what I believe is my first speculative fiction novel, Annabel Smith’s The Ark. Annabel’s novel also has an interactive website, which you can find here.
I reviewed two non-fiction books: The People Smuggler, by Robin de Crespigny, a biography of Ali Al Jenabi; and Sian Prior’s memoir, Shy.
Another upside of participating in this challenge is being introduced to authors and genres I might not otherwise read. Looking at these stories alone, I’ve reviewed contemporary and historical fiction, a classic, an epistolary novel, a speculative fiction novel, a memoir, some self-published novels, and my old friend, romance. And that’s not mentioning the four short story collections I’ve read, which have stories by Aussie women, as well as the novels by other non-Australian women writers.
So, onwards to 2015. I’ve dubbed this year the #yearoftheclassic. Each month I want to read one classic novel, and one book by an Aussie female. That’ll be more than enough for me as I’m a slow reader—I don’t skip boring bits, even when tempted, and I like to dissect each book and put it through a sieve. This means I’ll have to set even more time aside for reading—oh, what a trial that will be!
I’d encourage anyone of any gender or nationality to join the AWW Challenge. There are various levels to the challenge—you can read as few as four books in a twelve-month period. The books can be fiction or non-fiction, in any genre, by authors past or present—the only stipulation is that they’re written by Australian women.
So, come along and join the challenge—do your bit for the Sisterhood! I’m sure you’ll be entranced by the incredible prose of Australian women, too.
Thanks for the inspiration, Louise. It’s also a bug bear of mine, the degree to which the writing world is still dominating by a masculine perspective. I too want more women’s writing recognised. I decided therefore to join this challenge. Good on you for your success over the year. And may 2015 be a wonderful year of writing – and reading – for both of us.
Good on you for joining too, Elisabeth! It’s been such a positive way of tackling a negative issue. And you get to ‘meet’ (via the internet) many people who are all wonderful and supportive. I’ll look forward to reading your reviews!
And another thought here, Louise, you and others – assuming you haven’t read it yet – might be interested to read this article from The Monthly by Ceridwen Dovey. Feminist, fascinating, powerful and to the point – pardon the unintended pun given the title.
‘The pencil and the damage done’ http://mnth.ly/1rv4yZz
Wow! That is an amazing essay and I’ll need a while to digest it. There’s so much in it, and not just about women writing, but about writing real life and real people. I have so many thoughts rolling around in my head.
One of the lines that struck me and that’s relevant to women writing, is the quote from Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’. Helen’s friend says, “But you see, all my life I’ve never wanted to bore people with the way I feel.” That’s the message women get from Day 1, and it applies doubly if our feelings are negative—we’re ‘whingers’ and made to feel as if we’re abnormal for not being happy or for wanting more, or even for just wanting what is fair.
Thanks for bringing this essay to my attention, Elisabeth. I’ll re-read it as there’s so much more in it that’s also relevant to writing, especially autobiographical writing. I have rules for myself about this—but this essay challenges those!
I signed into a goodreads challenge yesterday. I have looked at the AWW Challenge before. I think your post has just inspired me to follow that up again, so off I go. Thank you again for reading and reviewing Fairway – your words about it meant a lot! I’m expecting edits of it on 5/1 – it feels like forever since I wrote it.
Lily, your book was so well-written, so professionally presented, and it’s a great story. What’s more—it has a happy ending! You’re a terrific writer and I’m so happy for you that a publisher has picked it up. Good luck with the edits—not that it needs much—and I can’t wait to see the revised version. x
Louise, what an inspiration you are,in many ways, but especially in encouraging other women to join the AWW Challenge this year. I hope Elisabeth and Lily enjoy it as much as I do.
It is fun, isn’t it? I thought it would narrow my reading experience, but instead it’s broadened it because I read from more genres. I’m glad you’re enjoying it, too. x
That’s the most interesting thing, that I’m reading and loving books I might never have noticed since joining. In response to a comment of yours in another place, I also plan to comment more on other people’s reviews. Especially those who are new to the Challenge.
I’m going to try harder, too. It takes so much time to comment on every blog you read—I don’t know how some people manage to be as generous with their comments as they are. Thank you for commenting here, Maureen! 🙂
Even though I didn’t sign up for the Challenge, I read mostly Aussie women, and I may sign up officially this year, as I anticipate having more time to read all the books I wasn’t able to last year. I’ve just finished reading the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s short story collection, Stone Mattress and there’s a line there which you may like Louise, about women being better at accepting humiliation and the indignity of old age. That sentiment may also be used to express the gender inequality in so many professions, as you point out. Love your choices, and I look forward to reading all the others you have recommended.
I know you read loads, and write reviews, too, Rashida—you might as well be doing it as part of the AWW challenge!
I’m really, really ashamed to admit I’ve never read Margaret Atwood. (I felt the hush fall over the room as I wrote that out loud.) I follow her on Twitter, but I intend to become better acquainted with her real writing soon. In fact, The Handmaid’s Tale is first on my list of classics to read …
Oh, I envy you discovering Margaret Atwood for the first time 🙂 The Robber Bride is my favourite of all of hers, but basically I rave over everything she writes!
I am quite horrified to admit that when the establishment of the Stella prize was announced I was half-way (at least) in the “why do we need it camp”. It’s not as if I hadn’t encountered the kind of bias that was underpinning the announcement within my own profession. But still I thought…should we draw attention to ourselves in this way. Of course I was wrong. And being part of the AWW challenge has helped me be more articulate about these sorts of issues. And when on a judging panel for a genre fiction prize this year I encountered just the kind of bias AWW has been trying to overcome I was ready (thank heavens). Still came as a shock though. To hear the prejudices first-hand from two men I respect. Sigh.
Hope 2015’s reading is full of enjoyment for you. I should read more classics. But I won’t (have read lots of Atwood over the years though…wonder how The Handmaid’s Tale holds up)
Don’t be horrified at your reaction, Bernadette—I think half of Australia, at least, was in that camp. It sounds as if quite a few people are still camping there—like the people you dealt with on the judging panel.
I’m looking forward to expanding my meagre classics readings to-date, and am certainly looking forward to reading Margaret Atwood. My elder daughter studied it at school, and loved it, so it sounds as if it still holds up!
Wonderful post Louise – and I loved that you set the challenge in context. It’s good having the story reiterated every now and then and you’ve done it beautifully. I also love the way you got right into the spirit of the challenge by reading across forms and genres. Oh and I love you plan to read one classic and one Aussie women a month. Good luck. Like you I’m a pretty slow reader too when it comes to books (not when it comes to articles, news reports etc though!) – I don’t skip the boring bits and, with fiction in particular, like to “hear” the story, feel the rhythms.
BTW My daughter just read The handmaid’s tale for the first time a month ago, on my recommendation. She felt it stood up well and, from my memory of its subject matter, I imagine that would be the case. It’s a great read.
I know what you mean, Sue, about getting caught up reading articles and news reports. I’m hoping to be able to use that when reading the classics—to research the writer, as you do so well on your blog. I love reading the biographies of the authors—it’s the gossip in me—but it contributes so much to understanding the novel.
I’m looking forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale—it’s great that it speaks to young women still!
Louise, you inspired me to sign up for the challenge. Thank you!
That’s great, Teena! The more, the merrier! I’m sure you’re already reading plenty of Australian women writers anyway, so why not? I’ll have to include a Teena Raffa-Mulligan book on my 2015 list!
Oh, well done Louise, what a wonderful thing to do! I’ll be looking into whether there’s a similar program here in the UK. To hear about the misogyny in writing is disappointing but sadly, not surprising – here’s to more women writers coming along to level the playing field xx
It’s unsurprising, I agree. What surprises me, really, is how accepting the general public are of it, and I include myself in that group. Then again, I do understand because tackling entrenched attitudes towards women’s work, in any field, is too hard and often the only outcome is a name for yourself as a whinger. So we soldier on, and unsurprisingly, produce work that is really good!
I hope you find a similar programme for women writers in the UK. If you don’t, you could start one!
What a lovely post, dear Louise, and I love the challenge you set for yourself for this year! I suspect you may exceed it…
I’ll be happy if I can meet it at this stage! I’ve read ‘Mateship with Birds’ this week, and loved it!