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:
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.
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.