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How to inspire men to read books by women

Date

Aviva Truffield

Unconscious prejudice means books by female authors are overlooked.

''I am living proof that a women-only prize can be career-changing" ... author Kate Grenville.

''I am living proof that a women-only prize can be career-changing" ... author Kate Grenville. Photo: Gary Schafer

WHEN a group of women were considering launching the Stella Prize, a new major prize for women's writing, author Kate Grenville contacted us unprompted to tell us how important winning the Orange Prize (the women-only UK literary prize) had been to her career.

''I am living proof that a women-only prize can be career-changing. The year I won the Orange Prize there was a parallel (non-voting) jury of all men. They praised the book enthusiastically and said they'd have given it the prize. It was obvious from their comments that they'd never have picked it up otherwise … Yes, a prize for women's writing wouldn't be necessary in an ideal world, but that isn't the world we live in.''

The Stella Prize, named after the iconic Australian writer and feminist Stella Maria Miles Franklin, who wrote under the pen name Miles Franklin, aims to celebrate women's contribution to Australian literature, to raise the profile and sales of books by women, and to provide female role models for girls and women embarking on a writing career.

This is a difficult climate for all writers, as the publishing and bookselling industries undergo painful transitions, with huge discounting by overseas online bookshops and the digital revolution transforming their businesses. Writers' incomes have fallen significantly over the past decade, down from an average of $23,000 to just $11,000 by 2011, and so prizes can be a very important source of income for them.

Nicolle Flint in her piece on this page last week criticises the Stella Prize as a retrograde step because it's not, in her words, ''merit-based''. But that argument assumes that there is a level playing field for women writers. The statistics suggest that's just not the case. Perhaps the much-quoted Miles Franklin Literary Award statistic that just 10 individual women have won the prize since 1954 can be downplayed, as Flint tries to do, by arguing that fewer women were published 60 years ago, but even since 2001 just three of the 11 winners have been women, a decade during which there was certainly as much (if not more) fiction published by women as men.

If we look at other literary prizes the statistics are just as skewed: the NSW Premier's Literary Award for fiction has been won 11 out of 31 times by a woman; the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction has been won nine out of 26 times; and the now-defunct Queensland Premier's Literary Award only four out of 12 times.

What is surprising about these statistics is that they are for the fiction-only component of these awards, and that is an area that women are historically associated with, both as readers and writers. The statistics for non-fiction are worse.

Very few believe that this is a concerted campaign of discrimination against women writers or women's books - far from it. In any particular year, the ''best book'' in any category, as decided by a panel of judges (and these always comprise women and men), may certainly be a novel by a man. But when this happens repeatedly, then it suggests that there are unconscious and systemic prejudices at work, and that the criteria for literary ''value'' that emerge from the dominant culture result in an underrepresentation of women's writing.

Virginia Woolf's words from 1929 ring just as true today: ''It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex … This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.''

The Stella Prize intends to recognise women's literature as significant. Much research demonstrates the positive effects of affirmative action, enabling women to succeed in areas in which they traditionally haven't excelled, with trickle-down effects to the next generation. The organisers believe that by making women writers' talent and accomplishment more visible, this in turn will raise women writers' aspirations and confidence. And, as Grenville alluded to, the Stella Prize not only wants to inspire and recognise women writers, it wants to encourage more men to read books by women, in part by bringing them to their attention.

As is well known, men and boys are less willing to read books written by women (hence the J.K. for Joanne Rowling, while a recent GQ article found that only 11 per cent of the fiction men read is by women) or watch films with female leads, hence the Bechdel Test and the kerfuffle over how to market Disney's Tangled so that boys would watch it too.

The current groundswell against sexism, as evident in the response on social media to Julia Gillard's ''misogyny'' speech and the outrage at Alan Jones' ''destroying the joint'' comments, suggests that the Stella Prize is just one of many ways that women and men are ready to reconsider some entrenched values.

Aviva Tuffield is chairperson of the Stella Prize and associate publisher at Scribe Publications.

14 comments

  • Honestly, most men don't read books full stop. Trying to cajole men into reading
    women authors simply to help their careers out is putting the cart firmly
    in front of the nag.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    November 07, 2012, 9:20AM
    • If the judging panel, consisting of both men and women, chooses a book by a male author, how is that prejudice along gender lines?

      Moreover, the issue seems to be not that women don't or can't win these prizes, but that women haven't won in greater or equal numbers to men.
      In a merit based competion, it's expected that there will be some dispartiy in numbers.

      I'd wager if you assessed the ages of winners, you'd find disparity there too, should we create awards for age groups only?

      This sort of ridiculous pandering is holding female authors back, not empowering them. It's saying thay they cannon compete on a level playing field, so we'll change the rules.

      Commenter
      Tiny
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      November 07, 2012, 9:56AM
      • Is it really so hard to make men read books by women, or is it just hard to convince publishers to publish books by women due to the perception that it is hard to make men read books by women? Because I would think it fair to say that the percentage of female authors represented on my book shelves is reasonably representative of the percentage represented in your typical bookshop, or at least those parts of the bookshop that interest me. For example Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Mary Gentle (Ash), Robin Hobb (too many to name) and Mary Stewart (the Merlin trilogy) spring instantly to mind.

        Commenter
        Fred
        Date and time
        November 07, 2012, 9:59AM
        • Books are sold like anything else.

          JK Rowling seems to do OK.

          I would simply not care if some marginal cabal of feminists started up some woman only book prize. I would be more likely to ignore its winner on principle than if such a prize did not exist.

          Kate Grenville is an example of what is wrong with this approach. The several of her novels I have read are dreadful. Yet she is feted as this award winner. She is just a crusty bitter Marxist who doesn't write very interesting novels.

          Commenter
          Bob
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          November 07, 2012, 10:05AM
          • J.K. Rowling "does ok" because she has written a series for children. Devalued areas of literature, like children's books, have a majority of female writers. It's just the same as the fact that undervalued areas like teaching, and moreso for younger children, are dominated by women, whereas more privileged professional fields are dominated by men. Even then, Rowling used "J.K." rather than Joanne, as it was thought that many boys would not want to read books written by a woman.

            And, Tiny, the article explains why it is that women constitute such a large percentage of writers but are so poorly represented in literary awards. Even if women are part of the judging panels 'there are unconscious and systemic prejudices at work' and 'the criteria for literary ''value'' that emerge from the dominant culture result in an underrepresentation of women's writing.' That is, "men's themes" tend to be seen as universal and important to everyone whereas "women's themes" are seen as trivial and only of interest to women. Even women are capable of reproducing this sort of view because we are raised in a society that tells us that this is the truth.

            Commenter
            Michelle
            Date and time
            November 07, 2012, 12:30PM
          • Michelle,
            THe article attempts to explain it's hypothesis of prejudice with those reasons.
            There is no proof offered of these things excepting that women have not won a prize in equal to or greater numbers than men.

            The judging panel is made up of both sexes. If both sexes are giving more weight to 'men's themes' (another label the articles uses to try and prove bias), then they aren't really 'men's themes' are they?

            Societal indoctrination is a fine theory....but do you have anythign to back that up?

            Commenter
            Tiny
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            November 07, 2012, 2:18PM
          • What complete rubbish Michelle - so anyone who thinks that a woman's book is about women's matters and not of universal significance can not be correct. They must be showing some form of false consciousness or indoctrination.

            How dare women (big buyers of fiction in our society) not buy the correct sort. How dare they think that they know what they like. Their tastes are wrong and must be corrected.

            Where do you propose we place the re-education camps Michelle?

            Commenter
            Bob
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            November 07, 2012, 2:39PM
          • I can't encapsulate the entire cultural history of literature and its reception in a 300-word comment on a newspaper article, but there is plenty of research about literary value and the history of women's writing. Women's literature did not even enter into courses in universities, with the frequent exception of Austen, until feminist scholars drew attention to many fine women writers whose works had been excluded from the literary canon (what is understood as literature that should be studied and taught to students). So I can offer you this example that in the formal study of literature, women's writing was not even seen as having a place among the "great works" produced in English until comparatively recently. This tradition of white men's writing especially being valued, while women's writing, writing by people of colour etc. was marginalised and not considered worthy of study, no doubt continues to have some effect on what kind of literature is seen as valuable.

            Bob, we are not speaking about what women are buying. Women write a great deal of fiction and women readers buy a great deal of it. What we are speaking about is what kind of books are lauded with prestigious awards. Though women are doing so much of the writing and the reading, women writers are not receiving these awards. What I'm saying is that the very idea of a literary work having "universal" significance is flawed in itself. Yet "men's stories" have tended to be seen as something that can be appreciated by all readers, no doubt because we live in a patriarchal society. Is there anything that makes a story about war, for instance, more universally appealing than a marriage plot or story of family life and its struggles?

            Commenter
            Michelle
            Date and time
            November 07, 2012, 3:14PM
          • Michelle,

            don't patronise me. I have an Honours degree in English Lit. It was that kind of dogmatic jargon laden crap that makes me embarrassed to tell people that my first degree was in English.

            Your approach boils down to a vile elitism that suggests that most people don't really know what they should like, and you are there to tell them.

            Commenter
            Bob
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            November 07, 2012, 3:58PM
        • This tripe, this is sexism. I'm a habitual reader and read books that I'm interested in, whoever writes them. Some of my favourite authors are women: Le Guin, Mary Stewart, the Brontes of course, Christie and Rowling, and for my son Enid Blyton. But frankly I'm surprised I've read so many, as women just aren't interested in the stuff I'm interested in. So they're unlikely to write about it, and I'm unlikely to read them. Occam's razor, Aviva! Any other assumption is sexism. And as for Wolf's comment, I dismiss it entirely. Good male authors like Patrick O'Brian combine war and the feelings of people in drawing rooms with immense skill, so why choose when you can have both? Oh, of course, because you want to bang the sexism drum again, and again, and again.........

          Commenter
          Grant
          Date and time
          November 07, 2012, 10:21AM

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