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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ladies Who Write

Antigone Kefala

Get ready… 
Get set… 
The Australian Women Writers 2012 Book Reading and Reviewing Challenge is on and you are invited to take part — especially if you’re a man. 
The purpose of the exercise is to spend a year reading and reviewing and, in the words of the blog, ‘celebrating’ women writers in order to counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds. 
Fair enough. Whatever gets you noticed in this rough and tumble industry, I suppose. But is the challenge really necessary? Are women who write in this country doing it rough? Are they being read less because they lack a bait and tackle between their legs? Are they being neglect on the reviews pages because their books don’t have that distinctive masculine musk under the fly jacket? And are women under represented because they don’t wear the same underpants five days in a row while they work on a new manuscript? 
We can’t be too surprised that statistics on the AWW blog pronounce a resounding ‘Yes’. However, a casual glance at the newspapers, magazines, journals and various electronic media I read (and I read very widely indeed) would have you believe the answer is a distinct ‘No’. On the face of it, women appear to be getting as good or as bad an airing as the men. So what’s all the bellyaching about?
Frankly, when I see a woman who writes clutching a latte at the Moat cafe and bemoaning her sorry state, I want to pull down her muffing top and say: ‘Shut up and go write a good book. That’s all you will be remembered for in the long run.’ 
For me it’s a matter of perspective. If middle-class Australian women, who apparently have the luxury to write a book on their well-charged laptop and not be stoned for their efforts, feel they’re being crushed by the wheels of patriarchy, they should spend a year in Mogadishu. Then they’ll find out what oppression really smells like. And then, maybe, they will appreciate how easy life is for them in our flyblown shores, where they can write to their heart’s content and tour to promote their emulsions. But I suppose in our over-indulged society there is more cache in striking postures of victimhood than getting on with the task at hand.

Fiona McGregor
The first irritant is the verb ‘celebrate’. I don’t mind reading nothing but books written by women for a year — okay, actually, I do. But why does my year of reading have to include public jubilation followed by a goat sacrifice? Why can’t I just sigh contentedly after reading Flannery O’Connor or Fiona McGregor? No, it must be followed by a bacchanal and possibly rending to pieces of at least one male author who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. ‘Celebrate’ stinks of New-Age burbling. Get rid of it. That word is probably why many men stay away from books written by women; they think most of them are too busy celebrating to bother with crafting a well-told tale. I bet Karen Blixen didn’t lie around memorialising all day. No, she was too busy creating gem-like stories.
My real bugbear, however, is the term ‘woman writer’. What is that? ‘Woman writer’. Is that someone who manipulates the keyboard with her vagina? This solemn epithet has the whiff of old-world feminism. In fact, its linguistic implications counteracts the AWW’s aims, which presumably are about inclusion. It shoves women in a box and keeps them there. Before you pelt me with stones, let me say that it’s not that women shouldn’t be glad to be women. Go right ahead. Be glad about something that was imposed on you by outside forces. But first recognise that writing is about a shared experience of humanity. I bet Peter Carey doesn’t think of himself as a ‘male writer’. His penis doesn’t go near the computer. He merely hopes to transmit universal experience to the reader. 
Sonya Hartnett put me in my place very quickly when I called her a ‘woman writer’, and rightly so. Like AWW, I meant well. But, without realising it, my choice of words was creating distinctions and creating hierarchies. And in our all-inclusive, non-judgemental age that’s a definite no-no.
The question is this: at a time when most run away from the ghetto of epithets like ‘black writer’ and ‘gay writer’, why would women choose to segregate themselves in this manner? The unlucky sod who once called me an ‘ethnic writer’ had to pick himself up off the floor. Another who kindly suggested I take advantage of the fact that I am a ‘gay writer’ discovered that gays hit back — and not just with a handbag.
You are a writer or you are not. Gender doesn’t come into it. If the work is good it will float. If it’s not, it will thankfully sink. That’s all there is.

Susan Hill
One of the AWW’s complaints is that men don’t read women. I’m a man and I read women. My favourite Australian novel is Tirra Lirra by the River. The book that made me want to be a writer is To the Lighthouse. If I were to name a writer who is an inspiration, I would say Susan Hill. (If I could write one book as perfectly balanced as The Beacon, I’d die happy.) I prefer Agatha Christie to Raymond Chandler. I happen to believe that Susan Johnson is a more penetrating novelist than Alex Miller, and I would rather read Sonya Harnett than Tim Winton. Beverley Farmer should be published more often and Antigone Kefala is without peer in this country. Kim Wilkins is more to my taste than Ian Irvine. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is superior to Michael Moorcock and there was a time when all I read was Anne Rice, Poppy Z Brite and Nancy Collins. I would rather read Virginia Hamilton Adair and Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry than Luke Davies.
Yes, but you’re an exception, I hear you say. My reply: the glass is half full, not half empty. 
Admittedly, AWW and the newly created Stella Prize have a point. Women are poorly done by when it come to awards. Quite frankly, Stella Miles Franklin would turn over in her grave if she could see what is being done in her name. It’s ironic that the Miles Franklin Award website announces their patron’s struggles as a woman writing in the early years of the twentieth century, while pointedly ignoring women who write today. The last time a woman won the Miles Franklin was in 2007. Alexis Wright deserved it, but I bet that decision was not informed by aesthetics alone. Meanwhile Alex Miller is lauded right across the board. 

Beverley Farmer
The truth is no writer has it easy. At some point, all writers struggle in the face of resounding indifference. Why should women or gays or blacks or people with bucked teeth get preferential treatment? I speak from experience. I’m a wog poof who finds it difficult to publish in this country and continues to do so even after I published numerous essays that are studied in universities around the world and a book that has been published both here and overseas to critical acclaim. A newspaper editor once advised me to adopt ‘a normal’ moniker if I wanted to be published in Australia. I bet Tara Moss never got that.

Did I start a website to complain? No, I did not. My only confidante is the martini glass at five in the afternoon. And a daily grind at the computer.
Now, woman writer, stop kvetching and write something worth reading. Believe it or not the world is on your side...


Susan Johnson said...

Take two Dmtiri -- tried to post yesterday but your blog ate post. Firstly, thanks for the thoughtful post, and for engaging with the debate at all.
Now, if I can remember what I said yesterday, and this is still straight off the top of my head, the first point to make is that what happens to some poor soul in Mogadishu has no particular relevance to what happens to a woman writer in, say, Melbourne. In an ideal world it SHOULD, because we all know that rich western world has enough food and money to keep the poor 'third world' safe and fed and warm. However, geopolitics is a dirty hard game and we know that for as long as there have been men and women there have been good men and women fighting for a more equal world -- with mixed results. So, it is reductio ad absurdum to suggest that the life of a woman in Mogadishu has any bearing on the life of a lady writer in Melbourne. In other words, equating or linking one with the other is hardly useful, and makes no relevant point.
Secondly, your general argument that lady writers need no special pleading, well, it reminds me of the old fat farts of the ALP who were against equal representation. As a gay man you must know that part of the reason why gays have an easier life these days is because of those braves souls willing to fight for equality, those souls at Stonewall and at Gay Lib marches in the 70s. Sometimes under-represented folk need to shout loud, and sometimes the system DOES need changing.
Lastly, yes,Flannery O'Connor and Karen Blixen and all the other wonderful lady writers you mention. But these are regarded as MINOR, baby, and part of the cultural perception is that only male writers can be MAJOR. Who do we think of as America's contemporary greats? It's Updike and Roth and Franzen and Mailer and Bellow etc -- all WONDERFUL -- but what of Oates and Didion and Robinson and Phillips and Kingslover and many, many more. What is the system? Who is it that imparts value? Is it us?
Anyway, I dips me lid for your interest, and will write a longer response on my blog at
I get where you are coming from, certainly, but I just think perhaps there is a wider concept. Thankyou Dmtri!

Lindy Cameron said...

Susan Johnson - couldn't agree with you more. On every point.
Dmetri - nice of you to join the conversation. Although perhaps if you'd gone back through ALL the history (as in blog posts and responses) that preceded the formation of the AWW's challenge for next year you may not have bothered with your blog. Or you may have realised that it was a post - JUST LIKE YOUR blog - in response to Tara Moss's rather ordinary statement of statistics that started the whole thing in the first place. The Age book reviewer Cameron (bloke) Woodhead accused Tara of "priviledged whining" for stating the fact that women writers in Australia get fewer reviews than the men. He too then went off on an irrelevant little rave about (paraphrasing) 'perhaps you women should stick to writing about important women's things like domestic violence'. Why? Seriously, why should we? Is that a women-only special topic for some reason? Given it's (usually) men who perpetrate it, why don't they write about it? Oh. Because if they did, it would be important writing and get all the honours. See? Really, it's about as relevant as you talking about Mogadishu. Or Biafra. Eat your dinner little Dmetri/Lindy/Miles Franklin - because you know there are starving children somewhere else in the world. (Post my peas to Biafra then Mum.)
I don't know your writing Dmetri - and you probably have no idea who I am, but you came to this party when it was almost over. And started it again, for the same reason.
Lindy Cameron

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