(* This post has been transferred from my old website. Please excuse the formatting.)
Why women? Why Sisters In Crime? I think bestselling US crime writer Sara Paretsky, creator of VI Warshawski can explain it best: ‘It was 25 years ago this month that I invited 26 women to breakfast at a Baltimore crime festival. For two years I’d been hearing complaints ranging from lack of review attention for women writers to disrespect and marginalisation at crime conferences. It seemed to be time to organise, and I wanted to know how many women felt ready to take matters to the next level. Sisters In Crime grew out of that breakfast, with over 3000 members worldwide and chapters in Europe, North America and Australia.’
A quarter of a century later, female writers are still dealing with many of the same issues. The male-dominated shortlists for the Miles Franklin award in Australia recently gave rise to the Stella prize, named after Stella Marie Miles Franklin (above), a woman who pretended she was a man to get published.
At the annual Davitt awards on Saturday (named after Ellen Davitt, writer of Australia’s first known mystery novel), Professor Sue Turnbull pointed out that in 16 years, Australia’s prestigious Ned Kelly Awards for crime writing has only once awarded its top fiction prize to a woman (Gabrielle Lord in 2002). Considering the more than 60 Australian crime writers who gathered at SheKilda this weekend, including critically acclaimed bestsellers like Kathryn Fox, Kerry Greenwood, Katherine Howell (just to name the K’s) and more, that statistic is downright outrageous. PM Newton, one of many authors (and Sisters in Crime) who write under a non-gender specific name, writes in her blog We Live in Interesting Times, that ‘An androgynous name on the cover would, I hoped, mean that the busy bloke on the run through the airport bookshop would not hesitate to pick up the crime book with the gritty cover…’
If anecdotal stories from female writers, or a look at the Miles Franklin short lists aren’t enough, take a look at the statistics offered on the Stella Prize website. A few stats of note include:
1 – Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won 13 times. Four times this woman was Thea Astley, but twice she shared the award. Since 2001 two women have won, from the pool of 10 awards.
2 – A look at the number of books published in the last 18 months (via Bookseller and Publisher database) suggest that about an equal number of men and women are published.
3 – Publishing is a predominantly female industry (62 per cent) yet most senior positions are held by men. According to The Bloom Report in 2007, 68 per cent of men who work in the industry earn more than $100,000 as opposed to 32 per cent of the women.
They also have a list of stats relating to major newspapers and literary journals, pointing out that writing by women is still vastly underrepresented in reviews. Just one example: ‘In The New Yorker, 22 per cent of book reviewers were women and 20 per cent of books reviewed were by women writers.’
I’ve noticed a shocking number of ‘My Favourite Books’ or ‘Top Reads’ lists featuring 80% or in some cases even 100% work by written by male writers. Often these lists are made by women themselves, and I have wondered how they have managed either not to read the many and talented female writers who are published each year, or to not credit them as any good.
We may have come a long way, but it seems we’re not quite there yet.
Are you a female writer who has been published under a male, or gender-neutral name? JK Rowling? PD James? PM Newton? PD Martin? Alex Palmer? (I was published as T. Moss in Brazil.) Was that your choice, or your publisher’s decision?
Are you more likely to read a novel written by a male? Likewise, are you more likely to give greater weight and merit to work by male writers?
And if you are, would you even be aware of that subconscious prejudice while males are still, statistically, more frequently awarded and reviewed?
UPDATE – October 14: This blog post, and some of the patronising responses to it, have engendered debate both on this blog and elsewhere. It has been labeled ‘privileged whining’ (below) and ‘comfortable bandwagoneering’ (presumably because I have only been a member of the organisation this post is about, for 13 years), by a fiction and theatre reviewer for The Age, no less.
These are interesting times.
In every individual circumstance it can be argued that the novel by the male writer is the better one, and it may well be the case that year, or the next, or even the next. But over time, a bias becomes clear. While no one person, gender, group or industry is to blame for gender bias, it is important to admit that there still is one, unconscious or otherwise, as the statistics unfortunately illustrate. Only then can we hope for change.
Yesterday I came across a thoughtful response, written by Elizabeth Lhuede. If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to take a moment to read Ms Lhuede’s reply, and to check out the websites for VIDA, The Stella Prize, Sisters In Crime, Aus, and Sisters In Crime, USA for more information.
UPDATE – JANUARY 14, 2012: The topic of literary gender bias continues with a comprehensive piece by Jane Sullivan in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘A Woman’s Place’. Recommended reading.