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The Stella Count is in – women authors don’t get fair treatment

Three of the five Miles Franklin award nominees for 2013 were women - but female authors are still underrepresented in the review pages. AAP Image/Honner Media, Hamilton Churton

So, the Stella Count is in for 2013. These are annual statistics collected by the Stella Prize that measure the number of books by women that get reviewed in major publications and the number of books by men that get such attention.

I wish I could say I am surprised but I’m not. As in previous years, and on a par with American Organisation VIDA’s findings for 2013, this year’s Stella Count shows that books by male authors are much more likely to be reviewed than books by female authors.

What is most concerning about this year’s result is that two national publications, The Australian Financial Review and The Weekend Australian, have the most gendered outcomes: 85% of The Australian Financial Review’s literary reviews were of books by male writers, an increase from its results in 2011 (79%) and 2012 (80%). The Weekend Australian recorded an improvement on previous years, but still 65% of books reviewed were by male writers (compared to 70% in both 2011 and 2012).

This is consistent with VIDA’s findings for last year. Influential publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books and indie darlings McSweeney’s all reviewed far more work by male writers than female writers.

This year, The Stella Prize, which performed the count in conjunction with Books + Publishing, also examined the gender of the reviewers and found:

Across the majority of surveyed publications, male writers generally reviewed books by men. This remained the case even when there was a far higher proportion of female reviewers.

Women’s books were, of course, more likely to be reviewed by women.

What I found most troubling was that even if a publication was egalitarian in its reviews, the Stella arbiters noted that “books by male writers tended to be given larger reviews and these were generally positioned more prominently in newspapers’ review sections”. The Stella Count revealed that this favouritism is “particularly conspicuous in the treatment of debut or relatively unknown writers. Emerging and first-time female authors were less likely to receive lengthy profiles or lead features than their male counterparts.”

This is tiring stuff for female writers, editors, reviewers, publishers and literary critics. In 1971 Margaret Atwood noted that “most books in this society are written by men, and so are most reviews … likewise women tend to be reviewing books by women rather than books by men.” While some ground has been made by women getting into print, the attention-grabbing novels still tend to be those works of fiction by men.

When I embarked on my PhD ten years ago, I decided to read only books by women writers. My secondary and tertiary education had been saturated with literature by men. And although I prefer to read books by women writers, I still read a hefty amount of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by men.

Most of the women I know read male writers – we’d be crazy not to. But, as Aviva Tuffield writes today, “there is much anecdotal evidence from booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and beyond that boys and men prefer to read only books by and about males”.

My own experiences at high school and university have shown this to be true. Last year, Canadian author and professor at The University of Toronto, David Gilmour, sparked social media outrage when he declared that he was not interested in teaching fiction by women in his courses. “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys.”

Excuse me, but David Gilmour comes from Canada, which has produced some of the best female novelists of this century. Is he really so myopic that he hasn’t heard of Carol Shields, Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood?

As Tuffield asks, “How does it happen that half of the population tends to read only about themselves? And does it matter?”

It does matter when we as a culture suggest that the experiences of men are universal while those of women are still seen as marginal or minor. It matters because we live in a culture that continues to rate men’s artistic endeavours as more valid than women’s. It is this kind of thinking that allows us to see women through a two-dimensional lens, reinforcing the idea that women are somehow less worthy, less important, than their male counterparts.

Organisations such as VIDA and The Stella Prize are doing their bit to redress this balance, but it is time for men in the industry to shoulder some of the work. Those who know better should be doing better.

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