This year’s Miles Franklin award has produced much debate about the gender of authors, the Australian voice in literary fiction and the under-recognition of female authors by reviewers and literary prizes. For the second year in a row there are no female authors on the Miles Franklin shortlist. In fact they even shortened the shortlist this year to only three. This is coupled with the fact that only 13 of the 50 winners of the Miles Franklin Award have been female. [PLEASE NOTE: I don’t want to detract from this year’s shortlist because each of the three books would be deserving winners of our most prestigious awards and I really hope BEREFT wins!]
In response to this a new award is set to be established for female writers only. The Orange Prize was similarly established over 15 years ago when the same debate about the under-recognition of female writers occurred with The Booker Prize. The Orange Prize has now grown into one of the world’s top literary awards. I think an Australian version is a fantastic idea.
The debate about gender bias in awards and reviews has got me thinking about my own reading. I would like think that I do not have a gender bias when I read. I do not choose a book based on the gender of an author nor the gender of the main character. I choose a book to read based on its subject, characters, my interests, recommendations and what is happening in my life at that moment. I love books when I relate to a character and can immerse myself in the world that an author has created and when a book makes me think about the world around me. I hate when a character does not ring true and have given up on books where an author has tried to write from another gender’s perspective and I felt it hasn’t worked. (I once read a book, written in the first person, assuming the narrator was a woman only to find out it was a man!).
I consider a number of female authors amongst my favourites including (but not limited to) Laura Lippman, Donna Tartt, Sadie Jones and Kate Grenville and have read some brilliant debuts in the last year by Miriam Gershow, Favel Parett, P.M. Newton and Roberta Lowing. My favourite book so far in 2011 is THE TIGER’S WIFE by Téa Obreht. But on examination of my bookshelves I was quite surprised at how many books were by male writers. If you’d asked me before looking I would have said my bookshelves might be 2:1 male:female writers but I think it is closer to 5:1. So while I don’t consider myself as having a gender bias to my reading my library indicates otherwise.
I think a reader will favour their own gender in one way or another but are there other factors that probably exasperate a gender bias. But is the under-representation of female writers in reviews and literary awards the cause of a problem or the reflection of the problem? I have no evidence to back this up but my observations in my bookshop are that the majority of my customers are female and that they do not discern between the genders of authors that they read. A majority of our male customers (not all) do seem to base their choice of books on the gender of the author and will only read male authors. It is not an overt decision but it is noticeable none the less.
Publishers are aware of the gender issue and often try to take gender out of the equation by the way the author is credited on the cover of the book. This is not new, George Eliot being an obvious example. However the trend nowadays is to neutralize an author’s gender. The most famous example of this is Joanne Rowling (aka J.K.Rowling). Despite a boy’s name, Harry Potter, being in the books’ titles a decision was made, by either the publisher or Joanne herself, to neutralize the effect her gender would have on the sales of the books. And it does have an effect on sales. I certainly sold more copies of THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M.Newton because some of my customers assumed the author was male.
Maybe all books should be published under an author’s initials so gender isn’t an issue at all…