Last week the first Stella Prize was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship With Birds. The Stella Prize was created to highlight writing by Australian women. The creation of the award was also in response to the under-recognition of women’s writing in literary reviews and literary awards, most notably the Miles Franklin Award.
I’ve written about my own gender bias when it comes to reading and reviewing. I have tried to address the imbalance by signing up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and it made a huge difference last year. Sadly so far this year I have only finished one book by a female author (and she wasn’t Australian). The reason isn’t from lack of trying, there just hasn’t been a book that has grabbed me or made me want to pick it up.
My poor progress has got me thinking about some of the reasons there is a gender bias when it comes to reading and I don’t think it is just because of a lack of review coverage or literary award recognition (although those things do not help). I think a huge part of the problem is how books are presented and pitched at readers.
Most books written by men are not marketed at men. While most books written by women are directly marketed at women. This marketing effectively closes the door on a good majority of male readers as they are given the impression that this book is not for them. Now sometimes this impression is correct but other times I think a huge disservice is being done to authors and to readers.
Two cases in point:
Kate Grenville is a superb Australian writer. The Secret River is a novel that will be read for generations to come. From my experience selling the book it was read and loved by both genders. However when the sequel came out, Sarah Thornhill it originally had this cover on it:
which, in my opinion as a male, made the book look like an outback romance that most male readers wouldn’t read. When I queried the cover with the publishers I was told they were trying to attract a wider audience for the book. Which may be true but that wider audience wasn’t going to come from male readers.
The second case in point is the Australian Women’s Weekly stickers. These stickers are the bane of every bookseller. They can make a well written book seem tacky, are almost impossible to remove and no male reader will ever buy a book, for himself to read, with the sticker on the book. Sometimes these stickers are aptly applied but quite often they’re not. The two recent picks not suited have been The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.
I can see why The Rosie Project was stickered, Simsion is a debut author and the sticker would have given the book more exposure. Luckily the book sold so well and so quickly we got stock back in unstickered so there wasn’t a huge issue for us selling the book to male readers. However we have had a huge problem with the stickers on Life After Life. Firstly, Kate Atkinson fans hate the sticker and want it instantly removed when they buy the book. Secondly I can’t get men to buy the book. I think Life After Life is a tremendous book and is my tip for the Booker Prize this year (you heard it here first) but that blasted sticker is stopping me selling books!
I think it fantastic that the Stella Prize has been able to get off the ground and that the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly The Orange Prize) has been able to continue despite losing their major sponsor. Awards like this do make a difference as can discussing the issue openly and making people aware that there is an issue. But if the industry continues to market books along gender lines, then guess what, readers will buy and read along gender lines.