How I Completely Failed the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013

I completely failed the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year. I did not read one book by an Australian Woman in 2013. I didn’t avoid books written by Australian women but nothing grabbed me, nothing made me want to pick up a book and stay with it. I did try a few but nothing by a female Australian writer appealed to my reading tastes or mood throughout the year.

Overall I read fewer books by female authors in 2013 than 2012. In 2013 I read 70 books, 5 more that 2012. 52.5 were by male authors, 17.5 were by female authors (The Tilted World was dual authored by a husband and wife). Of the 70 books I read, 10 were by Australian authors, 2 less than 2012. 25% of my reading was by female authors down from 29% in 2012.

So why did I fail? I will readily admit I could have tried harder to read more Australian women writers but there are so many books out there and so many different reasons why you chose to read a particular book at a particular time. One of the issues that I think did play a part was how books are marketed and yes I am a bookseller who does some of the marketing but publishers do have to sell to me too.

One of the reasons initiatives like the Australian Women Writers Challenge  and The Stella Prize was started was because of the lack of review coverage and recognition by literary awards of books by Australian female writers. However I think that while some books are marketed along gender lines this problem will not go away. Marketing affects reviewers and prize judges just as much as it does readers.

Not all books are marketed along gender lines but there are many good books that a publisher will choose to aim at a specific gender which does create a barrier towards readers of the non-targeted gender. Gender-ed marketing is most notably done through cover design. The cover is the first impression a book buyer has of a book and while we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover it does have so much influence on the first opinion of a book. A book cover can communicate many things to a reader. It can signify genre, subject, tone and can skew towards one gender or the other.  (And stickers from Women’s magazines on the covers only exacerbate the problem.)

But in saying all this it is still ultimately my choice what I read. I would like my reading to be more gender balanced and I would like to read more Australian books. But ultimately I am going to read what grabs me regardless of gender and nationality.

I won’t be doing the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2014 but I will continue to keep track of my reading to see how, where and why it changes.

17 thoughts on “How I Completely Failed the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013

  1. I will say that I am a little disappointed in this response. The only way I can see to truly subvert the marketing is to read women writers IN SPITE OF IT and discover whose writing you really enjoy. When I think of the writing you’ve missed this year, I feel so sad for you. For just one, Krissy Kneen’s marvelous ‘Steeplechase’, any of the Miles Franklin nominees (many of whom were not gender-marketed), Bianca Nogrady’s wonderful non-fiction about death, ‘The End’, and that’s just to name a few highlights. I understand your point, but I think if you pushed yourself one year to read some more, despite whether or not they ‘grabbed’ you at first sight, you might just be pleasantly surprised!

  2. I think you meant exacerbate (not exasperate).

    Although in some ways I agree with Angie, I would counter with “it shouldn’t be so hard”. I get that publishers do what they do to get books sold, but I think they trail a changing world, rather than fearlessly leading it. Speaking from a country that is celebrating a recent Nobel Prize winner female author (Alice Munro, Canada), I would say that although some books by female (and male) authors appeal to only a narrow audience, there are many that will have wider appeal as long as they are picked up in the first place.

      1. Maybe you need to monitor blogs that specialise in Australian titles and literary fiction in particular – you might find something you like, and at least you would be able to chat about a wider range of Aussie books to your customers. I don’t/won’t read on gender lines but I monitor what I’m doing, and without even trying to achieve gender balance my reviews consistently hover around 45%/55% female/male authors.
        But I know what you mean about AWW Great Reads: consistently disappointing, IMO.

  3. Wow, all this post shows is how narrow and thoughtless you are in your reading habits! “It’s not my fault, I’m just a slave to the system” is the central message I got from this. A shame that this is the approach from someone who influences others’ reading. If you are constantly swayed by covers and names then you are reading a tapered and tapering category of literature, and this is no one else’s fault but your own.

    1. Never said is wasn’t my fault. In fact it is totally my fault. And my reading habits are far from “narrow and thoughtless” have a look at my reviews. Everyone is influenced by covers and names whether they want to admit it or not

    2. Certainly my wording was less harsh, but I do agree with you in many ways Sam. Particularly as Jon, you are a bookseller, so I do feel it is more up to you to change this – you know how the industry works, you’re an educated reader, you should know better. If you don’t try, why should everyday readers ever bother? And what about your customers? I’m sure you stock plenty of Aussie women writers ( I hope!), but you can never recommend one from your own personal reading. In your position, I think you really MUST improve upon this!

      1. That’s exactly what I thought Angie – how effectively can Jon recommend books that he hasn’t read? This is the saddest thing from my point of view. We’ve all known, I’m sure, booksellers who cause us to buy a book because they are so passionate about it from their own reading. BTW I love your recommendations to Jon.

      2. A bookseller can recommend more than just what they read, otherwise they wouldn’t have much to sell! I read a lot of reviews and listen to what my fellow booksellers say about what they have read.

      3. Of course Jon, you’re right, but there’s nothing like the recommendations for books read and enjoyed. The way the recommender’s eyes light up can make the difference between I’ll buy now and I’ll think about it.

  4. I view the Challenge as a Challenge, to me it is about pushing through the marketing/cultural bias, challenging my own tastes. Why don’t you challenge yourself to find one good book by an Australian woman this year?

  5. I love that by putting this out there (intentionally?) you are making people more aware of the wiles of publishers in marketing and by doing so you are making them think about how they will choose a book next time they look. Well done!

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