Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

International Women's Day: 'Women in Print' at Readings

So, the draft Bradt Guide is done, we are in Melbourne, and we have somewhere to live for the next month (fingers crossed. We move in tomorrow. Please please please let nothing go wrong with it).
New Man-type husband and I celebrated International Women’s Day by going to a panel discussion at Readings, Melbourne’s independent bookshop mini-chain. I get the impression that independent bookshops are reasonably healthy in Australia, which is good thing, although slightly surprising given the eye-watering price of books here. But given recent events, it seems to be the bigger chains that are being hit. Certainly the smaller ones seem to put a big effort into doing events and finding other ways to increase footfall and build customer loyalties and relationships, so perhaps that’s it.
The more radical sector in Melbourne seemed to be taking IWD as the opportunity for a rally on the huge, grand steps of the State Library challenging the ‘racist, sexist intervention in the Northern Territory’ (to quote a placard lying on the steps). If we’d known about it in advance, we might have gone to that too, or at least first. But having been in the city for fewer that 36 hours I hope we can be forgiven for not having our fingers pinned to the political pulse.
The Readings event was enjoyable, although it didn’t tell me a lot I didn’t already know. The chair, Rebecca Starford of Kill Your Darlings, started with some stats released by Vida last year on the numbers of women reviewers and reviews by women writers appearing in big-name publications such as the New Yorker, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books. All were (shock horror) crap, with all 3 magazines running fewer than a third reviews by women, or of books by women. She’d also crunched some numbers for Australian publications, with the Age and the Australian coming out somewhat better (but still well under half), and the Australian literary journal she mentioned (sorry, name escapes me) doing markedly worse.
The discussion that followed – about why this might be the case and the extent to which it was borne out by experience – was between Sophie Cunningham, former editor of the journal Meanjin and author of the novel Geography; Monica Dux, author of The Great Feminist Denial; and Louise Swinn, an editor at Sleepers, a publishing house which ‘advocates for new and established writers in Australia’. Again, most of the contributions confirmed a lot I’d already discussed with women colleagues or read elsewhere, but it was interesting to get an Australian perspective on it. The main points included:

– that there are plenty of very able and talented women writers out there, but many of them lack confidence in their own abilities. Sophie Cunningham described how at Meanjin, she would get plenty of article pitches from male writers with no in-depth knowledge of a subject, but the basic confidence in their writing skills which allows them to say, ‘I have a good idea, the basic framework and the nouse to find some decent experts to quote/cite’. Whereas she would have to actively chase down women writers, and still be turned down repeatedly by women pleading that they weren’t ‘expert’ enough to write on a topic. Women writers simply need to be more assertive (although of course then they get written off as pushy or ball-breakers);
– writing for a living nowadays entails a lot of self-promotion and self-confidence, and if you want to get recognised you probably have to get out there, speak in public, use social media and generally publicise yourself. Again men, for lots of reasons to do with socialisation and education, are often more confident doing this. Also, women are often the main carers for children or sick or elderly relatives, which means that they often can’t take up unpaid speaking ‘opportunities’ which might come their way;
– editors are (and this was implied rather than stated outright) often a bit lazy and will usually commission from pitched articles rather than set out to find writers who might potentially do a better job. This dynamic obviously benefits the male tendencies laid out in the first point;
– that women’s books are often marketed – via their dust jackets, publicity etc – to other women, whereas book by men are marketed to men and women. Marketing departments seem to have thoroughly take on board the notion that ‘men buy books by men; women buy books by both’ and don’t try to sell books by women to men. Lionel Shriver, author of We Have To Talk About Kevin, wrote about this in The Guardian;

There was, of course, a lot more said, although sadly the 45 minute format didn’t allow for questions or discussion from the floor. It would also have been nice to get a printout of some of the stats quoted and websites and articles cited, or at least direction to a blog or website where some of it might be written up. A nod to the need for ongoing feminist activism and struggle would also have been nice. But this was an enjoyable event, well run, in a great atmosphere. A good introduction to Melbourne…

One comment on “International Women's Day: 'Women in Print' at Readings

  1. Pingback: Authentic Mutual Recognition «

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