Good books don’t have a use-by date: the real value of AWW

If you count the number of reviews generated, 2013 was a great year for the AWW challenge.

Participants wrote and published nearly 1800 reviews of books by Australian women in all genres. Plenty of people found excellent books to read, among them bestselling new releases such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Dawn Barker’s Fractured. Popular, too, were outstanding books from past years. Not least among these were the Stella Prize winner Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, Michelle de Kretser’s Miles Franklin winning Questions of Travel, and books by Stella Prize shortlisted author Margo Lanagan.

Many participants reported reading far more books than they’d signed up for. Several bookbloggers and Goodreads users read and reviewed over 100 books each.

There was one notable exception.

Jon Page of Pages and Pages Booksellers, Mosman, former President of the Australian Booksellers Association, wrote a wrap up post entitled, “How I completely failed the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013.” Jon admitted he didn’t read one book by an Australian woman this year.

His admission generated dozens of replies on Twitter. Comments came from authors, readers and those in the publishing industry.

JonPage zoom

So why would such a prominent bookseller not find any books by Australian women to his taste?

For one thing, Jon claimed, there are so many great new books, not just Australian books, clamouring for his attention. Particularly, though, he dislikes the marketing of some books by Australian women, especially the ones with AWW stickers. (That’s Australian Women’s Weekly stickers, not anything to do with our AWW.)

Poor covers also came in for a serve.

Seeing his tweet that he likes “dark gritty crime”, I asked if he’d contemplating reading Random House’s latest thriller offering, Hades by Candice Fox. Jon admitted the cover didn’t appeal – not because it’s gendered, just because it doesn’t grab him. (Incidentally, I read that book without seeing either the cover or reading the “blurb”: I downloaded it as a cover-less ebook via Netgalley.)

hades fox

As Jon also mentioned he likes literary works, I asked whether he’d read Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s a wonderful book, dark and gritty, and literary. He hadn’t heard of it. That’s right, a prominent Sydney bookseller hadn’t heard of a book published by HarperCollins in July 2012, a book that has all the elements he looks for in a great read. In the next tweet he announced he’d download a preview on his Kobo.

Clearly the ‘discoverability’ of good books by Australian women is still an issue.

Throughout the day, Jon and I exchanged several more tweets. He wondered if Eleanor Catton (from New Zealand) could be counted as an Aussie. I told him I counted M J Hyland (who no longer lives here). Had he heard of Carry Me Down? It’s gritty and literary. He hadn’t. He seemed interested.

In his wrap-up post, Jon wrote that he wouldn’t be signing up for #aww2014, but we’ll see. I pointed out that with one more book, he’d have enough to sign up at Stella level (and you can just sign up to read). He’d read Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (Prime Minister’s Literary Prize winner), right? Er… no.

dog boy jon page twitter

What is the significance of this exchange?

The only reason I knew about Cole’s book was because others had reviewed it for the AWW challenge. I either saw it tweeted about, or discussed in one of the monthly round-up posts. Or maybe I saw it while perusing the AWW Review Listings page. I can’t remember.

darkness edge town reviews

I knew of M J Hyland’s and Eva Hornung’s books because I found them in the library when looking for books by Australian women. I discovered they’re both beautiful and moving. Dog Boy was published in 2009; Carry Me Down in 2006. I’ve only just now discovered, researching this, that Carry Me Down was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It doesn’t surprise me.

My point is, good books don’t have a use-by date. If new releases don’t grab you, look back at prize winners. If literary works don’t appeal, find other AWW participants who share your tastes and read their reviews, see what they recommend. Join in the conversation and spread the word.

That’s the real success of the AWW challenge. We are helping to create an ongoing, online conversation that brings the best books by Australian women – in all genres – to the attention of readers who might otherwise never hear of them. Even prominent booksellers, it seems.

~

If you’re new to the challenge, find out how to join here. You can find lots of excellent books on the AWW Review Lists and in the AWW blog monthly review round-ups. Most of all, have fun.

Happy reading and happy new year!

PS I may not have convinced Jon, but someone who participated in our exchange just signed up for #aww2014.

PPS Jon, you can sign up all year.

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22 Comments

  1. I like the cover of Hades – and it was a fantastic read and I was surprised by just how many Australian Women Writers novels I did read – and many selections were by accident, AWW – I just chose books that sounded like great, interesting reads, and they were and then discovered some were AWW (mostly crime and contemporary reads, my genre of choice). AWW writers write as good as any other writer – how can you not find at least one that suits your reading needs?

    Reply
    • Hi Carol, Thanks for stopping by to comment. I read your review of Hades and saw plenty of other reviews by AWW participants who enjoyed the book (as I did). I did wonder about that cover, though, and whether it’s truly non-gendered. (The raising kids thing, the back profile of the protagonist: it does remind me over covers of other books by women.) This is such a fraught question and I hate to generalise, but there does seem to be a block for some men which prevents them even picking up books by women. Happy new year, by the way. I’m looking forward to sharing another year of great reading.

      Reply
      • Hi Elizabeth – cover design – a personal taste and we are all different but something like Questions of Travel – port hole/ocean view has no gender bias and I would hope the discerning informed reader would look further than the cover when choosing a book and especially when it comes to reading for a CHALLENGE, and there are so many Australian Women Writers out there to choose from (and what about the award winning books? Surely these are not too much of a risk to read?) Surely this challenge is about reading AWW – not about liking every one of them? I can read a book and not find it to my taste but can see the merits/potential for others with differing tastes to mine to enjoy, and I would have thought a book seller would have so much more material./info at his finger tips to be able to make an informed decision when choosing a book, Jon’s attitude is truly disappointing but I am a little cynical and wonder if he particularly wrote this blog post for the notoriety factor?
        PS I posted my review of Hades on The Reading Room and know of at least one male reader who them sought out the book and read it and put it on his top 10 list for 2013. All is not lost…just Jon :)

      • Carol, you make some very good points here. Regarding gender-neutral covers, one commenter on Twitter remarked that some covers may *not* appeal to some women *because *they’re not gendered! Like you say, it’s a matter of taste. I also think you’re right about the challenge aspect (a point Sean also makes below.) As for Hades, I’m not surprised it was picked up by your male reader (that’s why I chose that one to suggest to Jon), but I have to say one of the reasons might be that it has a male protagonist (not to mention lots of gore). Jon and other (male?) commenters mentioned having loved Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows (more male protagonists). Both Carry Me Down and Dog Boy have male protagonists. I’ll be very interested to discover whether they in fact strike a chord (if Jon or the other male[?] reader who took on the recommendations ever get back to me). There was some discussion about what appeals to male readers in books by women a while ago, and whether male protagonists might help and why. Someone (can’t remember who) mentioned that women are used to reading male and female protagonists, whereas men usually read about male protagonists (or perhaps female protagonists penned by men a la Moll Flanders, Pamela Richardson, Becky Sharpe, Portrait of a Lady, Lolita etc). Those who read aspirationally (i.e. looking for the type of story we feel empowered by, through our identification with the protagonist) are, according to this observation, attracted to reading about protagonists with *more power. *Rightly or wrongly, for men in a patriarchal society, that doesn’t necessarily include (comparatively less powerful) women. The exceptions to this would be, for example, female protagonists like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, – and perhaps Jaye Ford’s female protagonists, if we want an Australian example – women who take back their power in very dramatic (and, in Lisbeth’s case, violent) manner. (Jaye has sold around the world and, like husband-and-wife team Nicci French, I believe is popular with male readers.) This view makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks again for the discussion.

      • Some interesting points – personally i do not choice my next book base on the gender of the protagonist – but on the blurb narrative and knowledge of the writers previous works/history…I passed to my husband the following to read: Bone Ash Sky, Fractured, Questions of Travel, The Vale Girl, Sinister Intent, No Place Like Home, Blood Secret, Too Close to Home, All the Birds Singing, Burial Rites…( He doesnt share my love of crime fiction) but he did really enjoy these reads – so gender of writer/protagonist had little influence on him, my opinion of the book did :) )

        Until this discussion I didn’t realise how much of an issue gender in general is in Australian writing. Such a pity. ( and I dont recall discussing this at uni – I am a women’s studies major, I think we should have done) and my uni reading doesn’t match my free choice reading…

        So book bloggers out there – reading and writing about books written by Australian Women really does seem to have an impact on what people read – blog away and spread the word and help change attitudes.

  2. My approach to the challenge is to a) find and support the kind of writing that I like ie Speculative Fiction. But I also like to maybe pick one or two works that might be outside my preferences. As such I have decided to read Mary Poppins as part of the challenge its ostensibly a children’s book but Travers never regarded it as such and I also haven’t read it. I’d like to compare the saccharine sweetness of the movie with the text.

    I do read a lot of books that if I were reading purely for pleasure I’d possibly put down. That’s not a remark on their quality but on my preferences. So I kind of think that if I do the challenge reading only what I really like, only what I am comfortable with then I am not really challenging myself.

    I read erotic zombie fiction and romance this year as a result of that approach. I am richer for it.

    Reply
    • Erotic zombie fiction and romance. I am impressed.

      What you write, Sean, is a good reminder. It’s meant to be a challenge, to take us out of our comfort zones. I still have too many literary titles sitting on my TBR pile. I should really give them more of a go.

      Reply
      • I really was impressed by Kylie Scott’s Zombie series, I didn’t expect the non erotic content to be as good as it was. The romance I read was a manuscript and again I found it to be an entertaining story.

  3. An interesting exchange Elizabeth. I admit Jon’s post made me sad, especially as I saw it only a little while after I got depressed by an online magazine which featured the top crime fiction reads for 2013 of 5 well respected blokes. Between them they listed 26 different titles and only 4 were by women. Seems there’s still an uphill battle to get men to read and rate books by women.

    Reply
    • I thought maybe Jon could have challenged himself more( I did mention that to him) I can only imagine that having a broader knowledge would help him sell more books

      Reply
    • Are you going to blog about that post, Bernadette? It would be great to see further discussion of what’s happening in different genres.

      Reply
  4. I was impressed by how Jon kept polite and cool during the bombardment of questions to him. It was a great exchange and wonderful to follow. Much food for thought.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting, Jenny. I agree, considering how many comments were thrown at him. (And it isn’t bad publicity for the challenge.)

      Reply
    • I had a sneaking suspicion that Jon was engaged in some clever blogging *cough* clickbait *cough* ;)

      Reply
      • Yeah maybe but I prefer to take the view that he was sincere in what he was saying. Just because it was controversial doesn’t mean he wasn’t sincere. He would have known there’d be a reaction and ready for that. Isn’t everybody trying to get readers and comments? Nothing new there!

      • True, in the absence of knowledge to the contrary assume the best of people.

      • No! ;) Works both ways, though. It prompted me to blog and that has been a great outro for AWW2013 and intro for AWW2014.

      • Win/Win hopefully

  5. Lizzie

     /  January 1, 2014

    Sorry, but Jon is an ignorant, shameless chump. I am embarrassed for everyone else who works at his bookstore. Why give him so much status? How many times did you call him ‘prominent’? His ego was well fed in that post. He is a disgrace and not at all representative of the many thoughtful, interested men working in book selling today.

    Reply
    • Lizzie, thanks for commenting and sharing your view. (I’ll have to go back and check out how many times I’ve used prominent, now.) Jon is prominent, in my opinion, and not just because of his former position but also because he is a regular contributor on local Sydney radio discussing books. He was a champion of the challenge in 2012 and gave me the opportunity to be interviewed on radio by Linda Mottram which gave unprecedented coverage for our blog. I’m grateful for that and I guess the respect he earned back then shows in my post. By the way, if you can, please send those many thoughtful, interested men working in bookselling our way. The AWW team would much prefer not to have to work so hard at trying to get men interested in reading and reviewing books by women. There have been so few who have bothered to sign up, and Jon was one of them.

      Reply
  6. Excellent article – good books are good books, whether new or old.

    Reply
  1. Reading Australian Women Writers | Transcending

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