miles-franklin-overland-imageI declare 2012 the year of Australian women writers.

And I’m thanking the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And the happy chance that two novels by Australian women published this year have dominated the literary prizes: Anna Funder’s All that I Am, which won seven awards including the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which won among others the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Created in September 2011, partly in response to the all-male 2011 Miles Franklin Award shortlist, the Stella Prize came into its own this year. In 2012 the Stella has run a series of thought-, conversation- and blog-provoking events – and inspired many others.

Perhaps the most significant ‘event’ inspired by the Stella is Elizabeth Lhuede’s Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge (AWW), a flourishing website which reviews books written by Australian women created in late 2011. Since then, over 370 people have signed up to review books and so far they’ve generated 1250 reviews. Impressive stats.

As part of the AWW challenge Overland’s fiction editor Jennifer Mills read for the first time five Australian ‘classics’ written by women, which she reviewed last month. Mills wrote: ‘Knowing these women readers and writers have gone before makes me feel that I am part of an active culture, a living thing.’

The indefatigable Lhuede has just wrapped up the achievements of AWW so far at the Huffington Post, where she gives a fascinating overview of the books by women reviewed on the AWW blog this year.

The first thing that struck me on reading it was the range of genres it includes. As Lhuede says: ‘The reviews haven’t all been of literary fiction. They cover nonfiction and poetry, as well as genres that rarely, if ever, get reviewed by traditional media such as horror, romance and erotica.’ The genres covered include literary, classics, historical, crime, mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, young adult, history, memoir, biography. Comprehensive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women writers this week in preparation for a Stella event at the State Library of New South Wales on Wednesday – Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers. I’ve been thinking especially about the ongoing marginalisation of women writers in Australia – and one word that keeps recurring is ‘genre’.

A Stella event in Sydney earlier this year asked ‘Do women write differently from men?’ Of course we don’t – the range of women writers and writing is as vast as that of men. But I can’t help feeling that something like an idea that women write (and read) differently from men lurks at the heart of the marginalisation of women writers in the prevailing western literary culture (as suggested by the VIDA statistics).

Sometimes this is overt, as in Times Literary Supplement’s editor Peter Stothard’s remark that ‘while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS’. And other times subtle, as in Helen Garner’s comment on the Stella website, which has been bothering me all year: ‘The Stella Prize, with its graceful flexibility about genre, will encourage women writers to work in the forms they feel truly at home in, instead of having to squeeze themselves into the old traditional corsets.’

The question of genre was explored by Rebecca Giggs in the Spring 2012 issue of Overland in her essay ‘Imagining Women: On gender and genre’. Prompted by a question asked to Anna Krien about Into the Woods and why it was that the best nonfiction in the country was being written by women (Helen Garner, Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper, Amanda Lohrey), Giggs teases out the terrain of these nonfiction writers who defy generic conventions. They ‘incur upon the narrative; they let the narrative trespass upon them. They use the lyric, the language of poetry, and swear and slang with equal grace.’ In her exhilarating conclusion, Giggs argues these genre-bending women write to destroy all traditional categories and boundaries, including those of gendered discourse: ‘In short, these are writers who use nonfiction to burn down the barriers between masculine and feminine discourse, inner and outer worlds, form and content.’

These questions of genre and gender have a particular inflection in Australian literary history which dates back to that formative decade, the 1890s, and the strongly masculine style of fiction – realism, bush tales, lean prose, laconic characters – championed by the Bulletin’s AG Stephens. This particular brand of Australian fiction has shaped our thinking about national literature and ‘the great Australian novel’ – and is reflected in many of the Miles Franklin shortlists, notably the sausagefest (thanks Angela Meyer) of 2011. The terms of Franklin’s will – that the novel ‘must present Australian Life in any of its phases’ – seem to encourage this.

Julieanne Lamond explores Australian women’s writing in the context of this history in her brilliant Meanjin essay, ‘Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia’. Lamond draws on Susan Sheridan’s work on Australian women’s writing, saying that Sheridan ‘puts forward an account of the relationship between masculinity, genre, nation and literary worth that it seems to me might still be at play in judgements about women and literary value’. As Lamond tells it, Sheridan argues that during the 1890s and in subsequent accounts that upheld its values, ‘a set of ideas that came to define what it meant to be distinctively Australian were defined in opposition to a set of values that were identified with femininity and that ideas about what constitutes literary value in Australia are also gendered in favour of realism and the vernacular (a la Lawson and Rudd) as opposed to popular romance (a la Praed and Cambridge). These are of course false dichotomies but they have been compelling in discussions of Australian literature ever since the turn of the twentieth century.’

In my attempts to clarify my thinking about Australian women writers for the Stella event this week, I keep returning to the recent case of Kate Grenville and the different fates of her two historical novels, The Secret River (2005) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). Especially as it seems to me that, crudely speaking, the novels fall across the realism versus romance divide.

The Secret River (realism) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and several others, and was shortlisted for most literary awards, including the Miles Franklin. In contrast, Sarah Thornhill (romance) has won one award and been shortlisted for four. It does not seem to have had the critical attention that The Secret River received. And yet for me, Grenville’s achievement in Sarah Thornhill is at least as great, if not greater, than her achievement in the earlier novel. Except that Sarah Thornhill’s is a subtle and unambiguously feminine achievement: Grenville has conjured from nowhere, almost, with very few archival records of early nineteenth-century women’s voices, the vivid voice of an early Australian colonial girl, woman, lover, wife, mother. The novel is told in the first person, from the constrained, socially restricted, uneducated viewpoint of a girl. Does such a voice carry weight in our broader Australian literary culture? Not much, it seems. Or not as much as a third person account of Sarah Thornhill’s pioneering, nation-making father, the protagonist of The Secret History.

I’ll be chewing over these questions and more on Wednesday night with Geordie Williamson.

This will be my last blog post for Overland. For the foreseeable future anyway. I’m riding off into the dawn to do some genre bending of my own.


This article by Jane Gleeson-White first appeared on Overland blog on 4 December 2012 and is reposted here with permission.

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry: how the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world : and how their invention could make or break the planet (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW. Double Entry has been reviewed for the challenge by Yvonne Perkins.