Amidst the flurry of reviews pouring into the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and the news of longlists, shortlists and prize-winning books it was good to have the chance over the last week to stop and reflect on what has occurred over the last six months. Over one thousand reviews have been written for the Challenge in just six months, but how have histories, biographies and memoirs fared?
Challenge participants have written eighty-seven reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs over the last six months. At this rate reviews of this category of books look set to exceed the total number of reviews in 2012. Just forty more reviews will see the 2013 tally passed.
The dominance of reviews of memoirs in this category has been evident over the last few months and I have commented on this in some of the monthly roundups I have written. Given this, it is not surprising that 72% of the histories, biographies and memoirs reviewed focussed on contemporary times, which I have defined as the years since World War II.
Over the last six months I have been keeping notes about each review posted in the history/biography/memoir category. I was interested in understanding what topics were covered by books Challenge participants reviewed. After reading each review I allocated a topic or topics to the books based on how the reviewer had described the book and with the occasional recourse to publisher’s notes. Thus the following list is subjective and reflects the topic of the book review:
|Topic||No. Books||% of total reviews in category|
The history and experiences of indigenous Australians both historically and in more recent times has been the subject of much research and interest in Australia. The quality of the work in this area has been high and the authors of these books are garnering interest from the book-reading public. The books about writers and entertainers are mostly memoirs whereas the books about war are mostly histories. While this list shows the most popular topics among Challenge participants it also indicates the breadth of historical interests of Challenge participants. Thirty-five topics had one review each. A complete list of the reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs for the Challenge is available here.
The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is encouraging readers to support Lisa Hill’s ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ challenge by reading books written by indigenous Australian women. Indigenous Literature Week is being held this week to coincide with NAIDOC Week, but Lisa Hill is accepting reviews all this month. Reviewers of these books can also submit their review to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Hence I expect that reviews of books written by Australian indigenous authors will increase from the six that have been reviewed so far.
What has surprised me is how far biographies have lagged behind memoirs in the Challenge this year. Just thirteen reviews of biographies have been shared this year. I had thought from seeing the number of biographies in libraries and bookshops that this was a popular category. Histories have not fared much better, receiving eighteen reviews in total. Only one book, The Lone Protestor by Fiona Paisley, received more than one review.
Life writing is undoubtedly popular with Challenge participants, albeit just life writing of one kind. What is notable about the memoirs reviewed is that the most popular memoirs, The Mind of a Thief by Melissa Phillips and Get Well Soon by Kristy Chambers received just three reviews each. Eight memoirs received two reviews each and all the remaining received a single review.
Challenge participants are clearly finding no difficulty in finding interesting memoirs to read, but may not be aware of the array of biographies and histories written by Australian women. The following books have been shortlisted for 2013 literary prizes:
- Melissa Ballanta, Larrikins: A History, University of Queensland Press. Ernest Scott Prize
- Jane Gleeson-White, Double Entry, Allen & Unwin. New South Wales
- Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam, Random House Books Australia. Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
- Nicole Moore, The Censor’s Library, Penguin Books Australia. Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
- Brenda Niall, True North, Text Publishing. Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards
- Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe, Aboriginal Studies Press. Ernest Scott Prize.
- Lyndall Ryan, Tasmanian Aborigines, A history since 1803, Allen & Unwin. Ernest Scott Prize.
- Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press. Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
I encourage Challenge participants to look through this list and choose at least one of these books to read and review soon.
If you know of other recently published biographies and histories by Australian women writers that you think should be more widely read please tell us in the comments below.
Those readers who enjoy histories and biographies will find a glut of discussion about history online this week. Historians from around Australia will be gathering in Wollongong for the annual conference of the Australian Historical Association. One of the highlights will be the announcement of the winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for histories at the conference dinner on Thursday night. Lots of histories and biographies are being publicised through this conference, the details of which I will share with Challenge participants in my next monthly overview. You can follow the conference proceedings as it happens through the twitter hashtag, #OzHA2013.
|At a Glance: 6 months of reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs|
|Number of Reviews||87|
Readers may find the following articles of interest:
- Currie, Susan and Donna Lee Brien, ‘Mythbusting Publishing: Questioning the ‘Runaway Popularity’ of Published Biography and Other Life Writing’, M/C Journal, vol. 11, no. 4 (2008).
- The Challenge – a Mid-year Overview.
- This monthly roundup includes a discussion of the popularity of memoirs.
I’m Yvonne Perkins. For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.
Fantastic roundup, Yvonne! Thanks for compiling all these stats – it’s a very good resource, and it’s great to see so much interest in writers & Indigenous subjects.
Thanks Jessica. There are stacks of histories and biographies being promoted at the Australian Historical Association conference that I have never come across so I am making a list of them to share.
Thank you for sharing Yvonne. Like you, I have never come across these. What a wonderful wealth of history!
Enjoyed this Yvonne … I always enjoy reading some non-fiction and I think Australian women writers are contributing significantly to non-fiction writing. I guess Anna Krien’s book was a bit late for consideration for most awards this year … but I do hope Night Games features next year.
Inspired by Elizabeth Lhuede’s presentation at the inaugural Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival at The Women’s Club on 20 July, I have join up to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. As an independent scholar and an art historian I intend to contribute reviews of non fiction.
I am not sure of correct procedure but in response to your call for information about recently published biographies by Australian women, I would like to propose my biography of Australian art historian Joan Kerr – ‘A Most Generous Scholar: Joan Kerr, Art and Architectural Historian’ (LHR Press, December 2012). Anyone interested in reviewing it can contact me, the author, Susan Steggall (firstname.lastname@example.org) to obtain a review copy. The book is also available from LHR Press (email@example.com; http://www.lhrpress.com.au).
Thank you for posting a reference to Susan Currie and Donna Lee Brien’s article on biography and life writing – the first being a subject of great interest to me. I would also like to point readers in the direction of ‘Olive Cotton at Spring Forest’ (ABR, July-August, No.353, 2013), by Helen Ennis, the recipient of the ABR George Hicks Foundation Fellowship. This long essay not only allows us insights into the life of one of Australia’s major 20th-century photographers but also reveals details of the author’s often frustrating search for the reasons why Olive Cotton disappeared from public view for almost twenty years following her marriage to Ross McInerney in the mid 1940s. Ennis does not so much take the reader into the theoretical, technical and aesthetic aspects of Cotton’s work – although she is eminently qualified to do so – but gives a compelling portrait of a woman juggling the eternal triangle of marriage, children and a career.
Welcome on board Susan! We look forward to reading your reviews. In mentioning the biography of Olive Cotton in the current issue of the Australian Book Review, you raise the fact that histories, biographies and memoirs are not just published in traditional books. They can be published as e-books or long-form articles in magazines, journals and on websites. Perhaps you can review the Olive Cotton biography and start some discussion about the media and form that biographies can take?
Hello Yvonne. Yes I would like to write a longer piece on the Olive Cotton essay and some additional thoughts on biographical form. I’ll try and get to it before the end of the week.
Oh welcome Susan … and thanks for pointing us to the Olive Cotton article. I love those pieces of her work that I’ve seen.