Another year, another wrap-up! Last year, our fourth, was yet another good year, and in this post I’m going to count the ways, starting with the big news for 2015 which was that we went self-hosted. A major side-benefit of this was that we could, for the first time, provide access to a single database comprising all the books reviewed for the challenge. By the end of 2015, some 3000 books, across all forms and genres, had been reviewed. You can find them on our Books Reviewed for AWW Challenge link at the top of our site.
As I’ve said before, my area of responsibility, Literary and Classics, is a slippery one. There are no universally accepted definitions for either, so we rely primarily on reviewers’ decisions regarding categorisation. I do tweak this occasionally, such as where most reviewers have categorised a book as Literary but one or two haven’t, or where, because “Literary” is a sub-category, some reviewers don’t realise they can apply it. Given all this, my assessment is that around 395 reviews were posted in this category in 2015. That’s nearly a 5% increase on last year. Good going team!
Literary Awards in 2015
Australian women fared well in the year’s literary awards. Joan London won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, and the Nita Kibble women’s life-writing award for her novel, The golden age. This novel was reviewed for our challenge 4 times in 2014, and 7 times this year. She also won the Patrick White Award for her body of work. If you haven’t read any of London’s novels, now might be the time!
Other Australian women who won significant awards include:
- Jennifer Maiden, the ALS Gold Medal for Drones and phantoms
- Maxine Beneba Clarke, the Australian Book Industry (Literary Fiction) Award for Foreign soil
- Sonya Hartnett, the Indie Book Award for Golden boys
- Sofie Laguna, the Miles Franklin Award for The eye of the sheep
- Helen Garner, the Ned Kelly Award Best True Crime for This house of grief
In awards designed specifically for women, Emily Bitto won the Stella Prize for her novel The strays, and Ellen van Neerven won the Dobbie Award for her book Heat and light.
Most reviewed Literary/Classic books in 2015
As with last year, several books vied for top reviewing honours, though one started off well at the beginning of the year and was never overtaken, despite a late run by one of the second placegetters! The five most reviewed books were:
- Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoress (14)
- Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things and Emily Bitto, The strays (10 each)
- Maxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign soil and Kate Forsyth, The beast’s garden (9 each)
Quite a mixed bunch, don’t you think? They include a couple of literary award winners (The strays and Foreign soil); two debut novels (The strays and The anchoress); two novels with a foot, at least, in genre camps (The anchoress and The beast’s garden); a novel by an established literary author (The natural way of things); and a book by a “woman of colour” (Foreign soil). This speaks to the diversity of Australian women’s writing and to the interests of our challenge participants.
Most reviewed Literary/Classic authors in 2015
The authors most reviewed very closely equates with the books most reviewed, but not completely, which, as I said last year, suggests that we are also reading backlists. Last year’s most reviewed author, Helen Garner, featured again this year’s top five:
- Kate Forsyth (15) for four novels
- Robyn Cadwallader (14) for The anchoress
- Helen Garner (13) for eight works, fiction and non-fiction
- Charlotte Wood (11) for two novels
- Emily Bitto for The strays (10)
Several other authors followed closely, including Maxine Beneba Clarke (9); Joan London, Kylie Kaden, Amanda Ortlepp and Ellen van Neerven (8 each); and Sofie Laguna and Annabel Smith (7 each).
Most reviewed Classics
In 2013, we had 30 reviews for books deemed to be Classics, while in 2014 we had just 23. Last year, things picked up with 33 reviews posted. I was particularly gratified to see a new author appear, June Wright, who was known for her crime novels in the 1950s. Karen Chisholm introduced Wright via an article in the Newtown Review of Books. Thanks Karen.
So to our most reviewed “classics” authors:
- Henry Handel Richardson (4): Australia felix, The getting of wisdom, Ultima Thule, The way home
- Elizabeth Harrower (4): In certain circles (2), The watch tower, The long prospect
- Eleanor Dark (3): No barrier, Storm of time, The timeless land
- Robyn Davidson (3): Tracks
- Helen Garner (3): Monkey Grip (2), Postcards from Surfers
- Melina Marchetta (3): Looking for Alibrandi
- June Wright (3): Duck season death, Murder in the telephone exchange, So bad a death
Classifying a “Classic” as you can see from this list is tricky. The two Helen Garners here are over thirty years old, which is probably a fair definition by today’s standards, particularly given Garner’s longevity as a respected Australian author. Similarly, Robyn Davidson’s Tracks is 35 years old*, so this, together with its significance as a piece of travel writing, and its recent adaptation to film also suggests a “classic” status is warranted. Looking for Alibrandi is nearly 25 years old, but a “classic” categorisation also seems valid given the ground-breaking nature of this book and its continued popularity. However, what do you think? Categorisation is, after all, a work in progress.
Some random observations
History/Memoir/Biography. There will be a separate wrap-up for this category, but I did want to note that over 10% of books classified as literary are non-fiction, with the majority of these being in our History/Memoir/Biography category. The books which appear in my listings are those which use some fictional techniques in the writing – a strong narrative arc, for example, or an evocative prose style – but it’s another fine line. This year they included memoirs and biographies by established writers (like Kate Grenville’s biography One life: My mother’s story and Drusilla Modjeska’s memoir Second half first) and biographies of significant writers (like Gabrielle Carey’s story of her family’s relationship with Randolph Stow in Moving among strangers, Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, and Brenda Niall’s The Boyds: A family biography).
Some of the books reviewed this year from this category have been shortlisted for (or have won) literary awards. Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir won the 2013 Queensland Literary Award for Best Nonfiction and the Nita Kibble Literary Award, while Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka won the Stella Prize in 2014, with Biff Ward’s memoir In my mother’s hands being longlisted for the same award in 2015. In other words, histories, memoirs and biographies written by Australian women offer excellent reading for those interested in creative non-fiction.
Exploring form. Our writers continue to play with form, or to gain recognition and awards with so-called unpopular forms – like short stories. Take Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light. It comprises three sections, titled “Heat”, “Water” and “Light”, with “Heat” being a set of interconnected short stories, “Water” a futuristic longform story or novella even, and “Light” being unconnected short stories. A fascinating read that deservedly got readers and critics talking in 2015 – as did Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of ten wide-ranging short stories, Foreign soil. Jane Sullivan, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, describes it as “the work of a unique voice and an astonishing ventriloquist”.
Then there’s Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the animals. Like van Neerven’s book, it defies categorisation, but in a different way, because, somewhat like JM Coetzee’s later books, it slips between the short story, essay and novel forms.
These books all made it into the big(gish) time – that is, they were reviewed by big publications and were shortlisted (or better) for literary awards – but our reviewers dug out other intriguing books, like the two dystopian novellas, Katherine Kruimink’s News from a Radiant Future and Libbie Chellew’s Protein, which were published as a volume in the Going Down Swinging Longbox set.
The thing about our AWW challenge is that we are democratic: here you’ll find reviews for the books that everyone heard about, alongside the books almost no-one did. What a fabulous resource we all have – and it’s thanks to you readers and reviewers that we do!
Several reviewers, besides me, contributed 10 or more reviews for this category. (Many will have reviewed more than their count below, as it encompasses their Literary/Classic reviews only). Thanks to them and, in fact, to all of you who contributed even one review this year. It all helps us achieve our goal of recognising and promoting the diversity of Australian women’s writing:
- Jennifer Cameron-Smith: 24
- Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge of Port Phillip): 16
- Kelly (Orange Pekoe Reviews): 15
- Cassie Hamer (Book Birdy) and Jonathan Shaw (Me Fail? I Fly!): 14
- Brona’s Books: 13
- Carolyn: 11
Joining us in 2016
If you haven’t joined the Challenge yet, do consider doing so. It’s easy, just sign on here. You don’t have to write reviews, but it’s great if you can. I do hope I see you as the year progresses.
* UPDATED 20 January, when error in dating of Tracks was pointed out.
About Whispering Gums
I read, review and blog about (mostly) literary fiction. It was reading Jane Austen when I was 14 that turned me onto literary fiction/classics, which is why I am here today doing this round-up! Little did Jane know what she started!
My love of Aussie literature started in childhood with Banjo Paterson’s ballads and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. But, I didn’t really discover Australian women’s writing until the 1980s when I “met” and fell in love with Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley, Olga Masters, Helen Garner and Kate Grenville. Ever since then I have made sure to include a good percentage of Australian (and other) women writers in my reading diet.