Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pens and Prejudice.

I finally got around to watching the Pens and Prejudice episode of First Tuesday Book Club last night. It was a discussion about the perceived prejudice against woman authors. All during the show I had a comment by Germaine Greer in mind. She said male authors tend to write about how the world is, whereas female authors tend to write about how they wished the world was.

I often extrapolate Greer’s comment for science fiction into: male authors tend to write about how they think the future will be, whereas female authors tend to write about how they hope the future will be. I am yet to establish whether the original comment by Greer or my extrapolation is true, as I have not read that many books written by female authors. And I have to ask myself: why do I read very few books by female authors?

Jennifer Byrne on the show displayed some pie charts showing how the overwhelming number of books reviewed in newspapers and other publications are written by male authors. This may have some effect on me as a reader as about 15% of the books I buy are as a result of book reviews. But what about the rest?

I went through a stage of reading award-winning books, especially the Booker Prize. The panellists on Pens and Prejudice discussed the perceived prejudice many awards have against women. The Stella prize was established in Australia because of a perceived bias in the Miles Franklin Award, and there is the Orange prize for women’s writing in the UK. So maybe my bias towards male authors is influenced by the winners of awards being mostly male.

I thought one of the panellists had a good idea when he suggested an experiment where all the judges for an award are women, so we could see the gender balance of their short and long list selections.

A lot of the authors I currently read are as a result of my book buying habits of past decades where I bought a lot of books from garage sales and fetes. I selected the books primarily on whether their blurb interested me. I have always been particularly interested in apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction. Women wrote very few of the apocalyptic or dystopian novels that I picked up. So maybe women didn’t/don’t write that much dystopian fiction, preferring to write utopian visions of the future.

One of the books I picked up at a fete had a very disturbing dystopian future and had also won the Arthur C. Clarke award, that book was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. She has since become one of my favourite authors, with her Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood novels. And I am very much looking forward to reading the third book in that series.

The Pens and Prejudice panellists discussed whether a female author could write a novel like Christos Tsiolakas’ The Slap or Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections. Two books that I have read and very much enjoyed. I reckon Margaret Attwood could write a unique and very good version of The Slap.

I have recently read two very good science fiction novels by female authors: H.M Brown’s The Red Queen, and Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle. One is set in an apocalyptic future, the other in a dystopian future. So I will read female authors if I find they have written on a theme or topic I am interested in.

About 90, maybe 95, per cent of the books I have read have had male authors. Obviously part of this is because there are many more books published by male authors, but what about the rest of the disparity? Do most female authors just not write the type of book I am interested in?

Perhaps Greer is right.  


Sean Wright said...

The only trouble with an all female panel is that women can still have ingrained subconscious biases against women,race, social class etc.

I impose quota's on myself because any time I don't subconcious bias, marketing and big publishing "conspires" to skew my reading towards male authors.

I have found there's no dearth of quality fiction that suits my tastes perfectly, produced by women.

Anna North, Cat Sparks,Julianna Baggott are three off the top of my head for the dystopia novels/short stories.

graywave said...

I don't know the stats on this so can't comment even on the truth of the premise. However, if publishing runs true to every other industry in the world, there will certainly be a bias towards publishing men, giving awards to men, and even buying male authors.

I will say this though, I do know female writers - who self-publish - who use initials rather than reveal their female first name, or use a male pseudonym, because they perceive a bias in the market.

It is also striking how many women there are in the book industry, working as publishers, agents, marketers, even book shop managers. I'm also frequently taken with the number of female writers I encounter (and I only really move in sci-fi circles, not romance or erotica). The four most successful writer friends I have are all women. Given all this, if women can't get a fair go in the book business, I don't know where they could.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Have to take their word for it that male authors are reviewed more often, but I think if you go into any book store and peruse the shelves you will find a high portion of female authors represented. Certainly as graywave states, the publishing world appears to be dominated by women.

If there is bias, of course, this isn't right, however I was very disappointed over the Miles Franklin awards this year, when, after complaints of bias last year, found all eight authors in the shortlist women. This proves bias, does it not? Swapping one for the other doesn't solve the problem. Ironically, women were quiet on that aspect.

I also come across online publications and in print that are for women writers only. Never see this for men. perhaps I'll make one and watch the criticism take off. If people really want to make the spectrum politically correct rather than quality books to the fore, no matter which side of the coin falls face up, then divide it down the line and have 50% of each represented so we can have no more whining.

Personally, I agree with you Graham. I'm drawn to books whose subject matter I am interested in. I don't care for romance or erotica which is completely dominated by women, but I don't hear anyone complaining about that. Perhaps men simply write more literature, who knows? I do know that I really enjoy the writing of Annie Proux for instance and A.S. Bryatt is one of the best writers I've comes across, same with Christina Stead. I find it hard to believe that reviewers and publishers simply select a book because it's written by a man and not a woman. Some people simply like to whine because they can't catch a break.

Australia is rife with political correctness. Expect more Miles Franklin style overkill soon.

Graham Clements said...


Maybe I will have to impose a quota on myself too. For a while I had a system of reading a science fiction book then either a fantasy/horror and then a non-genre book or a science fiction book that was considered to be "literature" for example The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Now I might add that one of those three rotating selections has to be by a female author. I know of Cat Sparks, will check out what her novels are about, and the other two while I am at it.

Graham Clements said...

Graywave, I wonder if Honey Brown used her initials HM Brown to hide her gender. Or was it not so much for her gender, but because she thought Honey doesn't sound like someone you could take seriously.

Just about every book shop I walk into seems totally staffed by females. When writing this post I contemplated the fact that the two writing qualifications (a Masters and a Diploma) I have done had about a dozen teachers in total and only one of them was male. So I would have had to have been exposed to a lot of female selections in the writing used as examples in those courses. If they were female dominated, I didn't notice, and it has not influenced my reading.

Graham Clements said...


I reckon if I went into my local bookstore and looked at the science fiction/fantasy section I would find close to 50/50 male/female - but that is because most of the section is fantasy. I will have to look next time I am in town.

I have an Annie Proux sitting in the shelves to read, maybe I will make that my next non-genre read. As it happens my last non-genre read was also written by a woman - non-fiction - Boomer and Me by Jo Case.

I have been delving into the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature. Once I have read that, I should have a very idea of both female and male "literary" writers. And a nice list of authors to try. Pity there is not the same sort of book for science fiction.

I do wonder if the Stella prize might be counter productive in that males when seeing a book marked as winning the Stella prize, think that it is women's literature and decide it is not for them.

An Indian Author said...

As mentioned in one of the comments, romance and erotica genre are dominated by women, and there is a perception that books by women authors would be like that (dripping with emotions) and men tend to stay away from too much of those.