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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Equality, Apparently, Doesn’t Mean Half [the National Year of Reading Edition]

February 15th, 2012 at 21:27

The thing about feminism is that an awful lot of people in the world don’t think about it. They don’t think it’s necessary. Worst of all, they think it’s an anachronism. Because women have equality now, right?

Sure they do. Except in the many, many, tiny little ways that they don’t. Some of those ways seem small, like tiny nicks in the glass of a car window, the sort of thing you can overlook on its own. But when it’s nick after nick, dent after dent, hole after hole… once your awareness has been opened to it, it feels like the window is cracking open, from edge to edge. You can’t not see it. It’s everywhere.

Elizabeth L Huede, the powerhouse behind the gone-viral-or-what Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading challenge, blogged recently about how disappointing it is that the list of books chosen for the National Year of Reading project – one from each state, books chosen to represent ‘our story’ as Australians – consists of seven out of eight male authored works.

Elizabeth parses some of the ways in which this could have happened, noting that the longlist used for reference was also grossly weighted towards male authors, but also musing on how it is that male books are so heavily prioritised when the people choosing the long list – librarians and publishers – are both female heavy professions. Also, readers got to vote on the books – and reading is in itself identified as being a more popular pastime among women than men. So this isn’t just about men thinking books by men are more important and universal and meaningful than books by women. This is about women thinking exactly the same thing.

The comments are good, btw. There, I point out something I have noticed in the past as far as this sort of list goes – it wasn’t constructed as a balanced shortlist, it was constructed as eight single titles, each chosen by different people. When you’re narrowing down the choice to ONE, you never think about gender (well, most people wouldn’t) – the natural assumption is that it’s a 50-50 chance, because a single winner can only represent one gender. So it never feels like a decision influenced by gender. It’s only when the pattern is laid out – 7/8 ‘winners’ per state being male, for instance, or the shocking statistics of the Miles Franklin literary award, named after a woman and rarely won by one, that the question of gender bias looks to be an obvious one.

And of course there are ways to deal with this. Like the Stella Prize, for instance. Like the Australian Women Writers Reading 2012 Challenge. Like having these conversations. All necessary things.

We need to change the way we look at literature and art. We need to change the way we read it, and teach it. You can’t declare that equality exists and therefore parity doesn’t matter. I’ve seen too many lists that promote the outdated idea that to be Important or Universal or even that completely pure and unbiased and rational philosophical ideal of GOOD, they have to be written by men. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it in comics, or movies, or television, or kids toys, or football, or anything else I consider important. Hell, I don’t even buy it in politics.

So no, I won’t take it lying down when it comes to books. Because books are important. And ‘our story’ has a far more complex, diverse and interesting meaning than the National Year of Reading is managing to convey so far.

No gender bias in that list of books, huh? Really. I wonder how they can be so sure. Because the universe that the list exists in is pretty riddled with gender bias, and if you don’t actively build defenses against it, you end up with the same story, over and over again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

She didn’t write it. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but only one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she was an anomaly.

She wrote it, BUT…
Joanna Russ, the original cover blurb of How to Suppress Women Writing

Why has the world not yet rendered that quote utterly irrelevant???

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6 Responses to “Equality, Apparently, Doesn’t Mean Half [the National Year of Reading Edition]”

  1. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I don’t know if the organisers should be ashamed. That’s not fair. But they can’t look on this result and say its representative, not with any confidence. If anything it indicates to me that there is a bias, probably hidden, influenced by culture, learning, commentary, familiarity. The real question is do we want to do something as a culture, to ensure that other viewpoints are presented. Gender Bias is only the tip of the iceberg really, and if we can’t figure that one out well…

    On the books themselves

    The Idea of Home – Autobiography about a immigrant man growing up in Australia

    Jasper Jones – Young boy growing up in a mining town

    Smoke and Mirrors – Crime novel. Male Asian protagonist, political intrigue.

    Time’s Long Ruin – Mystery loosely based on the disappearance of the Beaumont children

    Wanting – A comment on colonialism, desire and savagery, using historical figures

    Well Done those men – Memoir of Vietnam Vet

    The White Earth – About the history of white settlement in Queensland with a touch of the supernatural.

    Listening to Country – A white women’s journey with her aboriginal relatives to perform ceremony (Only female author)

    Comments?

  2. tansyrr Says:

    I don’t think the organisers should be ashamed either – I certainly don’t think I said that! But I really hope that they see the results of this list as problematic, at the very least, and that they work harder next time to ensure a greater range of representation. They had a head’s up back when their long list was so dreadfully unbalanced. If it wasn’t for that, this list would be far more defensible.

    I can’t comment on the books themselves because I haven’t read any of them. But having started out very keen to promote and be enthusiastic about this being the national year of reading, I’m feeling quite cynical and downtrodden about the whole exercise already. And it’s only February!

  3. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Nah that was me thinking out loud :) on the shame thing.

    Surely there is someone doing a PHD on gender bias and how we can implement screening :)

  4. tansyrr Says:

    The sad thing is, someone probably did it in the 70′s.

  5. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Maybe some bright spark can come up with a simple format/procedure that could be used in any sort of arts setting.

  6. SF Tidbits for 2/16/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog Says:

    [...] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Equality, Apparently, Doesn’t Mean Half [the National Year of Reading Edition]. [...]

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