International Women’s Day is celebrated this month (8 March). Recently, there have been some really interesting discussions and debates about the gender divisions between male and female writers: whether they in fact exist in this ‘post-feminist’ world and if so, how they present and what those divides mean.
Last year, there was a flurry of discussion following the all-male Miles Franklin shortlist, dubbed a ‘sausage fest’ by Literary Minded blogger Angela Meyer. It was a year when female heavyweights like Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Joan London and Amanda Lohrey released eligible, critically acclaimed, books that didn’t even make the longlist, let alone the shortlist. Miles Franklin judge Morag Fraser reported that she ‘walked out of our two-hour shortlist meeting without realising what we had done’ and that there were ‘no conclusions to be drawn’ from the outcome. And I’m sure that nobody in that room made a conscious decision to choose an all-male shortlist, but rather chose what they thought were the best books published during the period that met the award criteria, an exercise that will always be somewhat subjective – and the results of which, for Australia’s leading literary prize, will reflect something about the current values of Australia’s literary culture.
Former Miles Franklin judge Kerryn Goldsworthy observed as much on her blog, Australian Literature Diary, concluding that ‘if the dominant culture is a sausage fest, then, well, you know’. Meanjin’s Sophie Cunningham added an intriguing angle to the discussion. ‘What was the problem? Too modest in scope? Too domestic? The undermining of women’s writing involves the use of many such phrases.’ With the exception of Grenville’s The Lieutenant, the other books that were surprisingly left off the longlist could indeed fit these criteria, with their intense focus on relationships and domestic politics. ‘I think at the moment there’s a feeling that women shouldn’t write about domesticity about relationships, or about middle-class concerns,’ the wonderful UK writer Rachel Cusk – whose novels and non-fiction writing intensely explore domestic concerns – told The Book Show last month. Cusk recently wrote an article for the Guardian about this feeling: ‘Women … might cease to produce “women’s writing” not because they are freer but because they are more ashamed, less certain of a general receptiveness, and even, perhaps, because they suspect they might be vilified.’
It’s a fascinating and complex debate, and one we should continue to have, to keep us evaluating and thinking about the kinds of writing we value in our culture and why – or why not. Of course, I think both women and men should be able to write about any subject they fancy. But I also think that some of the best writing – in my subjective opinion – is that which examines human nature, human relationships, the intricacies of how we live our lives, and mirrors them back to us so we can better understand ourselves. And as domestic life will always be an area ripe for that kind of examination, I fervently hope that our most talented writers don’t feel obliged to steer away from that arena for fear of not being taken seriously.