Voice of women writers deserves to be heard

This column appeared online in the Border Mail on Wednesday 7 March. http://bit.ly/LrMnBL Or read it here.

IN preparation for a panel at Wod­onga Library tomorrow night to discuss “Is women’s writing different from men’s writing?”, I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading choices over more than 35 years.

As part of my English major in the mid 1970s, I took a subject, Women in Literature.

I don’t remember the decision to take it being to fill a gap in my reading but in hindsight it most certainly did.

It introduced me to some amazing women writers including Margaret Atwood, Carson McCullers, Ursula Le Guinn (who I later also read in the Speculative Fiction subject), Edna O’Brien, and Margaret Drabble, but few women writers from Australia.

There were some in the Australian Literature subject: I recall Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley and Ruth Park, but overwhelmingly in this subject and in my other choices, 20th Century American, Romantic (as in Keats, Byron, Shelley) and Existential Literature, there was little representation of women writers.

Presented in conjunction with The Stella Prize — the new annual literary prize for Australian women’s writing — tomorrow night’s event is one of many to be held throughout Australia and coincides with International Women’s Day.

There’s been much debate about the need for such a prize but the statistics show that overwhelmingly more novels by men are shortlisted and have won the major Australian literature prizes including the Miles Franklin, and the state Premiers’ literature awards.

Books by men are also more likely to be reviewed — by men — and there is a correlation between reviewed books and those that win prizes.

Surely whether a book wins a prize or is reviewed should be based on merit and not whether it is written by a woman or a man.

There have been comments put forward (and mainly by men) that women aren’t writing about what some would see as the big issues: the important things in life.

The Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul believes he knows, within a paragraph or two, whether a piece of writing is written by a man or a woman, because of the “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” they present. (Naipaul’s wife is credited with having been his unofficial editor, so it would be interesting to delve into her influence on his writing.)

I enjoy works written by women and men because of the quality of their writing; the way they engage me in the story and the lessons they offer me as a writer.

The works I read are about the relationships not only between the people but with their physical, emotional and cultural landscapes; there is nothing “narrow” about any of these themes.

Further I could choose some passages representing both genders and can almost guarantee you’d think they were written by a woman.

But is introducing a prize specifically for women taking things too far? I don’t think so.

International Women’s Day reminds us that to make progress or even take some of the middle ground, women have had to step forward, to raise their voices to be heard and shine a light on the contribution made by women in all areas of life.

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On the scale of importance of issues to be fought for, a prize for Australian women’s writing may seem low, but there is universality in many of the stories our women writers are penning.

If we don’t know these stories exist, how can they contribute to making a difference?


About Robyne Young

Writer, creative writing teacher, editor, columnist. Literary lover. Short story collections, The Only Constant and The Basket and the Briefcase available via website.
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