Women are grouped around bookshelves, sitting cross legged on the tiled floor and propping themselves up against stacks of books. They’re dressed in party colours, in polka dots and stripes and they’re clutching books of all kinds, from Lonely Planets about Turkey to novels written by locals. The odd man is scattered amid the crowd; one male in the front row looks slightly uncomfortable as host Chris Gordon says conspiratorially: “Put up your hand if you’re a feminist” and is greeted by claps and cheers.
We’re all gathered at Readings bookshop in Carlton to listen to four female stalwarts of the Melbourne book industry discuss "Women in Print," a special event organised by Readings and Kill Your Darlings for International Women’s Day.
Kill Your Darlings editor, and chair of the panel, Rebecca Starford begins by rattling off well researched statistics about women reviewers and authors: In The New Yorker in 2010 22% of all book reviewers were women and of the total number of books reviewed, only 20% were written by women. In The New York Review of Books last year women wrote just 16% of all reviews and 16% of the books reviewed were by female authors. The statistics are echoed in UK publications and locally in The Age and The Australian Literature Review.
So why are women so woefully under represented in writing when 80% of all books are purchased by females? Author and former editor of Meanjin Sophie Cunningham says as editor of that publication she would make a conscious effort to make sure men and women were equally represented. However non-fiction writing was always a struggle. “Women would say ‘I’m not an expert, I don’t know if I’ve got time’ when asked to deliver hard analysis,” Cunningham says. “We’re not encouraged to believe that our experience is the experience…I would like women to push themselves out of the comfort zone.”
Opinion writer, essayist and author Monica Dux agrees: “Sending in an unsolicited opinion piece is excruciating.” She says women are terrible at pitching their ideas or promoting themselves. Cunnigham chips in: “Male writers and reviewers used to pitch at me constantly…women have to be coaxed into it.” Dux continues: “Authors are now told to self promote a lot more. I find it painful to promote myself.”
Dux gives the example of female writer Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver writes very dark books but to attract female readers, the publisher wanted to give one of them a very pretty, girly cover that would’ve been totally inappropriate for the story. She leans forward and speaks scornfully: “It’s so infantalising, so patronising; where are [publishers] getting these statistics from?” Cunningham replies: “It’s mainly just feedback from book shop owners…it’s very unscientific.”
Monica Dux says: “Women feel shut out of a lot of things…if I were to write a book as brilliant as those of David Sedaris [an author who writes mainly about domestic scenes], it would be marketed by women, read only by women and picked up by women.” She says women need to push themselves more “There’s an undercurrent of blindness about women…that idea that if a book comes in by a woman, the editor will give it to a woman to review; if it comes in by a man, it’s open game.”
So what can we, as readers, writers and publishers, do about this situation? asks Rebecca Starford. Do we need to be more proactive? One of the founders of Sleepers Publishing Louise Swinn advocates paying women to speak at events: “Women as primary carers of children or the elderly have less undomestic free time.” She also believes editors have a responsibility to encourage and seek out more women writers. “The problem is very very fixable because we’ve actually got educated women. I just have to not take rejection too hard and keep trying.” Dux agrees: “There are people out there who are looking to publish women and you just need to be persistent. Push and push and push.”