LET us be clear about this: women are lovely creatures. They certainly brighten the place up, as Malcolm Fraser was excoriated for saying of female MPs when better known for martyring Saint Gough, rather than the stentorian sniping at his former party which has done such wonders for his popularity. Women generally cook better than men, are more pleasant to cuddle, and they demonstrate a remarkable inclination to wipe down benchtops, even before the first fungus colonies have appeared. All in all, it is a good thing to have a woman about the house, at least until such time as the stove is spotless and the conversation has turned, as it inevitably does at the Billabong, to the many small ways in which an imperfect Bunyip might drink less, drive more slowly, not cause scenes at Bolshevik dinner parties and, God help us, buy and ride a bloody bicycle. To the feminine mind these exhortations to betterment are so obvious, so reasonable, that the seasoned male will see no point in arguing. As Young Master Bunyip has been repeatedly advised, the key is to wear a sheepish smile while flaws and faults are laid out, then switch the conversation as soon as possible to topics which women find even more compelling. The chief amongst these will always be themselves. After that, the abject carrier of XY chromosomes need hardly say a word. Just nod and smile as the complexities of relationships with mothers are explained and, inevitably, grave doubts are voiced about the character, sanity, veracity, dress sense and partners of other women.
Doctor Yowie, the Professor’s boon companion, was musing about the feminine perspective only yesterday. Indeed, he became so agitated on the drive back from the happy hunting ground of the Broken River Basin his cries all but drowned the thrumming of bar treads on bitumen (handy tip here for tax-averse tyre buyers, by the way). A literary sort, what lit his fuse was a broad observation about the corruption and cronyism that characterises Australia’s book prizes and the panels that award them. If Malcolm Fraser can collect one of the top awards for a book that is self-serving, forgetful, tendentious and crafted not to serve the truth but its ghosted author’s re-made image, well, why not enter your cat’s scratchings in next year’s award? Litter-tray crap, unlike Fraser’s nuggets, requires less sifting to identify and Moggy’s opus is likely to bring just as much pleasure to the average reader, which is to say very little indeed.
Now the Yowie, while a lovely fellow and a dab hand with a dry fly, is one of those beastly conservatives – you know, the sort who believe in equality and think that gender-based awards patronise their recipients. This is probably going too far, as there is little chance a woman could ever win the Brownlow in an open competition, although the best would probably outperform any current member of the Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne or St Kilda. But in matters having nothing to do with athletic endeavour it is hard to argue against his point. Who amongst us can name the current women’s chess champion? More to the point, who cares?
The narrower salient of his criticism was prompted by Roma Koval’s bookshow on Radio National, which featured an interview with Sophie Cunningham, former Meanjin editrix, lit fester, and post-pinata-whacking nibbler on Jonathan Green (of Their ABC’s) celebrated chocolate cake. The LandRover was bumping along a rutted track at the time of the broadcast, so it was impossible to take down her exact words. Not to worry, Soph has been saying much the same things to a good many people, including the Guardian, which seems never able to resist an opportunity to present Australians as ignorant, racist, squirt-sozzled brutes.
"What we are concerned with is the systemic exclusion of women writers over several decades - a situation that seems to be getting worse, not better," Soph was quoted as saying, mostly about the Miles Franklin, which has short-listed a woman in only one of the past three years. Doctor Yowie was rumbling with discontent as Soph laid out for Koval the dreadful oppression confronting our scribbling shielas, but he must have been getting in touch with his feminine side because the rant was particularly easy to ignore. Much more interesting was to wonder at whatever it was that set Soph on her crusade to get women out of a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf put it, and into the shared confines of a literary ghetto.
Could it be a little dash of frustration? Her most recent novel, Bird, was published in 2008 and, unlike her first, Geography, went unnoticed by book-panel adjudicators, who shortlisted that earlier work for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for first-time authors. With one of its many memorable lines proclaiming “just getting on the plane made me want sex”, it certainly would have won the Professor’s endorsement, as all forms of public transport, including trams and sedan chairs, tend to have that effect on Bunyips.
No, that cannot be the reason for Sophie’s agitation. As one of the literary left’s anguished aunties, surely she would wish to level the playing field – a fair go for all! – rather than open a new arena in the name of uterine apartheid. Mind you, some of the gals who have joined the push – Louise Swinn, Monica Dux and Kirstin Tranter amongst them -- might appreciate access to a bit of prize money, but the fact that all turn up on the same panels at literary festivals and writers’ shindigs should not be taken to imply that the sisterhood is primarily intent on looking out for its mates. No, that would never happen. Never!
Maybe it is the fabled cultural cringe. Britain keeps the gals happy with its Orange Prize, so perhaps Soph thinks Australia cannot be a proper, mature, intellectually stimulating home to good writing until an antipodean girl-a-palooza figures on the cultural calendar. Again, that could not be the rationale. Fierce, independent, our-stories-our-voices types never take their slavish cues from overseas movements. Well, not very often, anyway.
It is a mystery, and there is no point in turning to sexism’s stereotypes for an explanation. You know, the notion that there is one clear and well-worn path into the ranks of great female artists. Pen depressive verse, snap photos of unsettling freaks or churn out neurasthenic novels about birds singing to you in Greek* and then top yourself. Hey, it worked for Plath, Arbus and Woolf. Perhaps, in addition to whatever money Soph extracts from Canberra and/or a corporate sponsor (the Shree company, very keen on the role of women, might be worth hitting up) she could toss in a chair, a beam and a length of rope. Why should Australia’s female writers be denied access to perpetual acclaim?
The mystery of Soph’s motivation only deepens when you consider her rationale. Yes, The Miles Franklin gendercrats have not been selecting literary works in accordance with actuarial principles, but they represent only one prize. If one looks at the wider field of prizes and grants, women do not figure badly at all. Indeed, if men were more given to perceiving sexist discrimination, they would be howling for equity and justice.
Start with last year’s Phage Book of the Year shortlist, in which all five non-fiction contenders were women. In fiction, two of five were female, while Poetry’s finalists favoured men 3-to-2. Add up all the categories and women represent nine of fifteen finalists, which is a clear female majority – at least by the phallocentric reckoning of traditional mathematics.
But let us not dwell on the Phage, where Bristow may well have been the last manly fellow in the paper, and even he is now gone. Turn instead to the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which have seen five of the past eight awards go to the fair sex. Then there are the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, where it is true that only two of six fiction finalists were women. In the non-fiction category, however, women wrote or co-wrote five of the final six, including Margaret Simons’ hagiographic burnishing of the ABC’s now-favourite ex-PM. In Poetry, women represented four of six. Every single finalist in Young People’s Literature was female, while five of six in the Children’s Literature playoff were gals. Men did better in the Community Relations category, actually managing to score three of six finals berths, but slipped a bit in the New Writing section, where women snaffled four of the six finalist spots, as they did in the judges’ quest to name the best playwright. Scriptwriting saw a three-each split. The Special Award went to a woman (she was only the entrant) while the Translation award, which the all-female panel awarded to a man, included two women amongst the final three.
Tot up all the categories and, once again, girls don’t just rule, they dominate. Of the 64 finalists, 39 represent what Soph believes to me an oppressed minority. If she turns to Arts Council literature grants, her impression of galloping injustice will be furthered confirmed, as only 35 of 51 cheques were mailed to female letterboxes. By the time Soph gets to fuming over the exclusion of female writers from overseas residencies – the taxpayer annually sends half a dozen scribblers to Paris, Rome and other hardship locations, typically at a cost of around $18,000 apiece -- she will be apoplectic. How could it be otherwise when only five of six available keys to foreign apartments were handed to women?
It is unlikely the clamour for a female writing award will go away – these things seldom do, not when snouts are a’snort with an eagerness for plunging into the trough. So the best bet, the line of least resistance, will be to do the nod-and-smile thing, indulge the gals in their hunt for reasons to be unhappy and read books as sensible sorts always have, for the content and quality of the writing.
Do that and any writer’s genetic aptitude for cleaning the stove will be beside the point.
(*The Greek birds figure in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway)