Sex discrimination by the book


Power IndexThe Stella Prize, Australia's proposed new women's only literary prize, comes in response to the growing awareness that although literary arts are largely produced and consumed by women, women are less likely to review or be reviewed in major literary pages, or to win major literary prizes.

The debate about women's representation in high literature began to gain serious ground last year when an organisation of women literary artists in the United States, VIDA, released statistics revealing women's dire absence from critical acclaim.

Australia's Stella committee have released equivalent statistics. Women represent 70–80 per cent of book buyers, over 60 per cent of book editors and roughly 50 per cent of publishing authors. Their absence from critical acclaim indicates a serious cultural problem.

Responses to the establishment of the new prize have been generally positive, aside from a few cautious criticisms. The most serious of these is that women don't need a prize of their own; that performance itself, and not identity, merits reward.

It's true that art is not about identity; art is not, and shouldn't have to be, about anything other than art. Yet if assumptions about gender did not affect the way we read, J. K. Rowling would be Joanne Kathleen and the Miles Franklin Award would be the Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin Award.

On the other hand, to suggest that we live in a meritocracy is patently untrue. The culture of success is not driven by merit. If it were, then the recently initiated, white-male-dominated Power Index would be proof that white men are simply more meritorious than everyone else.

In fact, in Australia, girls perform better at school, and women outnumber men at university. So what happens to women in their professional years? They are inducted into a society that favours the characteristics we are taught belong to boys: ambition, aggression and self aggrandising. Some women successfully participate in boys club cultures, but they do so in spite of their gender.

The Power Index Secrets of the Powerful ebook gives advice to the burgeoning powerful. The tongue-in-cheek guidebook reads: 'Never fear making demands for jobs for which you have no experience'; 'the public is there to be manipulated. Fools are waiting to be fleeced'; and 'hold yourself in particular 'high-power poses' for up to two minutes during a meeting to stimulate hormones that will lower your stress and stop you worrying. These poses will also power up your inner dominator.'

Unfortunately the comic tone of this advice does not negate its basis in reality.

'The paradox is that a non-meritocratic society needs social mobility to become meritocratic,' wrote Clifford Longley, veteran columnist for The Tablet in the UK. Social mobility can be realised as a kind of affirmative action. But I prefer to view initiatives such as the Stella Prize not as 'affirmative action' — the term conjures up too much outmoded worthiness — but as social mobility with a feminist face.

After reading Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, I joked that if there could be an Australian equivalent — an epic family saga whose every angle is informed by some huge national theme — it would have to be called Social Mobility. A fixation with private schooling? Only in Australia. So much of the Australian psyche is about improving one's lot, sometimes for good reason, and sometimes not.

We should view positive discrimination then for what it is: a mechanism to move towards an authentic meritocracy.

It uses the tried and tested tools of the patriarchal bourgeoisie: creating new spaces to promote success on merit. Can't afford bread while the King eats your babies? Overthrow the King! Can't have your work validated by a sweeping cultural assumption that what you have to say is not very important? Validate it yourself!

In the bourgeois tradition of bettering one's lot within structures that are functionally restrictive, women are dealing with their structural exclusion by creating new spaces to thrive.

I don't know if I'll always stand by women's-only initiatives — the Stella Prize may well fail to improve perceptions of women's writing. But until I see women adequately acknowledged in all facets of public life, this kind of social mobility is necessary. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, feminism, Stella Prize



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Existing comments

Great piece, Ellena. Thank you. I particularly love "validate it yourself". I think it's interesting that there are so many women bloggers out there (I am one of them). You can press the "publish" button and instantly validate yourself. Many may think this is a terrible thing, but if you find it difficlt to have your voice validated, then it's great. I am also a published author - this sounds very lofty for someone whose writing credits are limited to teenage romance novels, but I am 'holding myself in a particular high powered pose' while I announce this,knowing that if I hopefully one day publish other work, there will be a prize I might have a chance of winning.

Melita | 16 September 2011  

Well done! And, thankyou!
Every blessing,
Trisha Bouma

Patricia Bouma | 16 September 2011  

when i ran poetry slams (including four as Parliament of World Religions events in 2009), I discovered that i was supporting shameless ego; these shameless egos mostly belonged to men and it was hard to get women to compete .... maybe huge numbers of women also choose not to aim to be represented in "high literature"

geoff fox | 17 September 2011  

I went to see Jonathon Franzen at the National Library last week. It looked awfully like all the questions from the audience were going to be from men. The first four were from men, until a rude woman (um, me) jumped up and asked one without the mic, which not only acted as an amplifying device, but as an indication that one had the right to speak. Franzen wanted questions from women, (in fact, he said that he wanted the last one to be from a woman too, after mine, as did the chair, a woman) but the people giving the mic out had, before that, given it only to men who wanted to ask questions. The mic-distributors were all women. Whether they saw the men more, or the men somehow assumed their right to question (mostly at great length) and communicated this assumption, I can't say. Most of the audience were women, quite elderly in many cases. It was all quite telling, but I'm not sure how the narrative was constructed. What I concluded was that sometimes you have to be rude. And make up for a lack of mic...

Penelope | 19 September 2011  

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