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Our Stories? Gender and the ‘Australian experience’ in the National Year of Reading

Though for many of us it is a perpetual state, 2012 is the officially appointed National Year of Reading. One of the centerpieces of the NYOR is an initiative called ‘Our Story’. Over the summer of 2011-2012, Australians were encouraged to vote for one of six titles in a shortlist for their state/territory that best represents the unique experience of living in that part of Australia.

The titles, according to a Love2Read release, would:

together describe what it’s like to live in, be from, visit or in some other way connect with the eight different states and territories. It’s to create a collection of books which, if read together, will articulate the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban, city and metropolitan.’

As chair of the National Year of Reading founders Margaret Allen wrote in a press release last year: ‘We’re hoping that thousands of readers will take a journey around Australia through the pages of these eight books and come out of it with an even greater depth of understanding about what it means to be Australian.’

On Tuesday, the eight books that will now form the national recommended reading list for 2012 were announced. The winning titles were:

  • ACT: Smoke and Mirrors by Kel Robertson
  • NSW: The Idea of Home by John Hughes
  • NT: Listening to Country by Ros Moriarty
  • QLD: The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
  • SA: Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr
  • TAS: Wanting by Richard Flanagan
  • VIC: Well Done Those Men, by Barry Heard
  • WA: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

There has been much attention this year on the neglect of Australian writing. As I wrote in a post on the issue of Australian classics a few weeks ago, Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre is launching a new series of events ‘Australian Literature 101’ and Text Publishing will be releasing a series of forgotten Australian classics too. The ‘Our Story’ initiative is therefore to be commended for bringing further attention to Australian writing, Australian authors, and the articulation of the Australian experience in literature – both classic and contemporary.

Yet, on the day of the announcement, The Stella Prize tweeted ‘Some lovely books on the We Love2Read list – but a bit disappointing for supporters of women’s writing.’ And indeed, of the eight works listed, only one female author – Ros Moriarty – figures among them.

It should be made clear that the top eight titles were the result of, according to the NYOR site, ‘thousands of Australians who voted on the ABC website or in their local library for the book to represent their state or territory during the National Year of Reading 2012’ so the final eight novels chosen weren’t the result of a panel selecting winning titles but rather a popular vote.

However, it is unclear who actually selected the six shortlisted novels for each state and territory that formed the list that voters had to choose from. The release rather ambiguously states that they were ‘chosen by independent panels of readers.’ (As the winners have been announced, the list of shortlisted titles for each state and territory are no longer on the NYOR website, although you can still download a document with the shortlists here.)

Australian Women Writers took issue with the representation of female authors among the shortlisted titles, running their own ‘weLove2read2’ program with all-female authors to redress the balance, which has now evolved into the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge.

As part of the reaction to this, NYOR began a list of ‘ones that got away’ although voters weren’t able to include these in their votes.

But in the final result, the popular vote selected male novelists for all but one state/territory and it does raise questions as to why the works chosen to represent an admittedly problematic and intangible thing: the ‘Australian experience’ are predominantly male.

Rebecca Starford, who is on the board of the Stella Prize commented to Liticism, ‘While the National Year of Reading’s ‘Our Story’ project is an admirable one (albeit problematic in its very nature – think The Miles Franklin and its requisites of presenting ‘Australian life in any of its phases’) the fact that only one woman out of eight makes up the list is indeed depressing not only for supporters of women’s writing, but for lovers of Australian writing more generally.’

Starford noted NYOR’s stated aims with ‘Our Story’ to create ‘a collection of books which, if read together, articulates the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban and metropolitan,’ and said that ‘In light of this mission statement, such blatant omissions are not only offensive to women (do we not, after all, contribute to the fabric of Australian experience?) but they make a mockery of such initiatives in the first place.’

‘I can only claim to have read three of the books on the list – Silvey, Flanagan and McGahan. But I already see the same patterns in selection evidenced in recent Miles Franklin shortlists – masculine novels that disproportionately focus on events from the past (are we so fearful of examining contemporary Australian society?) as well bush settings.’

Starford commented that the lack of representation is not confined to women either, ‘while there’s a notable representation of indigenous Australian narratives and concerns, there’s not a whole lot of other ethnic representation in there – Kel Robertson’s protagonist is a Chinese-Australian detective. That’s about all…’

‘In the end, these sorts of lists always generate disagreement and contention, and such discussion is always engaging and important for our literature. But I don’t think anyone can argue that one woman out of eight, in 2012, articulates the Australian experience, can they?’ Starford said.

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  • 1
    Aimée
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Bethanie!
    I had similar concerns and contacted NYR about their shortlist back in January and this was their response:
    “Here’s the short answer … We asked publishers for a long list of titles. Our library partners added a few extras that they felt needed to be on there. The long lists went to panels of readers in each state and territory (made up of book group, writers centre members, all sorts of keen readers) and they came up with the shortlist of six titles for each states. So there were 200-300 people involved in the process.”

    I’d be interested to learn who the ‘all sorts of keen readers’ may have been. It’s a great initiative, but I’m not so sure on the whole process.

  • 2
    mAlisonmiles Alison
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I was one of those keen readers who helped
    shortlist the Longlist. I am a public librarian
    and a reviewer. As I have noted in other places,
    my own reviewing has favoured women writers over
    the years in quantity, though I have always chosen books on story not on author gender.
    Personally I voted for Estelle Pinney’s House on the Hill because it so clearly
    evoked NQ’s sultry wet season for me. Now I am enjoying the strong writing in Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones. Which book did you vote for and why?

  • 3
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    One Australian woman writer’s novel to put on your reading list: Denise Leith’s What Remains

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