In January 2016, I began working with The Stella Prize to set up their first ever Diversity Count. This meant widening their count of books reviewed according to the author’s gender to examine how issues of race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality affected the rate of books reviewed by women.
Until 2015, there’d been no recognition of these various intersections. Like the organisation VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts in the US, Stella had concentrated its early counts on the male/female binary and, as in the US, this began to annoy women whom the industry defines not only by their gender, but also by their race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or gender-identity.
And Stella, which not only performs the count, but also awards The Stella Prize to the best book published by an Australian woman, has also come under increasing critique by women of colour about the whiteness of the prize’s longlists.
Undertaking the Stella Count is laborious and fairly crude work. Someone has to sit down and sift through newspapers and microfiches with a notepad and a running tally of the female and male names of authors whose work is reviewed.
That is, the distinction rests on name alone. This works to a degree, though not always; think of Lionel Shriver, J.K Rowling (names that don’t reflect a gender) as well as authors who are gender-queer. And it doesn’t work at all if you’re taking into consideration race, ability and sexuality. It is difficult to look at a female name on a book and assess whether or not the author is a member of the LGBTI or queer community or if she has a disability.
It may be easier to distinguish race or ethnicity by a name, but this is fraught territory for a number of reasons, not least because names lie. Then what? In the case of race, do you look up pictures of all authors and assess the colour of their skin? Do you search for non-British sounding names? How do you tell?
So, after much discussion between myself and the Stella Count Coordinator, Veronica Sullivan, we designed a survey for women-identifying authors who had their work reviewed in 2015.
This was long and often difficult work. We set up a public forum for members of the writing community to give their feedback on drafts of the survey and also established a consultative committee, which had input into the final version of the Diversity Survey.
Then, after many months, we sent the survey out to writers. When the results came back they were underwhelming and statistically insignificant. This broke our hearts a little. But then I began to think about why we had such a small uptake from those we’d surveyed.
Too late in the game
In the case of race and ethnicity (the qualifiers I feel I am best placed to speak about), I have a feeling that counting reviews comes too late in the game. I would guess that the Australian publishing industry simply does not publish enough books by women who are not white, but there are no figures for this.
For example, thanks to a recent report from Macquarie University we know that within the genre of fiction in Australia, 65.2% of literary fiction writers, 76.2 % of genre fiction writers and 86.9% of children’s book authors are women. This makes those graphs showing that men get far more reviews than women all the more infuriating. But, as yet, we don’t have the figures for racial or ethnic diversity.
Part of this lack, I think, comes from constraints placed on writers who are “othered” by the industry. For example, I think that it is probably easier for an indigenous author to be published if they write about epic struggles, rather than breezy romantic comedy. Likewise, I think that migrant writers will have an easier time getting into print if they follow the well-established trope of the happy, grateful migrant.
American author Morgan Parker writes that “we often find ourselves either being asked to ‘emphasize’ (read: exoticize) our identities (‘I love your writing about race,’ one editor told me. ‘Do you have anything else like that?’)”. And while Parker is speaking of the US, I think the same rules apply in Australia.
Safe, exotic, far away
It seems to me that the job of Indigenous writers and other writers of colour is to keep themselves and their stories at the margins of Australian literary culture. Safe, exotic, far away.
This begs questions about representation and what this means for a national literature. I listened to Indigenous author Jane Harrison speaking at the Diverse Women Writers Workshop in September and she pointed out that while Australia’s Indigenous population is (now) only about 2.44%, Australian Indigenous writing ought to make up a much larger percentage of our national literature, as our national literature should reflect Australian cultural heritage.
She’s right, of course. Toni Morrison writes that in the US the canon is,
unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence – which has shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of culture – has no significant place or consequence in the origin or development of that culture’s literature.
The Whiteness of the literary canon means that our ideas of good and bad writing are very narrow and, often, exclusionary.
In Australia, as in the US, only certain stories are allowed to take centre stage in our literary culture and the universal subject is still presumed to be a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual and fully-abled male. The more deviations from this (limited and highly problematic) notion of personhood you possess, the more estranged from the centre you become.
As Australian poet Lia Incognita writes:
work that draws from non-Anglo cultural references befuddles institutions (festivals, venues, funding bodies) whose understanding of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is structured around Western practice.
Does this mean that the Diversity Count is doomed? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Failures teach us that we have to look harder for answers. For me this entails a lot more quantitative as well as qualitative work, which comes at the stage of publication, rather than at the reviewing stage.
I’d like to undertake a comprehensive demographic survey of the Australian publishing industry (like those that Publisher’s Weekly perform in the US), examining both those people who work within the industry, as well as the authors who get published.
At the same time we need to look through our syllabuses in high-schools and universities and think about the kinds of stories that are upheld about non-white people in Australian Literature. By including a multitude of voices to speak fully and freely about the Australian experience, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Authors: Natalie Kon-yu, Lecturer in Creative and Professionaln, Literature and Gender Studies, Victoria University