Why I only buy books written by men.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 9.43.48 AM.pngYes, it came as something of a shock to me too. But I think I know how it happens.

I buy books from op shops. This is for two reasons. First: I am poor. Second: There is nothing I enjoy more than tipping an entire cup of coffee and/or brake fluid into a good book. The three-for-a-dollar shelf at the Salvos is the clumsy reader’s natural habitat.

Op-shopping hones my reading choices in a rather hokey way, unmediated by popular media or breathy reviews on National Radio. It introduces a deliciously wobbly stochastic process oriented by little more than, ‘For fuckssake, just tell me which one of these boxes isn’t going to the tip, Russell’.

What it doesn’t do, however, is weight for gender.

Last Thursday’s three-for-a-dollar selection is typical;

  1. a peculiar work of ‘experimental literature’ (Habitus, by James Flint)
  2. a well known but tragically dated work of cleverness (Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express)
  3. a classic that I should have read as a teenager but chose to modify a set of header pipes instead (Huxley, Brave New World).

You’ll note these books are all written by men. Female authors are under-represented in the publishing industry, and therefore, ultimately, on the op-shop shelves. But this doesn’t entirely explain why I end up taking home only male authors (so to speak).

Last year, Booker prize winner, Marlon James firmly planted himself in a towering pile of shit for claiming the publishing industry deliberately appeals to white, middle class women (WMCW). According to him, writers of colour are tacitly encouraged to write WMCW’s stories. This, according to James, is the key to getting published.

James characterised these books as;

“…pander[ing[ to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”

He’s right, of course, writers of colour are tacitly encouraged to write stories for White Middle Class Women. Mostly however, WMCW write these books for themselves. In other words, most self-involved, white women’s narrative fiction is narrated by self-involved white women.

We’re all familiar with this genre. I like to call it suburban-ennui, it is characterised by suffocating interpersonal relationships, pop-sociologies of motherhood or overly considered evocations of minute moral dilemmas. Frequently, these books do little more than reconcile the small generational differences between the author’s mother’s life (as remembered by the author), and the author’s own. They are unutterably dull and redolent with the scent of score settling. Men are one-dimensional or absent altogether. The storyline is often animated by some kind of contrived family secret *gasp*, a banal horror like alcoholism or sexual abuse of which the white, middle class author knows sweet fuck-all. They are portraits of seething proximity and emotional tourism, a claustrophobic, technicolour yawn.

It’s worth mentioning the type of middle class white women’s literature — something I like to call Gyno Grunge. The apotheosis of the exhausting suburban tomes above, Gyno-grunge is equally formulaic. Unlike their motherly suburban counterparts, these stories typically revolve around a single, hideous alter-femme, women who are overtly, grotesquely physical — comprised of cheesy creases and coarse, unbidden hairs. Venal and lazily violent they are part circus-freak, part modern morality play — women in extremis. Invariably they succumb to the purple excesses of loneliness, masturbation and poor dental hygiene. Their class status and motivations are unpredictable and unknowable. They are foreign and base, a clunky ‘other’. Like its suburban-ennui counterpart, above, Gyno-grunge also makes for dispiriting reading.

‘Suburban Ennui’ and ‘Gyno-Grunge’ comprise an inward-looking women’s lit, as tedious and insulting as it is dominant. And the fear of encountering it amongst the jaunty stacks of paperbacks at the Salvos has me clutching for the Wilbur Smith.

And this is how I end up buying the work of male writers. It’s not that I think all women writers produce the kind of work as described above, but many do, the industry rewards it and I fear I might accidentally read some of it.

I’ve decided, though, that in 2018 I will right the balance. I will only select works by female authors upon which to drop honey and brake fluid. Let’s see how this goes.

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Are writing competitions a scam?

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Twelve thousand entries. No, make that thirty thousand. Yes. That sounds better….

At the beginning of 2015 I won an art prize. I decided to invest my modest winnings in something even less appealing than visual art – creative writing. 2015 was my year of writing competitions.

My rules were simple; Only Australian competitions and only in 2015.

I chose three of the most reputable Australian writing competitions; The ABR Jolley Prize, the Overland Short Story Award for Emerging Writers and the Olga Masters Short Story Award – Two ‘big’, one small (the Olga Masters Award). All had an entry fee under $30.

I worked on my pieces and submitted on the due date. About a week after submitting to the Jolley Prize I received an email informing me that the deadline had been extended.

It got me thinking; why extend the deadline? Were they short of entries? How many entries did they want?

Research revealed that the Australian Book Review Jolley Prize attracts about 1200 entries, according to, you guessed it, the Australian Book Review. In 2016 the total prize money is $12500, with $7000 paid to the winner and the rest in other prizes.

So, if there’s around 1200 entries, at $20 a pop, that’s $24000. $12500 is paid out in prizes, leaving $11500 to pay for the administration and of course, reading fees. This all seems reasonable, until you consider the following;

– how do you know how many people enter?

– how do you know that all the entries are read?

I’m assuming the competition could be audited by Fair Trading, but there is no information on ABR’s website about terms and conditions, or how the competition is administered. In fact, there is no requirement to justify the outcome. The judges’ decision is final.

Now, in my opinion, the winning short stories were excellent, however, it’s unclear whether they were chosen from 1200 or 20 000 entries. Perhaps they were simply chosen from a much smaller pool of entries, say, perhaps the first two or three hundred entries, after which the ‘reading budget’ was maxed out. Or everyone got bored and stuck into the sticky wine. Who knows?

Writing competitions are classified as a competition of ‘skill’ rather than chance. In this way, they evade Australian gambling regulations. However, with a completely opaque judging process, who’s to say the outcomes are in fact based on skill rather than luck?

In the art world, trading in subjective artistic judgement is a well-established form of money laundering. Politicians and business people sell one another ‘important’ but obscure works of art that store well under the chaise lounge or beside the pool chemicals. It’s a simple and effective way to transferring money for ‘nothing’.

Writing competitions are a variation on the same theme. Entrants pay their money, wait until the jackpot pot is full (let’s extend the deadline for entries!) and then wait to see if they’re a winner. How, where or even if the works are ‘judged’ remains a mystery.

On that note, I’m starting a writing competition. Who’s in?