Accounting for taste

At the risk of never eating lunch in this town again or at least not making invitation lists for future Davitt Awards and Stella Prize, I’m going to weigh into the debate about gender bias in Australian crime writing awards recently reignited by Tara Moss and suggest that maybe, just maybe, gender alone does not determine who wins what.

Before you shoot me down in flames, stab me in the back or lace my latte with poison, I don’t deny the overwhelming evidence that women’s writing is less likely to be reviewed and nominated for awards—sadly, even when the reviewers and judges themselves are women. I find it woeful that years go by where no women writers are shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, a prize founded by a feminist who felt she had to publish under a man’s name. And it sucks that in ten years, only one woman has won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction.

But I find it interesting on the rare occasions when there is a level playing field, the outcomes vary wildly.

Davitt Award 2011 winners: Colleen Egan, Penny Matthews, Leigh Redhead & Katherine Howell (MIA: PM Newton)

In 2001, the Sisters in Crime Australia founded the national Davitt Awards for women’s crime fiction, named in honour of Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) who wrote Australia’s first mystery novel, Force and Fraud in 1865. By 2001, the Ned Kelly Awards run by the Crime Writers Association of Australia and named for an infamous criminal had been running for five years. Of the 18 prizes awarded in all categories during that time, only three had gone to women. Not surprising that the Sisters in Crime took matters into their own hands.

Both awards are offered for crime writing by Australian authors and works are nominated each year by publishers. The Davitts are exclusively for women, all relevant books written by Australian women are eligible, and there are no short lists. Books nominated for the Neddies are shortlisted a month out from the awards night.

The Davitts are awarded in the categories of Best Adult Fiction, Best Young Adult Fiction, Readers’ Choice and, since 2007, True Crime.

The Neddies are awarded in the categories of Best Fiction, Best First Fiction, Best True Crime, Lifetime Achievement Award and, since 2009, a Short Story Prize named in honour of writer and journalist SD (Sandra) Harvey. A short-lived Readers’ Vote was awarded in 2001 and 2002, to Lindy Cameron and Bunty Avieson respectively.

The only categories that really lend themselves to comparison across the two awards are those for Best Fiction/Best Adult Fiction and Best True Crime.

Andrew Nette notes that between 2002-2011, unlike the category of Best Fiction, in the category of True Crime, the results of the Ned Kelly Awards are evenly split.  Five women have won it (a tie between two women in 2007) and five men (a tie between two men in 2002).

Women writers have won the Ned Kelly True Crime award four times since the same category was introduced into the Davitt Awards five years ago. But only once during this time has judges’ choice coincided: in 2009 for Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man.

None of the other four women who have won a Ned Kelly Award for True Crime have won a Davitt Award in the same category.

Two books by women were shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for True Crime in 2011, with Geesche Jacobsen winning for Abandoned – The Sad Death of Dianne Brimble. Neither of the shortlisted books won the Davitt, which went to Colleen Egan for Murderer No More.

No gender bias in these results, just difference of opinion. And perhaps different selection criteria.

While Gabrielle Lord pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning a Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction for Death Delights in 2002, she did not win the Davitt that year. The Davitt prize for Adult Fiction went to Carolyn Morwood for A Simple Death. (Lord shared the Davitt the following year with Alex Palmer).

In the last five years, not only have no women won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction, only two women have been shortlisted: Dorothy Porter for El Dorado in 2008, and myself for The Half-Child in 2011. The Davitt Awards for Best Adult Fiction were won both years by Katherine Howell for Frantic and Cold Justice respectively.

Bottom line is the awarding of literary prizes will always be subject to bias of one kind or another. It’s the nature of the beast. Literary prizes can’t be awarded like sporting trophies to the one who comes first, run fastest, jumps furthest or scores the most points. Somewhere along the line issues like taste, personal preference, zeitgeist are bound to come into play—even when you account for gender bias.

I have no doubt bias worked in my favour when my manuscript for a crime novel won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2004: at least one judge on the panel that year was an award winning (male) crime fiction writer.

As someone who juggles a demanding, underpaid job in the community sector with being a writer, partner and parent, I wholeheartedly welcome the advent of more literary prizes—such as the Stella—for which my work might be eligible. And I eagerly await more information on what criteria will govern the awarding of the Stella Prize(s).

But will winning prizes bring me closer to my goal of making a living from writing fiction? There are plenty of authors on bestseller lists who don’t win literary awards. And plenty of award winning authors whose books don’t sell.

Best I can do is keep trying to write more and write better books, thankful to be a published author; and also to support writers who I believe deserve more attention from publishers, reviewers and judges.

At least in my opinion.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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9 Responses to Accounting for taste

  1. Tara Moss says:

    Hi Angela,
    Interesting post, and it in interesting to note that not one of the women who won a Ned Kelly won a Davitt (in the well-represented true crime category, or in the single case a female has won for best fiction in 16 years), though I think this only further points out that the judging of awards is subjective. Literary prizes can’t be awarded like sporting trophies to the one who comes first, run fastest, jumps furthest or scores the most points, as you point out. Obviously gender alone does not determine who wins what (except in our all-female awards, of course). What is interesting then, is that in every individual instance with the Miles or Ned Kelly it could be argued that the book by the male author is the better one, and it may well be the case that year or the next, but over time the lack of awards and the fewer reviews for women point to a bias, unconscious otherwise, which in my view needs discussion.
    It was fantastic to see you at SheKilda.
    Best wishes,
    Tara

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    • Thanks for your response Tara, and I agree that questions of bias are rich fodder for discussion. To be honest, lack of reviews relative to the number of publications by women bothers me more than the judging of awards.
      Researching the who won what of crime writing awards only brought home to me how highly subjective the whole thing all is. Interesting that neither the Davitts nor the Neddies publicise the criteria against which books are judged (‘best book’ — now there’s a concept open to interpretation). Not that this would make a difference to the kind of books you or I might write, but it might shed light on the judges’ choices.
      For the record, two out of three of the judges on the Ned Kelly Award panel for Best Fiction this year were women who I greatly admire — both of whom would, I suspect, vigorously deny gender bias, unconscious or otherwise.
      I greatly enjoyed seeing you at SheKilda, too.
      Warm regards,
      Angela

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  2. Pingback: SheKilda 2011: Celebrating 20 years of sisters in Australian crime « Fair Dinkum Crime

  3. I remember reading the VIDA stats for the first time earlier this year. The realisation that, no, it wasn’t my imagination, it was a cold hard brutal fact that women’s voices were MIA in so many spaces made me feel queasy. The facts and stats were undeniable, but what could be done about it and how would women’s reactions to it be received – that concerned me. Would we be seen as whiners (unprivileged perhaps)? Would we be seen as trying to claim some kind of “special” status?

    Then I recalled reading something Thea Astley had said about writing as a woman, and her doubt that anyone would be interested in what she had to say. I dug out the quote, I think it’s worth sharing.

    “I grew up believing that women weren’t really people, and didn’t matter in the scheme of things. You’ve got to remember my age. Men didn’t listen to women when they expressed an opinion. I always felt that they wouldn’t read books written by women, because it would be like listening to a woman for three hours, which would be intolerable … So when I came to write, I thought, well, no one’s going to listen to me, or read me, or be interested in anyway, but maybe there’ll be a chance of being read if I concentrate on the male characters in my book, or write as I did in The Acolyte, using a male character’s point of view rather than a female’s.”

    After re-reading Astley’s observations, I’m reminded that the two great British Dames of crime – Rendell & James – both created male detectives.

    So, whilst yes it’s true that taste in matters of awards will always be a defining factor, it does seem that “taste” doesn’t often seem to run much towards women. And that perhaps does speak more about culture than taste. I wonder if it is significant that true crime is the re-telling of other people’s stories, whereas fiction is the storytellers’ stories? Storytellers are not re-telling something that happened, but creating a fictional world, often in order to tell us something about our own. When it comes to these (re)creations of the world then the disconnect between women’s interpretations and men’s comes into play.

    If we were fighting for a place around the fire in the cave it’s clear that the male storyteller would be a lot warmer than the female.

    Thoughtful blog Angela, look forward to talking about this (and more) in Melbourne in November.

    The Astley quote is from here:
    http://books.google.com.au/books?id=CfEOTS30zz4C&lpg=PA89&ots=A-UH2PU7so&dq=%22thea%20astley%22%20listen%20men&pg=PA89#v=onepage&q=%22thea%20astley%22%20listen%20men&f=false

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    • Thanks so much for your response Pam.

      I find it sad that for Thea Astley to feel validated as a writer, she needed to be read/found interesting by men. And what floors me about this current debate is that women still measure our success in terms of the degree to which we ‘make it’ by male standards, rather than determining our own. As a writer, it is all the more baffling given the popular wisdom that women buy and read more than men. If being read is the ultimate measure of success and validation, aren’t we better off targeting our books towards women readers and embracing a female readership?

      I understand there are forces that influence how potential readers of either sex are alerted and referred to books, and the VIDA stats strongly suggest these forces are sexist. But his/herstory is filled with examples of books becoming bestsellers through word of mouth, a mode of communication strongly associated with women and these days turbo-charged by the possibilities of social media — of which you, Pam, are an exemplary practitioner.

      The Sisters in Crime do a brilliant job through the Scarlet Stiletto Awards, the Davitts, Stiletto magazine, SheKilda and the website of promoting and reviewing women writers. And I love how the books that win the Davitts aren’t the same as those that win or are shortlisted for the Neddies. What I don’t get is the ongoing angst: why do we keep letting the dominant paradigm get to us rather than trusting in our own resourcefulness?

      Your own novel The Old School was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book and won the Davitt for Readers’ Choice. I’m damn sure the latter will bring you the greater readership and sales figures.

      If you’re up for it, I might ask you more about this when we next meet at the Wheeler Centre on 10 November 2011 for Above the Law.

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      • I suspect our conversation will probably have to be post Wheeler Centre, amidst cocktails. Above The Law mightn’t lend itself to such a digression and it’s probably not what Stuart has in mind!

        Thea chose her words to be confronting I think, and as I enter my 50s and start to experience the sense of invisibility that comes to an ageing woman in this society, her words do strike a chord. An angry chord! Because, by god, I do have something to say and I’d like it to be listened to!!!

        In one of the many blogs on this debate (forget who – sorry!) someone posted a link to this great quote by Tina Fey: “The definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Which is outrageous precisely because sickeningly we know it to be true. (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_fey)

        I think I get what you mean Angela, but I don’t I don’t see the findings of the VIDA stats as measuring male standards. Coverage in literary magazines/journals/book reviews in newspapers might “be” male-centric, but that should change, because for women’s voices to be missing from them is to be missing from a big chunk of the mainstream conversation and thought about writing. It’s kind of how I feel every time I watch some gathering of power on the news and see the same besuited-older-white males still with their hands all over the levers.

        Whilst advocacy, mentoring and recognition by groups such as Sisters in Crime or, to choose another example, The Deadly Awards, is invaluable (proof is in the increase in publications, the range of the creativity and the vibrancy of the debates) it is surely one of the aims of these groups to raise the profile beyond that pre-existing audience?

        I’ve been a very fortunate writer, I’ve been recognised by two awards this year, both of which were set up by women (Sisters in Crime & Helen Asher). I’d like to think (hope) that they will function (on a much smaller scale!!) in the way that Kate Grenville believes her recognition in winning the Orange Prize did:

        “My life was transformed by winning the Orange Prize. I won it for The Idea of Perfection, a book that wasn’t shortlisted for a single important Australian prize. As a result, sales were dismal. A year later, it won what was then Britain’s richest literary prize. Suddenly everyone was reading it and assuring each other that they’d always known what a great book it was. It was the same book it had always been, but now it had the stamp of approval – a big prize.”
        (http://kategrenville.com/node/70)

        I know that not all women writers agree with the Orange Prize, A.S. Byatt, I believe, refuses to allow her books to be entered in it, similarly not all women are supportive of The Stella Prize. The line between advocacy and ghettoisation is a contentious one and unfortunately literature seems to positively revel in creating various ghettos. Indeed, some may call them genres! So in the same way that various genres might support and promote work and writers, I don’t know that they want to see that as excluding the work from wider audiences.

        This reminds me of a convergence of the whole female & genre debate in the wake of the review (by a woman) of the Game of Thrones mini-series in the NY Times. Ginia Bellafante basically wrote off the entire SF genre as being of no interest to women, and then suggested that the sex in the series had been thrown in because “no woman alive would watch otherwise” (http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html)

        The reaction by female SF readers and writers was beautiful to behold. Doris Egan – a TV producer & writer on Torchwood, House, Smallville as well as a novelist – responded on her blog that dismissing whole slabs of genre like this doesn’t actually do anyone any favours.

        “I’m thinking now of all the female authors who’ve been waiting to get out of the “women’s literature” ghetto and into the simple designation of “literature.” Who are tired of being fenced off and told their work is for certain readers only.”
        (http://www.dorisegan.com/2011/05/09/how-not-to-write-a-review/)

        Complex ideas, rich debates, various opinions, I’m going to finish with a simple (simplistic perhaps) analogy. I see the women’s advocacy groups as being like family. They’ll discover you, encourage you, raise you, promote you but eventually want to see you out the door of the family home and wobbling off down the street to work. Doesn’t mean you’ll not be back home for dinner, or that they won’t feel a sense of pride to see strangers think you’ve done a good job.

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  4. Lea Johnson says:

    Hi Angela,

    If we could perhaps have a bigger role for ‘professional readers’ more chick stuff would be consumed and more of us would be able to enter into the debate/judging on a level playing field – there is so much choice and depending on your mode of pickin’ the title (I follow someone else’s lead every time!) the influence it has can be varied….I will happily read 9-5 and even do a bit of voluntary overtime…..!!

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  5. Pingback: Literary Gender Bias. The After-Blog. | Tara Moss

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