Thursday, 21 April 2011

the Miles Franklin syndrome

Five of the last six novels I've read have been installments in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series. Since going on leave I've been indulging my readerly whims in a way I haven't had the luxury of doing for many years, and am both amused and a bit alarmed by what the results seem to say about what I opt for when left to my own devices. So the world of literary prizes, merit, representation and intense debate over these, of the kind that erupted a day or two ago on the announcement of the second woman-free Miles Frankin shortlist in three years, seems quite remote. Also, I haven't read any of the three shortlisted novels, nor actually any novel on the longlist of nine, which may actually be a more important omission given that the judges are on record as being very critical of the general quality of the other longlisted books. (If you think this general ignorance is a shameful admission from somebody who teaches and researches literature, you are entirely correct and you also aren't allowing for the effects of teaching about thirty different literary texts each semester. It used to freak me out, as an undergrad, that the tutors I had for Cinema Studies never seemed to go to the movies, instead watching La R├Ęgle du jeu over and over again. Now I know why.)

So I know basically nothing about the specific books involved and that makes it impossible to form an opinion about what's actually happened in this instance of what is, as Alison Croggon pointed out yesterday, an all-too-familiar pattern. (Don't read the comments on that piece, by the way.) And Kerryn Goldsworthy's comment on the ALR blog clearly and succinctly says all that needs to be said about the fundamental issue underlying the problem: it's a symptom of what the dominant culture holds to be valuable and what it regards as lesser.
No doubt they are the ‘best books’, but it goes deeper than that. The question is, as it always is when these issues come up, what the criteria are for literary value, and where those criteria come from. The answer is (and it’s the basis of all useful discussion about gender and literature) that they derive from the values of the dominant culture —which circumscribes what women, as well as men, can be, think, believe and say—and the dominant culture is still, well, a sausage fest.
I really mean it; that's all that needs to be said, and if it could be repeated as often as necessary, in this brief way, perhaps the message would eventually begin to sink in. But perhaps it wouldn't; after all, Virginia Woolf said the same thing eighty years ago:
But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

What I do want to write about then is not the specifics of the MF, or even the issue of women's writing and literary value at large, but the very strong feelings of mingled dread and passion that inform & propel my teaching of writing by women, and which come out in full flight whenever this messy issue surfaces.

A couple of weeks before I went on leave it became clear that the subject I teach called Women Writing is under threat of being cancelled due to low enrolments this year. That is partly my fault for offering the subject on a yearly basis instead of biennially, but it's also a reflection of the fact that a subject with that name is perceived by many students as a niche or special interest course; male students don't take it, and a very intelligent woman student I encountered in another subject spoke for many others when she explained to me that it wasn't for her because she didn't really like literature that was 'all from one perspective or all about one thing.' I think Women Writing will escape the axe this year because it's being taught at a regional campus as well as at the metropolitan one, thus it will have to go ahead so the country students have an English subject, but if that wasn't the case I'd be very upset: that subject is the thing I'm proudest of, in my pretty unstellar academic career so far, and it's also the thing I do professionally that makes the most important contribution to people's lives. Why can be summed up by a remark a student made last year at the end of the semester, to the effect that this subject had occupied her thoughts more than anything else she'd ever studied, once she noticed that almost every day there was something in the news that related to something going on in one of the books we had been reading.

I inherited the concept of a subject devoted to women's writing; if I have it right, a subject of that name has been offered in my department continuously since 1987. (I think the first convenor was Lucy Frost.) It's an anomaly. It assumes that there is a discernible thing that can be called women's writing, that it's different from writing by men in significant and meaningful ways, and that it's worth studying - a set of assumptions viewed as naive at best by many, since the entire notion that the category 'women' exists in any meaningful way is not one that academics should now persist with. I don't feel, with so many books out there urgently needing to be read, we have the time to debate this in the subject. We take 'woman' at face value and look to see what the books themselves have to say about what that actually means.

There is a structural parallel with the perennial debate about the 'Australian life in any of its phases' criterion of the Miles Franklin; one side regards that as an unfixably problematic relic of the discredited belief that Australianness is an idea with content, and another side thinks we can tell well enough whether any given instance fits the description without needing to state in the abstract and in advance what does and doesn't qualify as Australian. There is a distinct tang of the 1950s about the terms Franklin specified; studying, talking about and thinking about women's writing is likewise an idea that is decades old now. I don't quite know why this is taken to mean they're outdated notions. We haven't gotten past them. Au contraire, they are ideas that are durable; yes, mainstream literary culture is (still? or increasingly?) a sausage fest, and put simply, the steady, camouflaged masculine bias momentarily revealed in incidents like the Miles Franklin shortlists just goes to show why we still need to ask what women's writing is and how it is to be valued. I am in the second, muddle-on-with-our-messy-terms camp on these parallel debates, and I think Australian writing (like women's writing), in the actual and as an idea, does continue to matter and should continue to be thought about in an organised way, despite the problems and conundrums it raises.

What I do have very strong doubts about is the continued value of doing this sort of thinking within the very narrow framework provided by literary prizes. Honestly, I don't think I have this opinion just because I would prefer it if all the people who wanted to think about such questions did it by enrolling in one of my subjects rather than through methods like reading their way through (say) the annual Orange Prize shortlist and deciding which novel they thought should win. Actually it's an argument of Virginia Woolf's again, this time from that bleak bleak book Three Guineas, which I think my way towards at times like this: the idea that the only viable response to self-reinforcing patriarchal value systems - whether ones that glorify war or glorify books about manly concerns - is to refuse to participate in them, which also means refusing to take them seriously.
It appears that we can ask them to do nothing; they must follow the old road to the old end; our own influence as outsiders can only be of the most indirect sort. If we are asked to teach, we can examine very carefully into the aim of such teaching, and refuse to teach any art or science that encourages war. Further, we can pour mild scorn upon chapels, upon degrees, and upon the value of examinations. We can intimate that a prize poem can still have merit in spite of the fact that it has won a prize; and maintain that a book may still be worth reading in spite of the fact that its author took a first class with honours in the English tripos. If we are asked to lecture we can refuse to bolster up the vain and vicious system of lecturing by refusing to lecture.* And, of course, if we are offered offices and honours for ourselves we can refuse them — how, indeed, in view of the facts, could we possibly do otherwise?
Woolf acknowledges this is a 'lame and depressing' strategy, and doesn't pretend that it comes without costs - followed literally, this advice would see women writers refusing to accept the money that goes with winning a major literary prize, and that is ridiculous. But I think the point is more that we all need to reconsider the type and quantity of attention we mete out to contests and to prizewinning books, and to be much more aware of the very shallow media and marketing events that famous literary prizes have degenerated into.

I have more to say about this, but that'll do for now.



Ampersand Duck said...

So, just asking because it popped into my head as I read this excellent post: what would happen if you taught a unit called 'Australian Lit' or 'Asian Lit' and only included women authors? Is there a higher authority that would veto the choices?

I once studied a course called 'Women's Sci Fi'. It was taught by Nan Albinski and was probably the best course I ever joined. The highlight was reading a story by James Tiptree Jnr, who was the George Elliot of Sci Fi output. The debate about male/female writing was really, really stimulating, and if I had any memory for dialogue I would reproduce some here, but alas my notes are also buried in boxes in the garage. Sorry.

Kate H said...

This is an excellent piece and I don't have anything substantive to add, except I would quite like to take your class on women writers (I'm a bit of a high maintenance swot though so you probably wouldn't enjoy it quite so much...)

KJ401 said...

Brav-bloody-o. Both for pointing out that so little is represented in the usual academic fill and how clearly Woolf understood that reality and called us to arms. A polite version of "Don't work for the buggers, it only encourages 'em."

I remember noticing about 15 years ago Women's Writing sections disappearing from the more interesting of our bookshops. In the heady 80s it seemed so certain that the lost classics brought back by Virago and the Women's Press would never disappear again. We should be lobbing a few bricks through VC windows at the very least.

Mindy said...

And people wonder why there has to be an Orange Prize for fiction. I think actually it's mostly men whinging that there is a prize that they specifically can't win.

WV: mumfu

Lucy Sussex said...

Nan Albinski is great. So is James Tiptree Jr's work. I wrote a book about the mothers of detective fiction. How many more times do we have to fight these battles? Lucy

Mel said...


librarygirl said...

Yes, I'm with Mel.
Also - saw on your twitter sidebar you are booked for induction this week... very best wishes to you all, I had two inductions, you will be fine. x

Marshall Stacks said...

'she noticed that almost every day there was something in the news that related to something going on in one of the books we had been reading.'

women weave the social fabric.

only think beautiful thoughts between now and Friday. love to you 3 from me.

Anonymous said...

As a woman of 55, it is a catch-22, isn't it. We want to be "equal" therefor not needing special treatment, yet we are not yet equal, even if we like to think we are.

I wonder if what is happening to me, were happening to a man, would so little attention be paid. Would a Minister of the Government write to a man, telling a man he was not "in the public interest"?

moles on skin said...

Interesting post and thanks for sharing. Some things in here I have not thought about before.