Gender and the Australian Literary Scene

by nike, March 21, 2011

I’ve started doing some number crunching on gender in the Australian literary scene, starting with a breakdown of who’s reviewed, who’s reviewing, etc in some key Australian magazines and newspapers.

I’ve spent many a Saturday morning griping about the gender bias I perceived in the literary pages, and saying I would do some number crunching one day. Well, that day has come, partly prompted by the recent release of figures by VIDA of similar figures for literary reviews in the UK and USA. You can read their figures here:

VIDA: The Count

I hope, in the coming months, to supplement this analysis of what’s being reviewed or profiled in the Australian print media, and by whom, with a gender analysis of what’s being reviewed, etc, in other media (such as blogs and radio), what’s being published, who’s working in publishing, who’s doing creative writing courses (and who’s teaching them), who’s entering writing competitions (and winning them), and so on, since reviewing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and must – to be really meaningful – be considered in the context of what is happening in the broader context of Australian publishing! Of course, I will need to magically find about twenty extra hours in every week, and a host of willing minions to do all this, but a girl’s gotta have ambitions 🙂

Please note that I don’t wish to suggest that the figures below – on their own – say anything significant about publishing in Australia. They do say something about reviewing and other writing about the literary arts in the literary pages of the magazines and papers covered here so far this month, and are suggestive of a significant bias towards men as both reviewers and writers, but I feel it would be necessary to judge these figures over a longer period of time, and against other figures for gender participation/publication to really understand where the bias arises, where it is reinforced or subverted, etc. In other words, again, these are preliminary numbers and research only at this stage: I hope to supplement this work with some qualitative analysis in the coming months, as well as with some of the other stats I talked about wishing to collect above.

Anyway, for your viewing pleasure here are some preliminary figures for March:


  • Where a single review is of more than one book, I have counted it as one review for the author, but counted each book reviewed separately. (So, for example, a review by a male author of three books by – say – three women – is counted as one review by a male author, and three reviews of books by female authors)
  • Where a single reviewer publishes several stand-alone reviews/articles in one publication, I have counted each article separately, as well as each book reviewed. (So, for example, I have counted each of Kerryn Goldsworthy’s or Bruce Elder’s small reviews in the SMH:Spectrum – usually four each in the In Short: Fiction and In Short: Non Fiction sections respectively)
  • Where books are by multiple authors, I have counted each author separately since they may be both the same gender, or of different genders, although this means there are more authors counted than books reviewed.
  • Where books reviewed are anthologies, I have counted the editor/s, and not any of the individual article/entry authors. (For example, a review of The Penguin Book of the Ocean is counted here as a ‘book by a male author’: James Bradley)
  • The ‘names mentioned’ figures below record the gender of authors mentioned in articles other than book reviews, such as editorials, regular columns and feature articles. I have included the names of authors whose works are cited even where they are not named (eg: I have listed Mark Twain/male author when Peter Craven cites Huckleberry Finn but does not give the author’s name). I have not included letters to the editor, or articles that are not about the literary arts (such as visual art or film reviews). I am keeping track of the titles of articles/columns analysed for these figures, but at a minimum, in the SMH: Spectrum this includes Undercover, usually by Susan Wyndham. In The Weekend Australian: Review this includes Stephen Romei’s Ragged Claws column, Luke Slattery’s The Forum and, when relevant, Deborah Jones’s From The Editor. I have not, at this stage, included the author interviews regularly featured in SMH: Spectrum, though I may change my mind about that!
  • Where an author is named in more than one column/feature article in the same publication, or more than once in the same article, I have only counted them once (So, no matter how many times Peter Craven mentions Shakespeare in his article about the King James Bible, I’ve only counted Old Bill[male author] once).
  • Columns: A=Australian Book Review, B=The Monthly, C=ALR, D=The Weekend Australian Review, E=Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum, F=The Weekend Australian Review, G=Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum, H=The Weekend Australian Review, I=Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum

(*Please note, I have yet to do a ‘writers mentioned’ analysis for The Monthly: I’ll update those figures as soon as possible)


March Publications – Gender Count A B
H I Totals
Date of Publication 1 1 2 5 5 12 12 19 19
Male Editors 3 2 1 1 2 1 3 2 2 13
Female Editors 1 2 0 2 2 2 1 1 1 10
Male Editorial Board Members 5 4 4 13
Female Editorial Board Members 4 0 0 4
Male Editorial Advisers 6 1 7
Female Editorial Advisers 8 0 8
Reviews by men 24 4 5 8 6 7 6 5 11 60
Reviews by women 7 0 2 7 6 8 7 8 3 37
Reviews of books by men 31 5 8 14 10 11 8 8 11 87
Reviews of books by women 19 0 1 8 4 7 5 5 3 44
Interviews or profiles of male writers 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 2
Interviews or profiles of female writers 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1
Other writing-related articles by men 5 1 4 2 3 1 0 2 1 16
Other writing-related articles by women 3 0 0 1 0 1 0 2 0 5
Male writers referred to by name in 

regular/editorial columns/features on writing

30 68 10 27 9 6 12 11 150
Women writers referred to by name in 

regular/editorial columns/features on writing

8 5 6 5 0 12 9 5 36

Who Reviews Who?
Men Reviewing Men: 65
Men Reviewing Women: 18
Women reviewing Men: 27
Women reviewing Women: 31

And here are a few glimpses into some other figures for gender in the literary landscape of Australia:

Gender in the bestseller lists in SMH: Spectrum for the month of March

Figures are provided to the paper by Neilsen Bookscan. Some books are listed with no author (such as the Masterchef cookbook):
Men: 51
Women: 25

Gender in the longlists/shortlists for the Miles Franklin, the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, all announced this month:

Men longlisted:6
Men shortlisted:29
Women longlisted:3
Women shortlisted:39

By way of comparison (though it’s an older list!) here’s the gender breakdown of entrants in the 2009 and 2010 Emerging Author Category of the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards, of which I am one of the judges. I have counted co-authors individually so there are more authors than there were entries in each year:


Male entrants: 45

Female entrants: 43

Shortlist/Joint winners: 1 male, 3 female


Male Entrants: 71

Female Entrants: 44

Shortlist: 2 male, 1 female

Winner: Male


And one more, just for fun ….

Gender of participants in the last workshop I taught:

Male participants/writers: 16

Female participants/writers: 32


  • Very interesting Nike -- haven't read Elaine Showalter's book about US women writers and their reception but heard her interviewed on radio about this very subject. Her point is that a writer such as Joyce Carol Oates, if male, would be perceived entirely differently, and that the male cultural agenda still very much rules the literary scene. The reception of Jonathan Franzen in recent years is a good example, regarding almost universally as a genius, whereas a writer such as Marilynne Robinson is received in a far more muted fashion. Awarded prizes, yes, but not annointed in the same way that Franzen has been annointed. I still believe that women's fiction is seen as small, domestic, and not on the grand scale. Re Franzen again, when the domestic is described by a male writer, it has weight and depth, but when the same subject is described by a female subject it is generally seen as lacking the same gravitas. It's appalling that a writer of the stature of Helen Garner is yet to be annointed with the Miles Franklin, say. And always v difficult for any woman writer to write about this subject without it looking like sour grapes! Thanks for crunching the numbers -- can you send this to be published elsewhere??

    • rupetta
      Replay Cancel Replay
    • March 22, 2011

    Hi Susan! I think it's true that there is more to this than raw figures - that perceptions of what's important in literature, according to who says it and how - are more difficult to figure, but very important to understanding the issues. I remember, at uni, having my attention drawn to the way our metaphoric language for 'good' versus 'bad' writing reflected a kind of patriarchal stance. Good books are logical, firm, lucid, strong, while 'bad' books are intuitive, loose, soft, etc. At the time, I was ambivalent about whether this meant anything significant, but these days, I'm not so sure. I remember, also, learning that the default reader was also 'always already' a man, and that 'good' books were therefore inherently and subtly directed towards a male reader's tastes. That as women readers, for a long time and perhaps still in less obvious but nevertheless important ways, in order to read 'good' books we often assume a kind of 'male reader' position: reading about men as 'us' and women as 'them', for example, with only the barest hint of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the reader (as well as the writer) is 'always already' male - occupying something like the 'unmarked state' which only seems ungendered, uncoloured, etc, but which most of us assume is actually white, male, able-bodied etc. I was taught this by being asked to imagine a person reading a book, and then to articulate the race, class and gender of: the person reading, the author of the book they are reading, and the subject matter of that book. The commonest answers - the qualities we will have 'automatically' ascribed, unprompted, to the unmarked state - will be white, male author, subject, and reader for most people most of the time. It seems to me that, even when women act as readers, judges, publishers, something like the logic of the unmarked state operates in that we are working to/within a paradigm in which 'good' writing is defined by the (historical and contemporary) norms of male authorship and - perhaps, though far less easily identifiably - male readership. In order to judge works, we use unspoken criteria that are based on centuries of tradition in which the male is both reader and writer, and even - for a long time - principal subject, whereas women - as readers, writers, and subjects - are exceptions that somehow prove the rule. Fish, who ride bicycles :) But then, I'm just revealing myself as an out-and-out feminist if I say so. Which is true, but also - strangely - an instrument for making such observations seem personal and irrational when they are rational observations of the world-as-it-is. I agree that it's appalling that a writer of Helen Garner's ability and insight is not as highly regarded as - say - Tim Winton. And that, despite the dominance of white male authors in almost every literary award in the world, people still see positive discrimination such as the Orange Prize as somehow unnecessary. For me, feminist action - positive discrimination included - will be unnecessary when women are actually - rather than imaginatively and theoretically - equal. :)

  • Well done! This is a really great investigation. It's so important to have the statistics to back up the claims, and I hope you can get funding to maintain this information flow.

      • rupetta
        Replay Cancel Replay
      • March 23, 2011

      Hi Alison! Thanks for your kind feedback. I think collecting the stats is an important start in addressing this issue. It would be great to find some funding to do more work :)

  • [...] and the Oz lit scene at Queensland writer Nike Bourke’s blog Lost for Words. Interesting post at Queensland writer Nike Bourke’s blog Lost For Words, about gender and the Australian [...]

Leave a Reply

Subscribe now!

Enter your email address to subscribe to perilous adventures and receive notifications of new posts by email.