The Miles Franklin longlist for 2010 has been announced – and with only three of the 12 writers women, the signs are ominous that there may be another sausage fest (aka all-male shortlist) this year.

In strictly objective alphabetical order, the longlist is:

Patrick Allington, Figurehead
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Brian Castro, The Bath Fugues
Jon Doust, Boy on a Wire
Deborah Forster, The Book of Emmett
David Foster, Sons of the Rumour
Glenda Guest, Siddon Rock
Sonya Hartnett, Butterfly
Thomas Keneally, The People’s Train
Alex Miller, Lovesong
Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones
Peter Temple, Truth

While there’s not the very obvious omission of female literary heavyweights that there was last year (when Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Amanda Lohrey and Joan London all missed out), the gender imbalance is still curious, to say the least.

It didn’t take long for Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game and Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath to spring to mind as surprising books to be left off the longlist. And what about Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion? (‘It’s a mystery why Andrea Goldsmith is not a household name,’ wrote Jennifer Levasseur, reviewing the book in The Australian. ‘Her latest offering should be welcomed with the excitement that greets the best Australian novelists working today.’)

There’s a robust conversation about this online already (along with debates about the the interpretation of ‘Australian life in any of its phases’), with some of the best discussions happening in the comments sections of James Bradley’s blog and the blog of Stephen Romei, editor of ALR.

On the latter, former Miles Franklin judge Kerryn Goldsworthy was invited to comment on the gender issue. While she wasn’t particularly concerned about the make-up of this year’s longlist, apart from the omission of Cate Kennedy, she had been among those concerned about last year’s shortlist. She wrote:

The question of who’s writing ‘better books’ always comes down to the criteria that are applied in judging them, and I do think that a lot of the more traditional literary values are still skewed or coded ‘masculine’. Anyone writing a novel about private life, domestic life, family life or emotional life, anyone writing a short novel or a ‘small-canvas’ novel and anyone writing a novel whose main character is a woman (and I don’t mean some male fantasy figure like Lara … erm … Croft, I mean an actual warts-and-all woman) is often automatically, unconsciously disadvantaged in competitions like this, regardless of the quality of the writing. And not necessarily only by male judges, but by anyone who’s been taught to value ‘big’ books about ‘important’ subjects.

The conversation about gender and literary prizes is aflame overseas at the moment, too. Back in November last year, author, critic, editor and prize judge Lizzie Sturnick wrote a frustrated article in response to Publisher’s Weekly’s all-male Top 10 Books of 2009. The Publisher’s Weekly editors had explained the outcome thus: ‘We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration. We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz … It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.’

‘The publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician,’ Sturnick acidly responded. Giving an insider’s view from one judging panel she’d been a member of, she said she’d watched as books by men were labelled ‘ambitious’ (which she interpreted as: ‘had shot high and fallen short’), while books by women had been called ‘small’, ‘domestic’ and ‘unambitious’. In a line that has since echoed around cyberspace, she wrote:

‘I just want to say,’ I said as the meeting closed, ‘that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric.’

Interestingly, while Sturnick reported her experience of women’s fiction being judged as ‘small’ and ‘domestic’, a judge of another literary prize has come under fire for complaining of women’s fiction as ‘grim’. Daisy Goodwin, chair of the judges for this year’s round of the all-women Orange Prize said:

‘There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there … Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.’

She blamed publishers for ‘lagging behind what the public want’. It’s interesting, I think, that she’s based her analysis on reading the books entered to a major literary prize. It seems likely to me that publishers are basing their choices on what they think literary award judges (like herself) want. Sending in their more ‘ambitious’ books, perhaps?

‘If the books that are entered have been remarkably downbeat this year, it’s perhaps because editors of lighter books by women aren’t confident that they command the same respect as grim ones,’ retorted Jean Hannah Edelstein in The Guardian, remarking that witty, ‘pleasurable’ books by women are often marketed as specifically ‘women’s’ reading, decorated with pink covers and the like.

She went on to say that it was hard to imagine ‘our most beloved, funny female writers of the past’ (like Nancy Mitford) being in contention for The Orange Prize. Goodwin’s admonition for female writers to ‘cheer up, love’, she said, would be unlikely to be directed at a male writer: ‘Debates about who’s going to be the next Philip Roth are not coloured by criticisms of brilliant young male authors for not being cheery enough – I’ve not read any criticism that Legend of a Suicide, for example, lacks joy.’

Another writer, William Skidelsky, agreed with Edelstein, but put another twist on Goodwin’s remarks: she was only speaking the truth, he said. He reported ‘a growing feeling that, in order to be “serious”, novels have to be dark in tone … arguably, women have been affected by this much more than men, because of the pronounced divide in women’s fiction between frothy, commercial “chicklit” and more serious, “literary” work.’ This perception needs to be talked about, he said, as it’s affecting the kinds of books that are written and published.

Amanda Craig, one of the longlisted novelists, told Skidelsy: ‘There really is a sense that women writers have two paths – on the one hand, towards chicklit; on the other, the serious route. And if they take the latter, there’s a feeling that they have to be extra serious in order to be treated with respect.’

It’s an interesting debate. The Orange longlist, in full, is:

Rosie Alison, The Very Thought of You
Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal
Clare Clark, Savage Lands
Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds
Roopa Farooki, The Way Things Look to Me
Rebecca Gowers, The Twisted Heart
MJ Hyland, This is How
Sadie Jones, Small Wars
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Laila Lalami, Secret Son
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Attica Locke, Black Water Rising
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Maria McCann, The Wilding
Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy
Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs
Monique Roffey, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
Amy Sackville, The Still Point
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger