Today, the Stella Prize released the results of the 2013 Stella Count, which calculates the gender breakdown of authors reviewed in Australian newspapers. This year, as in previous years, the Count shows that Australian literary pages review female writers significantly less than they do male writers. But there are other insidious patterns of reviewing, dictated by the gender of reviewers and authors, which are not shown in the Stella Count data.

Myself and my friend Fay Helfenbaum compiled the 2013 Stella Count. We sorted through twelve months’ worth of literary reviews from Australia’s major newspapers and literary publications and condensed a substantial body of evidence into statistical form. We hope and believe this year’s Count will provoke discussion of the ongoing issue of gender disparity in Australian reviewing. However, many of the problematic patterns we observed repeatedly across newspapers’ literary sections cannot be neatly reduced to quantifiable data, and these are what I wish to reflect on here.

Reviews of books by women tended to be shorter, and far less likely to be given prime position on the first page of the review sections. They could be found tucked away towards the end of the literary content, or jostling for space in the side margins or at the bottom of pages, often in 200- or 300-word pieces that barely made the leap from plot summary to review.

This is the first year the Stella Count has included data on the genders of the reviewers, and which genders they reviewed. Generally, the gender breakdown of reviewers was roughly equal. However, while women tended to review books by both men and women, male reviewers overwhelmingly reviewed books by male writers. So, even when the number of reviewers of each gender was roughly equal, male reviewers were primarily reviewing male writers, and doing so at far greater length and in more depth than when either gender reviewed female writers.

Gender disparity in reviewing perpetuates artificial divisions at all levels of publishing and book buying, encouraging and supporting the assumption that male readers lack knowledge of or interest in the writing and fictionalised world-views of women. As Stella Executive Director Aviva Tuffield has noted, ‘the media is also reinforcing our ideas about which stories and voices are most important’. As a result, masculine experience becomes accepted as the default literary mode. Anecdotally, I see this in the bookstore where I work, where men are vastly more likely to buy books by men, and women will buy books by either men or women.

In Australia and abroad, this devaluing of women’s writing has been enforced over many years by a lack of women writers on longlists for major literary awards (including this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, which featured just three women on a longlist of thirteen). There seems to be a perception that the work of male writers is serious and worthy (even when they deal exclusively with the domestic sphere), while the work of female writers (even when it is ambitious in style or scope) is dismissed as frivolous and less literary.The issue of representation and recognition for women writers persists, despite the awareness-raising initiatives and increased visibility of the Stella Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the VIDA Count.

For the year 2013, how does the quality and quantity of books by men and women compare? Cast your mind back twelve months. It feels like a long time ago, so allow me to refresh your memory. By anyone’s standards, 2013 was a bumper year for new releases by big Australian men of letters. Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Alex Miller, Christos Tsiolkas, and JM Coetzee all released new novels, and understandably these were widely reviewed. But it was also a year of outstanding new fiction releases from notable female Australian writers, including Alexis Wright, Andrea Goldsmith, Evie Wyld, Krissy Kneen, Julienne van Loon, Fiona Capp, Debra Adelaide, Melissa Lucashenko, and KYD’s own Hannah Kent (many of whom were long- or shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize). Internationally, Kate Atkinson, Eleanor Catton, Lionel Shriver, Ruth Ozeki, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, and Rachel Kushner all released new novels. The latter women fared far better in Australian literary pages than did local women, but still received nowhere near the level of coverage of notable male writers from either Australia or overseas. I would venture to say that in 2013, there were equally as many outstanding books published by female authors, as by men. A dearth of quality in the output of female writers is not the cause of their unequal representation on our literary pages.

The reluctance to promote female writers seemingly extends across both established and emerging writers. Over the course of compiling the Count, the lack of attention paid to younger and lesser-known female writers compared to their male counterparts became increasingly apparent to me. Perhaps lesser-known female writers are perceived as a risky proposition and expected to prove themselves before they receive critical attention. The goalposts of success for literature are constantly shifting, but gender shouldn’t be a determining factor in literary success. An author’s gender should be a side note, neither a hindrance nor an asset.

So who or what is responsible for the lack of coverage of female writers in Australia? There are, perhaps, a few publications which wield substantial influence and power, but which continue to promulgate a status quo that enforces their own relevance. The Count data speaks for itself in demonstrating which publications are particular and repeat offenders. Although many major literary editors are male, this year’s Stella Count indicates that most papers have a majority of female reviewers. Whoever makes the call on which books are to be reviewed by which writers (and this varies broadly between publications and for reviewers of different statures), the issue of unconscious bias is crucial.

Whether the Stella Count’s findings are due to the behaviours or preference of reviewers or editors, it is not sufficient to simply blame unconscious bias and be done with it, as if this, combined with a comforting pat on the head, were sufficient to reassure lady writers it’s not your fault and send them on their way. A majority of male presence in all forms of media is the unremarkable norm in Australia, and one that readers and consumers of both genders often barely notice. Commercial radio is particularly egregious in this regard, but print media has little to be proud of. The very problem of culturally pervasive unconscious bias is that it is unintentional, and frequently unnoticeable until direct attention is called to it. In order to actively address gender bias and discrepancies in Australian book reviewing, there must be awareness and acknowledgement of the problem right across the publishing industry, and conscious and concerted efforts to redress the imbalance in the review sections of all publications.

The 2013 Stella Count casts a sharp eye over the state of Australian literary reviews, and provides stark evidence of gender disparity in literary reviewing. But the corollaries of this data remain more difficult to pinpoint, as a tangled mixture of behavioural tendencies on the part of editors and reviewers combines to disadvantage women writers before they have even begun, whether because of unconscious bias, their youth and inexperience, their Australianness, or simply their lack of a penis.*

*Generally speaking, that is. Some women have penises.

Image credit: Jon S/Flickr