If there is one part of human life that is completely and utterly unfathomable it’s gender. You would have thought that a 44-year-old resolutely gay man with three degrees under his belt would have a handle on at least this side of things, but the fact is it’s all a mystery to me. Despite the physical attributes of the human body (and even that’s not entirely black and white), what makes a man and what makes a woman? What does masculinity mean? Protection? No. Strength? No. Invasion. No, but potentially. And what does femininity mean? Softness? No. Warmth? No. Life-enabler? No, but potentially. I’m not a gender theorist, nor am I a sociologist or historian, but in the end, maybe, these words – male, female; masculinity, femininity – are nothing but words. Except there’s no denying it: these words have extraordinary power. The first thing we do when a baby comes slithering into the world is determine its gender, and from that point onwards identity and the opportunities and challenges are set, more or less in concrete.
Lately there’s been much discussion and debate in Australia about gender in relation to the production and promotion of contemporary literature, primarily because over recent years major awards have been dominated by male writers. Dig deeper and statistics consistently reveal that the lists of publishing houses large and small around the world comprise a majority of male names, as do the long- and short-lists of most literary awards. Is there some kind of systemic problem that results in the favouring of males? Some argue that in the realm of literature gender shouldn’t matter; only quality and contribution matter. If that’s the case, in an industry (personally I’m not fond of that word, industry, but be that as it may) where most literary workers are female, and most readers are female, why is it that books by male writers are the ones to bubble to the surface to claim the limelight? Indeed, in Australia, is there something dark and sinister embedded in our psyche that makes the creative work of males the priority? In a country were up until as recently as the 1970s single women weren’t allowed get a mortgage on a home, how can we argue that gender discrimination isn’t embedded in our society?
I don’t have the answers. Christ, I barely know what’s happening tomorrow. However, I do believe that Verity La, a steam-driven, volunteer-run, weekly publication that operates on the smell of the whiff of an empty Jameson’s Irish Whiskey bottle, should not be immune from reflection and investigation in relation to gender equality. So we have done some reflection, and we’ve done some investigation.
Shortly I will flood your screen with statistics, and not all of them are pretty, but first some context. Verity La has been publishing consistently since mid-2010. According to our readership survey held last year, the vast majority of our writers are Australian, as are the vast majority of our readers. Verity La was founded by a male (muggins here) along with an enormous amount of energy and intelligence from another male (Alec Patric). The website – and, in a way, its entire identity – was significantly re-visioned by two women (Karmin Cooper and Jacinda Jackson from New Best Friend). The current ‘editorial team’ (I use that word loosely as we live in different cities and states) comprise two women (Jas Shenstone and Callie Doyle-Scott) and a bloke (again, muggins-magoo). This makes it sound like a socialist collective where everyone strives to be equal, but frankly that’s not the case – in terms of the direction of the journal and what happens in its pages, it all comes down to old Featherstone here. For better or for worse.
So, to those stats. Note that in some cases the numbers are very small, which means statistically they may not be valid. However, the quantum of data does suggest a trend. Areas were males dominate are bolded. Buckle your seatbelts.
- Of our writers of short stories, 22 (58%) are male, 19 (42%) are female
- Of our writers of novel extracts, 3 (38%) are male, 5 (62%) are female
- Of our writers of creative essays, 3 (43%) are male, 4 (57%) are female
- Of our writers who’ve contributed work to our Out of Limbo (GLBTI) series, 2 (50%) are male, 2 (50%) are female
- Of our poets, 16 (50%) are male, 16 (50%) are female
- Of those writers we’ve interviewed through our Lighthouse Yarns series, 11 (58%) are male, 8 (42%) are female
- Of those writers we’ve interviewed through our Melbourne Review Interview series, 23 (52%) are male, 21 (48%) are female
- In terms of book reviews, 16 (62%) of the books reviewed were written by males, 10 (38%) were written by females
- Of our writers of reviews, 5 (56%) are male, 4 (44%) are female
- Of our visual artists, 6 (55%) are male, 5 (45%) are female
Things get even more problematic when we look at the statistics not by the proportion of authors but by the proportion of works.
- Of the short stories we’ve published, 33 (62%) were written by males, 21 (38%) were written by females – fuck
- Of the poems we’ve published, 29 (52%) were written by males, 27 (48%) were written by females.
Are men better at some forms of writing? Hardly. Are men better at submitting their work? Maybe they are. Are men better at producing more work i.e. do they have more time to write? This could be the case. When making the final decision on whether or not to publish a piece do I, as managing editor, consciously or subconsciously, or a disastrous combination of both, look at the author’s name, make a pronouncement of gender, and then say yes or no to pressing the magic button? Perhaps I do. In terms of reviews, are most of the publishing houses that send books to Verity La for review managed by men? Maybe they are. Of course, it would be fantastic to live in a world where the gender of a writer doesn’t matter. How good would it be if all literature was published anonymously – plain-packaging for novels and poetry anyone? But this isn’t the point. The point is it’s impossible to escape the fact that, overall, there does seem to be a systemic and insidious favouring of one gender over the other – here at your humble Verity La journal, and around the globe.
Nigel Featherstone is the Editor of Verity La. He is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction and creative journalism. Since 2010 Nigel has been working on a series of novellas exploring modern Australian family life. The first, Fall On Me, was published by Blemish Books in 2011 and won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).