Photo: Guille Faingod
Last year's Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, recently announced she was setting up a grant to provide writers time not to write, but to read.
I, too, believe in the importance of reading not just for writers but for us all, given the power of the written word to convey ideas, inspire empathy and compassion, and suggest ways to conduct our lives and our relationships. But there is much anecdotal evidence from booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and beyond that boys and men prefer to read only books by and about males.
How does it happen that half of the population tends to read only about themselves? And does it matter? In answer to the first question, I would argue that a number of structural and institutional factors play into these reading habits – and that these patterns are established very early on.
Push the message: Aviva Tuffield, the executive director of the Stella Prize wants to see more people, particularly males, reading books written by women.
I work for the Stella Prize, the major new literary award that celebrates Australian women's writing, and we have just launched an education initiative, the Stella Prize Schools Program, in response to the low number of books by women on school curricula. For example, nearly 70 per cent of Victoria's year 12 English texts are by male authors.
Since announcing the program, we've been contacted by numerous parents, teachers and school librarians writing in keen support of the program and confirming that in a number of schools around the country almost no female writers are taught at year 11 and 12 levels. They worry about the message this sends their daughters and other female students.
In fact, these reading trends begin even younger, with boys at primary school encouraged to read by offering them testosterone-filled and -fuelled books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson series, or other action-oriented books with boys in central roles. It's taken as read (pardon the pun) that girls will not limit their reading and will roam more widely, happily devouring the Wimpy Kid diaries along with books starring female protagonists.
Publishers are partly complicit in this, identifying a marketing opportunity – as other corporations have with the marketing of films, toys and games; remember the outcry over pink lego – and so books are often promoted at specific genders, and thus the gendered division of reading begins, for boys at least.
Does it matter that by the time our kids leave high school they are used to seeing male authors and male perspectives prioritised and presented as the norm? Yes, I believe it does: this is the root of unconscious bias and unquestioned assumptions about what we value most highly in society – stories of men's lives and of men's achievements whether in fact or fiction. And it thwarts girls' ambitions. YA author Kirsty Murray recounts how a group of female students came up to her after a talk she'd given at a co-ed secondary school, and one of them said, "We didn't know women could write books".
In addition to school curricula and the gendered marketing of books, the media also has a role to play. Today, the Stella Prize releases the latest Stella Count, a survey that tracks the number of books authored by women as opposed to those by men that are given review coverage. As in previous years, we have found that the majority of our mainstream newspapers give preference to books by men. For example, 85 per cent of the Australian Financial Review's literary reviews were of books by male writers, while in the Weekend Australian 65 per cent of books reviewed were by male writers. For example, 85 per cent of The Australian Financial Review's literary reviews were of books by male writers, while in the Weekend Australian 65 per cent of books reviewed were by male writers. In The Age it was 58 per cent, and 57 per cent in The Sydney Morning Herald.
If books by women don't get reviewed, the media is also reinforcing our ideas about which stories and voices are most important. While women seem happy to read books that reveal the world filtered through male consciousness, the reverse does not seem to be true. I admire Franzen and Knausgaard as much as the next man, but would the next man also be willing to pick up, say, books from this year's Stella Prize shortlist, such as Fiona McFarlane's perceptive The Night Guest about an elderly woman battling dementia, or Kristina Olsson's moving and insightful Boy, Lost both a memoir of her mother and a devastating portrait of 1950s Australia.
And if books aren't reviewed they have less chance of being displayed prominently in bookshops and soon those face-out new releases are turned spine out and then disappear altogether. It's not for nothing that publishers say that books have the shelf life of yoghurt.
Dr Clare Wright, who won this year's Stella Prize for her riveting work of history The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, nicknamed the tables showcasing the latest nonfiction at the front of airport and chain bookstores the "dick tables", filled as they are with books by men on male sports stars, military heroes and politicians. Only once her book won the Stella Prize did it move to a front table, the one displaying prize-winning books.
As Wright recognises in her book on women's roles on the Ballarat goldfields, when we take women into account we're not just adding in their contributions but completely revising the way we envisage Australia's social history: "Women's presence does not just add colour to the picture, it changes its very outline," she writes.
That's why we should all read books by and about women and men because you're not simply getting half the story, you're getting a distorted one.
Let's get everyone reading more – and more books by and about women – in order to challenge unconscious bias and gender stereotypes, a crucial step on the road to genuine equality.I want my son to grow up to have the same insight into the lives of his three sisters – and other females, past and present – as my daughters already do into the experiences of boys and men. And I want my daughters' horizons to be as wide as possible in terms of what they can do and who they can become.
Aviva Tuffield is executive director of the Stella Prize and a publisher at Affirm Press.