When will we write an obituary for literary sexism?

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Danielle Binks

<i>The Australian's</i> insulting obituary of author Colleen McCullough has become an international news story.

The Australian's insulting obituary of author Colleen McCullough has become an international news story. Photo: Danielle Smith

Colleen McCullough sadly died last week, but instead of celebrating her career as a neurophysiologist and bestselling author, The Australian newspaper turned the tide of conversation with a misogynistic obituary.

The now infamous obit – which sparked a mocking hashtag #myozobituary – began; 'COLLEEN McCullough, Australia's best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.'

The ridiculously tone-deaf piece has opened up a hornet's nest debate around literary sexism, the likes of which we haven't seen since … actually – Foreign Soil author Maxine Beneba Clarke started a trending hashtag in December last year with #writingwhilefemale, which also explored literary sexism. Beneba Clarke explained the hashtag as; 'a collection of the implicit sexism within books, poems and publishing: the greatest themes are women writers not being taken seriously (often pigeon-holed into chick-lit and ignored as a literary piece), underrepresentation, and lack of confidence.'

McCullough's <i>The Thorn Birds</i> sold more than 30 million copies.

McCullough's The Thorn Birds sold more than 30 million copies.

The debate sparked by The Australian is indicative of a wider, ongoing discussion around "women's fiction" (a sexist term in itself; and I'm with author Joanne Harris that "women's fiction" is not a sub-category with the implication that we are 'a minority group, and not half the population.') More precisely: the discussion is based around how these books that are mostly written by women, for women are often dismissed as "lesser" fiction.

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Looking back at McCullough's career, research fellow in English literature at Deakin University Michelle Smith wrote; 'Like much women's genre fiction, McCullough's romances and detective fiction were often regarded as unimportant at the same time as they were acknowledged as undeniably compelling.' The Australian touched on this issue in their offensive way, with the line; 'Her novels consistently received patronising reviews from the highbrow critics…'

And for all that she wrote historical sagas and fantasy novels, McCullough is being remembered especially fondly as a romance author. Her most successful novel The Thorn Birds (which was adapted into a miniseries) is being celebrated in particular for the doomed-love aspect of the story, which explores a relationship between a young woman and her family's priest. And if you want to wash away the bad taste of that Australian obit, read this USA Today tribute by bestselling American romance author Sarah Maclean, which begins; 'I was 5 years old when The Thorn Birds defined romance for a generation of American girls…'

Now of course, it seems that the genre McCullough is most beloved for may be the very reason for the disrespect in memoriam.

Romance is maligned by literary critics and often stigmatised as the lightweight reading of bored housewives. It also happens to be a genre populated almost entirely with female authors, which goes some ways to explaining why it's not taken more seriously – even when it remains amongst the most successful in publishing (according to the Romance Writers of Australia; a Mills & Boon book is sold in the UK every 3 seconds). Female authors who are categorized to genres like "women's fiction" and romance are not taken seriously or celebrated for their literary achievements.  

Stephanie Laurens is the #1 New York Times international bestselling Australian romance author of the Cynsters series. Laurens has enjoyed incredible success over her long career; 'I've been consistently globally published (so for 25 years), translated into umpteen languages, have received a RITA award (US) and a Ruby (Aust), am a #1 New York Times bestseller, and at last count 33 of my 60 titles have appeared on the upper ranks of the NYT fiction bestseller lists. All of my current 60 titles remain active in print and e-book globally, and that number increases every year.'

And yet, Laurens is rarely celebrated as one of Australia's biggest author exports, her name rarely listed amongst the likes of Matthew Reilly, Tom Keneally, or Australia's once lauded "biggest-selling author" Bryce Courtenay (whose 2012 obituary in The Australian celebrated him as a 'latter-day Dickens,' FYI). Laurens admits; 'I have achieved all that [success] with next to no recognition from the Australian media.'

Bestselling American romance author Courtney Milan agrees that the romance genre is rarely taken seriously; 'The notion that they're all the same is, I think, the biggest problem here – that they're just things whipped out, basically soft porn with no intelligent thought behind them for unthinking people. I think that people fail to recognize the diversity of romance because they're essentially stereotyping women and women's interests as narrow, uninteresting, and not diverse.'

It was also once the case that these books weren't even taken seriously by women – in 1856 George Eliot wrote a stinging essay against 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.' Sarah Wendell is the author of Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, co-author of the book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, and co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com, one of the most popular blogs examining romance fiction. Wendell argues that romance is grounded in feminist ideals, despite old "bodice-ripper" silly novel assumptions; 'Some argue for a myriad of reasons that the genre's focus on heteronormative patriarchal power structures undermine the idea that the genre has any feminist foundations, and others point at the fact that the genre is written, produced and read by women. Personally, I think the genre is inherently feminist for that reason - that women are writing women's stories for the enjoyment of other women (mostly) - and also because within those power structures, the genre itself celebrates autonomous and informed sexual exploration, both on the part of the characters and of the reader. That's powerful and feminist action, in my opinion.'

How sad though, that Eliot's assessment of 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' written 159-years ago feels like a summary of current literary events – case in point, Colleen McCullough.

The conversations around The Australian obituary momentarily detracted from celebration of McCullough's considerable achievements (and why on earth is it still up on their website?). But thankfully, better tributes have since been written – check out The New York Times and Guardian – and again, the most touching from Sarah MacLean: 'Let's just say that whenever romance novelists gather, The Thorn Birds inevitably comes up as one of those books — the ones that inspire a career.'

Sarah Wendell asked a similar question of her followers – if The Thorn Birds was a gateway romance book for them – and the response was overwhelming; 'For many, many readers, it was the book that introduced them to the genre. For some, it was a book given to them by their mothers or aunts, and for others, it was the book their moms hid from them so they wouldn't read it (which of course they did anyway)! When I asked on Twitter, many women told me that they remember clearly seeing their moms reading the book, and that the miniseries was an event.'

Wendell goes on to explain Colleen McCullough's true legacy, and what the romance genre and its readers are most grateful for; 'The Thorn Birds is a great example of what I call our literary inheritance - something that's very common among romance readers. Many of us inherit our love of reading romance from an older female relative or friend, and this book is one that was definitely passed down from reader to reader across generations.'

Danielle Binks is an aspiring writer, and book reviewer on her personal blog Alpha Reader. She will be chairing the 'Young Love' panel at the upcoming Australian Romance Readers Convention in March. You can Tweet her: @danielle_binks