Why women read more fiction than men (OK, not all men!)

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Kerryn Goldsworthy reflects on women and fiction…

Daria Shevtsova, pexels.com

When I was a little girl at primary school in the 1960s, my sisters and I and all the other kids from outlying farms would be picked up by the school bus at the farm gate every morning, and dropped off there every afternoon. In the afternoon it didn’t leave the school gate till half an hour after school was out, as it had to connect with the bigger bus coming from the bigger town with all the high school kids on it.

One hot day when I must have been eight or nine, both of my sisters were sick at home. I went to sit alone in the school library and read while I waited for the bus. Not much later I was so deep into the Elizabeth Goudge children’s classic The Little White Horse that by the time I looked up, blinking, the bus was long departed, and the headmaster had gone home.

By this time there was adult panic elsewhere. Eventually the headmaster came to find me, and my long-suffering mother had to drive the five kilometres there and back over an unsealed road to come and get me. I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. I would have been happy to stay in the library all night with the heroine Maria Merryweather and Zachariah the cat.

One of the panel discussions at this year’s Feminist Writers Festival is headed “Why Women Read Fiction and Men Don’t”. The title is a provocation, for of course some men read fiction. I can hear the indignant cries of ‘Not all men!’ and they would be more justified than usual. But ten minutes’ online research of the statistics will show you that women read far more fiction far more often than men, that they read different kinds of fiction, and for different reasons.

I think of that hot afternoon in the 1960s every year around this time, when the portable stands down the middle of shopping malls are crammed with next year’s wall calendars and we are all reminded that we must gird our loins for the coming of the new year. And every year I look for the Reading Woman calendar, which is exactly what it says it is: twelve paintings of women reading. Medieval art is awash with these images. Vermeer, Utamaro, Manet, Matisse and countless other artists all produced at least one such painting, all conveying the solitary remoteness and intensity of their subject. The reading matter has the woman’s whole attention. She is unaware of any observer, transported to another world. If you said Boo, she would jump.

In a painting by the 19th century American artist Winslow Homer, a young woman is lying on her side on the grass in front of a high, dark hedge. She is dressed in the smothering clothes of the time, a dress with long sleeves and a high neck, buttoned through from chin to ankle, her long hair swept up to the crown of her head. The hair, untidy and straying from its pins, is the same colour as her dress, a flaming apricot. Her whole figure seems to be emitting a golden glow against the dark foliage. Her pose is relaxed to the point of abandonment, lying on the grass with her head cradled on some sort of bundled-up coat or mantle, but her hands are tightly clutching the book she holds, her face absorbed, her eyes fixed on the pages, intent.

What is it that has this young woman so in thrall? The painting is called The New Novel. She is reading fiction, and she is, as Helen Garner once said, away on the high seas of narrative.

Studies of gender difference in readers’ habits have thrown up some surprising results. One survey reports a startling difference in completion rate: men make a quick decision about a novel and will give up on reading it sooner than women. Another survey asked readers to nominate the novels they felt to be most significant: men mostly nominated “books of alienation and indifference”, like Albert Camus’ The Outsider and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, while most women chose “books of passion and connection”: novels by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. Women liked books about domestic realities and families, while men preferred books about social dislocation and solitude.

Researcher Professor Lisa Jardine says this survey also shows that women were far more likely than men to regard well-loved novels as inspiration, companion and guide, something to support and help them through “difficult times and emotional turbulence”. And at this point as I read the study, I remembered the moment last autumn when I chose my dog-eared and yellowing Penguin Classic Jane Eyre to come with me and keep me company as I sat by my sleeping father’s bedside on what I knew would be the last day of his life.

So perhaps women read fiction because novels can become, over time, like the dear human friends on whom we rely for support and advice. Perhaps women read fiction because we value stories of emotional connection and family ties. Perhaps women read fiction because, as the legendary publisher Hilary McPhee once put it, novels give us ideas about how to live our lives. Or perhaps women are just more open: open to advice, to imagination, to connection, to the possibility of change.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section. Reproduced with permission.

Erin Gough: Legacy Books

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I discovered feminist literature as a young adult by accident. What I was actually looking for was descriptions of girls kissing girls. Detailed descriptions. Preferably with instructions in the footnotes.

The first lesbian kiss I ever read in a book was in first year uni. It was in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, when Sally kisses Clarissa: “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life,” Woolf writes. “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down!”

It’s how I felt as I read it. To see such a thing in a work that was considered Legitimate Literature, was mind blowing for me. I read to the end to see if Sally kissed Clarissa again. She didn’t, which was disappointing, obviously. But it was okay. Because what I found was Virginia Woolf – someone who expressed her thoughts in a way I recognised, who offered critiques of the roles women were obliged to play, who enunciated my secret desires – for rebellion, for creative expression, and for sex.

A few years later I read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, about two young women trapped in a secluded house in Victorian Britain with a controlling and sadistic uncle figure, who has an unhealthy obsession with literary porn. Told from the alternating perspectives of the two young women, Waters reclaims the Victorian literary canon from men. Not only that, she reclaims female eroticism from the male gaze. Because, you see, the two young women fall in love, and rather than objectifying them in the way that so much ‘romp’ literature does, Waters privileges their thoughts and desires, presenting an alternative to the ‘girl-on-girl action’ so often produced for male consumption.

This was a story written for me to read.

And at last, some instructional detail.

And then came Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, the Australian detective verse novel, that again subverts and reclaims – this time, noir fiction. Told from the perspective of lesbian PI Jill Fitzpatrick, it uses the lenses of gender, sexuality and poetry to re-present the tropes of crime fiction: “I’m not tough, droll or stoical” Fitzpatrick says of herself. “I droop after wine, sex or intense conversation/ The streets coil around me when they empty/ I’m female/ I get scared.”

Reading these books made me recognise the feminism in books I’d read before I knew the meaning of the term.

As a teenager, I was among the first generation of readers to discover Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi. Smart and strong, Josephine Alibrandi faces a world of prejudice – because her mother committed the sin of having a child outside of marriage; because she is an Italian-Australian from a working class background in a white middle class world; and because she’s a young woman, which means she faces sexual harassment as well. Alibrandi is a complex, intersectional work. It is humanist, it’s hilarious, it is feminist. Importantly for me, it was set in Sydney, in a world I recognised intimately. I might not have been from an Italian family, or in love with a boy like Jacob Coote, but I knew these people, I had gone to that school, I had been to Stanmore Maccas. What I learned from Marchetta was feminism in my local context; and that there might even be a way for me as a writer to explore through fiction the prejudices I faced myself.

In high school, partly because I hadn’t yet come to terms with my sexuality, I don’t remember accessing any stories with queer characters. That’s not to say they weren’t around, but there were only a handful, and unsurprisingly, they weren’t on the syllabus at my religious girls’ school. This was the main driver for me to write the two novels I’ve written – so that there are more than a handful of stories out there that young Australians can access at that crucial age when we are trying to figure out our place in the world. Stories they can see themselves in, to feel that sense of validation that comes with recognising yourself on the page. Both my books have lesbian protagonists. My latest book, Amelia Westlake is explicitly feminist and activist – it’s been described as a queer feminist heist rom com, which I love. I started writing it when the news was full of Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse stories, which got me thinking in particular about power structures within schools and how they operate to the detriment of students. I had just finished writing it as the #metoo hashtag exploded, and the book’s storyline resonates with those themes too. What I wanted it to be was a celebration – of queerness and femaleness – but also a story of solidarity; one that functions as a call to arms. Because who will fix this fucked up system if not us?

Australia needs more feminist stories – a breadth of stories that actually represent the range of experience in our community. Fortunately (although still too slowly) we are hearing stories from a wider range of voices. There are two young Australian writers who have blown me away in recent years. Ellen van Neerven, whose writing speaks to her female Indigenous experience, to deep-seated racism, to colonisation, and to queerness. And Nevo Zisin, whose memoir Finding Nevo, unpacks gender and the politics of gender with incredible wisdom, and in crystal clear prose. I feel like we have so many incredible feminist writers to be grateful for, and so many more to look forward to.

Erin Gough was part of the Legacy Books line up at FWF18 Sydney.

Creating Space for Feminism in Romance

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By Stacey Farley

Image: pexels.com

At parties when asked what I do, I smile and say ‘write romance novels’. I don’t inwardly cringe like I used to. I’m not proud to admit that I used to worry about the judgment strangers made about my career choice, but this writer wasn’t born yesterday. Romance is perceived as being the bottom rung of genre fiction ladder; even non-readers have picked up on this literary bias. Romance is often seen as having the least merit of all genre fiction. My genre of choice is seen as being ‘trashy’ fiction – meant just for women. It took me writing in this genre to really question those assumptions as I interacted with readers and took time to really sit down and examine why so many felt this way.

Unpacking the bias, I know that the ‘trashy fiction’ perception exists because romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality. Often, stories with a strong romantic plot written by men are seen as serious literature by contrast. I’ve read ‘literary’ novels in the past and thought, ‘if I just slapped a male name and a different cover on my books, they’d have the same level of literary merit all the reviewers on this dust jacket seem to think this one does.’

Romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality.

The recent ‘cocky-gate’ scandal, in which a romance author trademarked the term ‘cocky’ so other authors couldn’t use the word in their titles, is a good example of how romantic fiction, its readers and its authors are handled in the press, in a way that male writers and their work would never be portrayed. When I read back over the snide headlines, I can easily identify how little regard journalists had when it came to reporting on something which could have been a serious game changer for romance authors. The tone was clear: these silly women – never professional writers and authors – were fighting among themselves about the use of a word. As if their professional reputations, not to mention their very livelihoods, were little more than a joke. I have never seen male writers, their work and their professional lives spoken about in such terms.  

Sadder still for many women is the misogynistic beliefs that impact readers of the romance genre. Often readers are mocked, as female sexuality and female desire are seen as unimportant or even embarrassing. Perhaps some are threatened by the thought that these hunky book boyfriends will show up women’s flesh and blood partners. When asked if she thought romantic fiction gives women unrealistic expectations, bestselling author Nora Roberts told The Observer, ‘Because women aren’t supposed to have expectations, right? We’re pretty smart. I think we know the difference between reality and fiction. I don’t think that people read Agatha Christie, and then think: I know, I’ll go and murder someone.’ It’s important to note too that not all romantic fiction centers around heteronormative couples. There is plenty of fantastic LGBTQI romance out there too, as the 2017 Rainbow Awards demonstrated.  

We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects.

That some of the world’s bestselling romance authors receive so little mainstream media attention despite their success is telling. Over the last 30 years, an average of 27 Nora Roberts books were sold every minute. As of 2009, Roberts had 400 million books in print. This compared to Dan Brown’s 200 million books in print as of 2012. Yet Brown is a household name despite the fact he’s had markedly less success than his female colleague, and has been in the game less time.

This is a feminist issue as it deals with female autonomy on both sides. Romance authors are overwhelmingly female and are often using the income to support themselves and their families, and romance readers are overwhelmingly female. Women are being entertained in a way that obviously bruises some fragile egos.

How can feminist book lovers do something about this? We start with a conversation. Through our conversations we decide what can be done to support female authors and their work. We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects: male writers penning characters through their own lens. We need to see more awards won by the deserving work by female authors in addition to more awards like the Rainbow Awards for LGBTQI literature. We need to see more books penned by female authors on the school and university syllabus, more reviews of the work by female authors and mentions of them in the media. When writers and readers push for change, we’ll see writers of Roberts’ standing receiving the respect they deserve.

A Small Book About a Big Topic: Germaine Greer’s On Rape

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By Zora Simic

Better titles for Germaine Greer’s new provocation, the essay-length small book On Rape, would have been On Bad Sex or On Heterosex. For these are what she’s most interested in addressing and has been since at least the publication of her first book, the spectacularly influential The Female Eunuch (1970). Back then, Greer challenged the myth of the vaginal orgasm – and its reproductive imperative – by celebrating hers on the basis of pure sexual pleasure. At the same time, she also anticipated later feminist writing by cautioning against obsessing too much about orgasm one way or another – if given too much power to define ‘good sex’, it could get in the way of proper intimacy. At the height of the sexual revolution, Greer – the ‘saucy feminist that even men like’, as Life magazine put it 1971 – opined ‘sex has for many of us become a sorry business’. She wanted better, for women and for men, and she still does. She’s just not particularly optimistic about it. To start at the end of her new book, with no spoiler alert necessary if you’re at all familiar with the Greer canon, Greer gloomily suggests ‘Heterosex may well be doomed’.

Silence and Violence Against Women of Colour: Remembering Eunji Ban and Renea Lau

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By Grace Yee

A vigil for Eurydice Dixon, left; memorial flowers for Renea Lau, right. Source: AAP

There are two stories that have been haunting me a great deal lately. The first concerns Eunji Ban, who was murdered in Brisbane on 24 November 2013. The 22-year-old student was walking to her cleaning job at a hotel in the CBD when she was beaten unconscious, dragged face down up a flight of concrete steps to Wickham Park, dumped beneath a tree and left to drown in her own blood. The killer, who broke virtually every bone in her face, admitted to ‘bashing the shit out of her’. The second story concerns Renea Lau, who was murdered seven months later, on 28 June 2014, in Melbourne. The 32-year-old pastry chef was walking to Flinders Street Station on her way to work at a South Yarra patisserie, when she was dragged across St Kilda Road into the King’s Domain, beaten unconscious and raped twice over the course of more than an hour. The crown prosecutor described this murder as belonging to a ‘worst case’ category of offending, due to the brutality, duration and randomness of the attack.  What I find unsettling about these stories, apart from their extreme violence, is the muted public response to them.

Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

There is a stark contrast to the public responses to Jill Meagher (September 2012) and Eurydice Dixon (June 2018), who died in very similar circumstances. The absence of public mourning for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau is remarkable, for the lives – and deaths – of all of these women share significant common ground. All four were young and middle-class. All were well-loved members of their respective communities. All had been going about their normal everyday lives just before they died – walking to or from work and work-related activities – in the early hours of the morning. Each came face to face with their killers – men unknown to them – in a public place in a capital city. Three of them were sexually assaulted, all of them brutally beaten to death.

Yet the level of interest for Jill Meagher and Eurydice Dixon has been, and continues to be, far greater than for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau. This is evident not only in the sheer number of media stories which, for the former, number in the thousands, but in public outpourings of grief. Jill Meagher’s death drew more than 30,000 in a march down Brunswick’s Sydney Road, and on the first anniversary of her death, a ‘peace’ march was held in her name. Six years on, almost everyone remembers Jill Meagher. And if the tens of thousands who attended nationwide vigils following Eurydice Dixon’s death are any indication, she too will be remembered years from now.

But how many Australians will remember Eunji Ban and Renea Lau? How many are familiar with their names now? In a recent search on Google News, I could find only 675 stories about Eunji Ban, and a mere 40 about Renea Lau. In Brisbane, the Korean Society of Queensland invited residents to attend a memorial service for Eunji Ban, and this was reported to have been attended by ‘hundreds’. There was no known public memorial service for Renea Lau in Melbourne; a few bunches of flowers were left by friends and strangers beneath the tree where her body was found. There is now a memorial plaque for Renea Lau in the King’s Domain, and one in Wickham Park in Brisbane for Eunji Ban, to mark the places they were slain.  But their names are otherwise insignificant in the broader Australian community. Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

While I do feel a sense of ‘cultural affinity’ with Eunji Ban and Renea Lau, this is not based on any ethnic or national alliance – our respective backgrounds are very different. Rather, what is shared is a bestowed identity: ‘Asian woman’, which in mainstream Australia entails a range of subordinating experiences.

These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to.

In Renea Lau’s case, I cannot help but wonder whether her status as a Chinese national at least partly explains the muted response to her death. In recent years, sinophobic sentiment appears to have risen in correlation with China’s increasing involvement in Australia. This has manifested in media stories that characterise the Chinese presence as a perilous invasion: one that manipulates unwitting politicians, prices ‘ordinary’ Australians out of the property market, and deprives Aussie children of baby formula. These stories have proliferated alongside enduring stereotypes of Asian women, which characterise us as dragon-lady dangerous or lotus-blossom meek – and always, sexually available. These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to, and which render us doubly marginalised: perceived by the mainstream as ‘less than’ by virtue of our ‘oriental’ origins, and ‘less than’ by virtue of our femininity.

Such stories have certainly had an impact on my own life in the 27 years I have lived in Australia. I suspect that they lie behind the eggs and open cans of soda thrown at us from passing vehicles; the men in utes who have tried to run us down; the random street assault that resulted in head injuries and hospitalisation; the lack of police concern. And then there are the everyday indignities that all people of colour are familiar with: being attended to last, or not at all, in service situations; racist slurs on the street; racist jokes at work; strategically loud xenophobic conversations on public transport, in cafes, and in supermarket queues. In almost all of these situations, bystanders have remained silent and walked on by.

Over time, these kinds of aggressions have undermined my capacity to feel safe in the world. When I observe what happens – or rather, what doesn’t happen – when women ‘like me’ are murdered, my very existence feels precarious. I am not insinuating that the men who killed Eunji Ban and Renea Lau were motivated by racism. I am making an observation: the public indifference to the shockingly violent deaths of Eunji Ban and Renea Lau – to the plight of two women who ‘look like me’ – reflects the public indifference to my own lesser injuries. This apparent lack of empathy, or apathy, further undermines my capacity to feel safe – in light of such pervasive and ominous silence, murder seems not so improbably situated on a spectrum of possible injuries for women like me. Because who is looking out for us?

Affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

Up until now I have held on to the rather tenuous hope that my experiences have not been due to this ugly unspeakable thing called ‘racism’, but instead, a long series of unfortunate encounters, accidents, sheer bad luck, and/or virulent karmic consequences. Indeed, over the years, my capacity to recover has been contingent upon this hope. But it is difficult to deny that what we look like determines, to at least some extent, how we are treated. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have a greater affinity for those we perceive to be most like ourselves. Perhaps we are wired to feel more compassion for people who look like us. I can’t help but wonder whether the proclivity for such affinities goes some way toward explaining the similarly muted responses to the fates of other women of colour: women like Laa Chol, who died after being stabbed at a party in Melbourne in July 2018, and Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in Western Australia in 2014.  Because affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

In the aftermath of Eurydice Dixon’s death, I noticed an alarming absence of compassion in some online ‘feminist’ forums, which manifest a disturbing dismissiveness toward women of colour who expressed concerns about their unique vulnerabilities. Amid the usual accusations of ‘divisiveness’, some commentators seemed affronted that women of colour had the gall to do what I am doing here, which is to put up a hand and say, ‘What about me too?’ Some were angry that the vigils for Eurydice Dixon were renamed in recognition of all victims of gendered violence (and for Sydney woman Qi Yu, who had gone missing, presumed dead, in the same week). Some were of the view that if women of colour could just forget about their own issues – that is, racism, marginalisation, being silenced –  and focus on the real problem, which is violence against all women, then ‘progress’ might actually be possible. What these threads have in common is a strong belief that the concerns of women of colour are less important and/or irrelevant to feminist concerns about gendered violence, and that therefore we should not speak of them.

It has been pointed out that there are white feminist ‘allies’ who have spoken for women of colour, who have gone to the trouble of pointing out the moral deficiencies of mourning only for your own kind, and that for this, we should be grateful. But while shows of support are appreciated, speaking for us without listening to us renders what is said little more than a show. It is not credibly ‘intersectional’ to argue for the importance of mourning for ‘all women’ victims of violence, if one insists in the same breath that it is simply not possible to ‘march for every woman’. Not only is there an implicit hierarchy here of whose lives are more worthy of public grief, but the very act of speaking for us – rather than with us – makes it clear where we are positioned.

We can see that our lives are considered not worthy of public grief or outrage, and at the same time, we can see how being spoken for subordinates and subsumes the very concerns we hold about our ‘less than’ status. In this onerous silence, there linger questions I’m afraid to know the answers to: If my daughter were to die in circumstances similar to Eunji Ban or Renea Lau, would the public response be one of widespread indifference? And would I be told not to speak of it?


Grace Yee is a Melbourne writer and academic. Her work has recently appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Westerly, Women’s Museum of California and Hecate.

Activist or Professional? A Feminist Question

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By Bridget Harilaou

In the whirlwind sphere of the non-profit sector, where grants, competitive tender models and the government of the day dictate the capacities of community services, those seeking to support vulnerable people and engage in social change come to an important question: is paid professional work within the constraints of funding bodies and government agendas an effective and ethical strategy?

Work that serves marginalised communities is a political project, centred in the assertion of human rights and human dignity, whether people are homeless, survivors of domestic violence or in the criminal justice system. Yet what are the consequences of taking funding from state and federal governments, whose reach then extends to stipulating the scope, messaging and activities of community work? And what are the political implications of turning resistance into what Arundhati Roy calls ‘a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job with a few perks thrown in’?

On Elisabeth Wynhausen

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By Foong Ling Kong

When events in life take a turn for the absurd, I often summon Elisabeth Wynhausen to mind and wonder what she would say and do. For instance, when Australia changed Prime Ministers for the third time in the five years since her death, with the Liberal Party recently installing Scott Morrison, more than anyone I wished she were still around to give her take on it.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and the rise of girl power publishing

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By Nicola Heath

Image: pexels.com

Once upon a time, in a bright blue house near Mexico City, lived a small girl named Frida. She would grow up to be one of the most famous painters of the twentieth century…

In 2016, journalist Elena Favilli and playwright Francesca Cavallo, two Italians living in the United States, raised almost AU$1 million via Kickstarter to fund a new project they dreamed up in response to the endemic sexism they encountered in Silicon Valley.

The couple, who in 2012 founded a children’s media company called Timbuktu Labs, wanted to create a story book for children that offered an alternative to the traditional fairy tale narrative.

The result was Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of 100 tales of extraordinary women, from nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace and Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek to Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. It’s a book where primatologists, pirates and politicians reign supreme over princesses.