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the miles franklin taco-fest

In 2011 Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, was labelled a ‘sausage-fest’ after judges unveiled an all-male shortlist.  It was the second all-male shortlist in as many years and it sparked a nationwide debate about gender imbalance in the literary world. Critics pointed out that since the Miles Franklin began in 1957 only 14 women have won. Thea Astley won four times but twice she shared the award. Since 2001 only three women have won.

But this year there is barely a sausage in sight. The longlist, released earlier this week, features ten writers—eight women and two men. It is the opposite of a sausage-fest. It is a taco-fest! (You can thank Urban Dictionary for suggesting that term to me).

The longlist is as follows:

Floundering by Romy Ash (Text)
Lola Bensky by Lily Brett (Hamish Hamilton)
Street to Street by Brian Castro (Giramondo)
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (A&U)
The Beloved by Annah Faulkner (Picador)
The Daughers of Mars by Thomas Keneally (Vintage)
The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska (Vintage)
The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman (Vintage)
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
Red Dirt Talking by Jacqueline Wright (Fremantle Press)

While it is wonderful to see so many talented women/tacos on the longlist we shouldn’t lose sight of the overarching issue. The sausage-fest furor was only the tip of the iceberg. More recently, studies have revealed the extent of the gender imbalance and quantified the marginalization of women in the literary world.

Sophie Cunningham , chair of the Australia Council’s Literature Board and former editor of Meanjin, outlined some of the depressing statistics in a piece for Kill Your Darlings:

  • While the publishing industry is a predominately female domain (62 per cent) most senior positions are held by men.
  • According to The Bloom Report in 2007, 68 per cent of men who work in the industry earn more than $100,000 as opposed to 32 per cent of the women
  • In terms of other national literary awards the Queensland Premier’s Prize has been won by a woman four out of 12 times, The Age Book of the Year Award 14 out of 36 times, the NSW Premier’s Award 11 out of 31 times, and the Victorian Premier’s Award eight out of 26 times.
  • There also seems to be an imbalance in reviewing. At The Age, between 1 January and 22 May 2011, of 344 reviewed books, 204 were authored or edited by men and 140 by women (41 per cent). Two hundred and thirteen of those reviews were written by men and 131 by women (38 per cent). At The Australian 180 of 265 books reviewed were authored or edited by men and only 79 of those reviews were written by women (30 per cent). At Australian Literary Review, the stats are more damning. From 1 February to May 2011, 43 books were reviewed: 35 authored or edited by men and only 8 by women (18 per cent). Thirty-six of those reviewers were men and seven were women.

It was partly due to alarming statistics like these that the Stella Prize was formed. The women-only award ‘raises the profile of women’s writing through the Stella Prize longlists and shortlists, encourages a future generation of women writers, and brings readers to the work of Australian women.’ The inaugural Stella Prize shortlist, announced last week, includes two of the writers on the Miles Franklin longlist: de Kretser and Tiffany.

Miles Franklin longlister Romy Ash was pleased to see so many talented female writers recognized in the longlist. However, she believes that the central issue may take some years to resolve: ‘The under representation of women (as winners and longlisters) in literary prizes over the past half century is disconcerting.’

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