Shelf life

Moving consistently ranks as one of the most stressful life events a person can endure. Last summer, I moved. It triggered a series of events that resulted in some of the most impassioned and public conversations I have ever had. I became a more vocal feminist. I also took the step from thinking about inequality to trying to do something about it.

In the days leading up to the move the air in the apartment felt gritty from the unsettled dust. I spent hours contemplating the dimensions of my furniture. I used my arms as measuring tape and hoped that everything that had arrived flat packed could make its way through the narrow doors and down the two flights of stairs.

I slowly started folding, then eventually cramming, clothes into bags. I left my bookcases until the night before the removalists were due to arrive. I delayed it as a room without books seemed too stark. These feelings were in equal parts silly and sentimental. I had many books to pack.

I got halfway through packing books into boxes that once housed cereal or computers before taking a rest. I stood back and examined the boxes. I tried to lift one — I could feel the base buckle and the sides strain. I hadn’t even managed to get it off the ground. I needed to lighten the load but I was running out of boxes.

Maybe I don’t need all these books, I thought.

I started combing through them, hoping to find books that I could gift onto friends or donate to the op-shop.

I had never really analysed my books. Or organised them for that matter. Yet, despite the higgledy-piggledy arrangement, I knew where everything was. There were my homesick books — books that I turned to when I first moved interstate and needed the companionship of familiar voices. Books that patiently waited, sometimes for years, before I read them and still retained that inky new book smell. Others were well thumbed; pages and covers creased by myself or by previous sets of hands who owned them. I had roughly the same amount of fiction and non-fiction. Books published over the last three hundred years.

As different as the books were, they were also a cohesive collection that reflected my biases, my habits and even my fluctuating income.

I did not like what I saw — literary prize winners, classics, bestsellers. I had gotten into a habit of reading books that were widely considered to be good literature. I certainly enjoyed them, yet my shelves reflected the pages of book review sections of newspapers and magazines.

I only realised this as a few days earlier I had been reading about the latest Stella Count results. For the last five years, The Stella Count have been surveying Australian publications to assess and quantify the gender biases in book reviewing. Despite women making up approximately two-thirds of the author population, the Stella Count has revealed that male authors are favoured by almost all publications in their book review coverage.

I looked at my books. I started counting. There were many more male than female authors. There were only a smattering of translated books and they were mostly from Western European countries.

These thoughts continued to develop as I packed books or set them aside to give to some bookish friends.

***

‘Hey did you see the Stella Count results?’ I asked my mates Kirby and Neve. The ice in our drinks had melted only minutes after the bartender had made them. We were surrounded by the books that I had brought in from my bookshelves. Knowing that they are both enthusiastic bookworms made selecting the books to give away easier; they were all going to good homes.

They nodded.

‘I’m thinking that I need to change my reading habits,’ I said.

We launched into a conversation. A conversation that went from the bar to inboxes to local libraries to bookstores around the city. A year on and we are still talking about it, only now we record these conversations for the book club podcast, Literary Canon Ball.

I’ve been a member of several book clubs in the past. Each one has had loose rules; everyone takes turns picking books. We’ve generally stuck with well-known reads. With Literary Canon Ball we are deliberately moving away from books that have received lots of media coverage. We diligently look at the books written by women of different backgrounds and life experiences. And we look at  different mediums too — we shift from essays, poetry, graphic novels to literary fiction. Some of these books take time to discover; they have small print runs or they may have been out of print for decades. We are criss-crossing the world looking for translations. We’ve read books that were written in Korean, Japanese and Spanish. We want to make sure that our reading rings with the reverb of lived experience. As author Carolyn See once said ‘Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version.’

The Stella Count is making a difference. It makes people more accountable. The graphic representation of the survey’s results from the last five years is heartwarming. The plotted line goes from a sluggish flatline to a sharp uptick in 2015. Things are changing. Women authors are starting to receive more coverage. As of the 2016 the overall representation is hovering at 48%. It is so close to parity. The 2016 Stella Count report noted that: ‘In a first, all twelve of the publications either increased or maintained the percentage of women authors they reviewed compared to the previous year.’

Since The Count has started, some publications have made enormous improvements — The Monthly went from 33% in 2012 to 54% in 2016. The Australian Financial Review have more than doubled their coverage going from 20% in 2012 to 45% in 2016. This is news to celebrate.

These statistics don’t reveal the whole picture of the Australian book reviewing culture, however. The analysis performed by The Stella Count is more nuanced than that. There is still significant gender segregation: ‘across all publications in 2016, books by men were more likely to be reviewed by men, and books by women more likely to be reviewed by women.’ More than that, there is also the question of the amount of space and scope. The count revealed that ‘men continued to dominate as both authors and reviewers’ of articles that were more than thousand words. Despite the large gaps, I feel confident that things will continue to shift and change. The book reviewing terrain, with all the fault lines between genders, is being clearly marked out by The Stella Count.

This past year I have been reading books with an attentiveness like never before. I have never been more conscious and deliberate in what I read. The gender imbalance of my bookshelves is starting to shift quickly towards parity. I have stepped outside of the canon and read stories that have moved me to tears or great joy. With each book the official version of the world is being eroded.

Photo by Radu Marcusu on Unsplash

Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

 

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One Comment

  • Sarah menary commented on March 9, 2018 Reply

    Good on you for shifting your book choices. Great article, have tweeted and Fb

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