Update: Catriona Menzies-PikeWeek in Review

Reflections on the Stella Count

 Museum Quality by George Raftopoulos
George Raftopoulos, Museum Quality, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 201 x 183cm. Image courtesy of the Artist and Artereal Gallery.


‘Still much room for improvement.’ That’s the Stella Count verdict on the Sydney Review of Books for 2014. Yesterday, the Stellas published an addendum to their 2014 results, posting the gender breakdown of reviewers and books reviewed for the Sydney Review of Books and The Saturday Paper. In 2014, 59% of the contributors to the Sydney Review of Books were men and 64% of the essays published on the site dealt with books by male authors. I am optimistic that the 2015 Stella Count will reveal a shift in the gender balance at the Sydney Review of Books.

In making visible the gender imbalance at the Sydney Review of Books – and indeed across Australian literary publications – the Stella Count continues a proud tradition of feminist cultural activism, a tradition that includes the Spinifex Press, Virago, the Feminist Press, the Women’s Press, and Women’s Redress Press, agitators such as the Guerilla Girls, and innumerable women writers, essayists, scholars, historians, editors and publishers who with courage, action and persistence have made it impossible to ignore women’s literary voices past and present. It’s important work and it brings to the surface both the crude and the complex dynamics of gender in critical culture.

In early 2014 the editors of the London Review of Books were moved to respond to their woeful 2013 VIDA Count (the US predecessor to the Stellas). In 2013 the 82% of the London Review of Books’ contributors were men and 77% of the books reviewed within its pages were written by men. The editors claimed that this poor showing was ‘partly a matter of social arrangements that work against women and partly due to the effect a sexist world has on women.’ They added, ‘it’s not a pathetic excuse to say that the world is still sexist and that the feminist revolution is hopelessly incomplete.’ Actually, it is a pathetic excuse. I’ll be the last to minimise the effects of structural sexism – but finding books by women to review and finding women to write excellent literary essays do not number among the most difficult problems bequeathed to us by patriarchy.

As I see it, the shift to a more inclusive editorial approach to gender is straightforward. There are many significant books by women published in Australia each year and a large pool of critics – male and female – who are qualified and willing to write on them. From time to time I do encounter obstacles in commissioning women to write long essays; in my experience, women cite time pressures, care obligations and anxieties about their qualifications to take on a given topic more frequently than men do. To overcome these obstacles requires flexibility and communication – but they’re certainly not insurmountable.

The Stella Count also draws to our notice the tendency for male reviewers to write on books by men and for female reviewers to write on books by women. As editor, I do of course have discretion as to which books I allocate to which essayists. If the pitches I receive are anything to go by, however, male reviewers are more interested in writing on books by men, and women in writing on books by women. I hear from plenty of writers who describe themselves as specialists in women’s literature – but few who declare themselves as having a particular affinity with men’s literature, even if they’ve just sent me a list of several books that interest them, all by men. I don’t have a spreadsheet to shore up my case but I’d observe that women essayists at the Sydney Review of Books are also far more likely to take up questions of gender in their work than their male counterparts. What’s an editor to do – beyond encouraging her male writers to write on books by women, and vice versa?

Another point that often arises in these discussions of gender and critical culture: why is gender a lens that is more frequently used to bring into focus books by women than by men? There are women writers who bridle against the categorisation of their work as women’s literature, or as targeted to women readers (not quite the same thing), arguing that this is a form of marginalisation, and even that it’s sexist. This view has something in common with the line that to privilege a certain group of writers and reviewers on the basis of identity works to undermine the claim of those writers to merit. There’s another set of writers and critics who’d insist that the historical oppression of women and the circumstances through which the category of ‘woman writer’ emerged in the first place make gender unavoidable in consideration of writing by women.

On it goes: I’ve heard male reviewers express concerns that if they give the thumbs down to a book written by a woman, they’ll be branded a sexist, no matter how considered their criticism. (Far worse, in my view, to ignore women writers altogether.) Reviews that take issue with the gender politics of particular books, carefully or bluntly, whether they are written by men or by women, do tend to provoke strong responses. And I see plenty of reviews of books by women that are bona fide sexist. Snide, sniffy dismissals of women writers (and readers) that purport to tell truths that no one else in a timid culture dare touch still qualify as a Stella tick. To conduct an exercise such as the Stella Count, it’s necessary to assume a kind of equivalence between all reviews of books by women and all reviews written by women – but clearly, they’re not all the same.

All these are issues that the Stella Count usefully brings clearly into view but its quantitative approach doesn’t really help us to understand them. For that, the critical essay is a far more effective instrument. That is why it is important to publish essays that address the complex entanglements between gender, the publishing industry, readers, and critical culture. Our shared conversation must, however, speak to a more ambitious end than the gendered breakdown of bylines.

Thinking about the Stella Count and the Sydney Review of Books has taken me back to life as an undergraduate in the mid-90s and to the feverish debates conducted in women’s rooms, lecture theatres and bars about gender essentialism. Who, those of us gathered there asked, gets to occupy the category of woman? Whose interests does the reification of womankind serve? Cui bono? These are questions that it’s worth asking of the Stella Count too. It was confronting back then to discover that the version of second-wave feminism that had got me through my teens in a country town really worked to benefit other white, middle-class women like me – and left many others out. There are numerous case studies from the history of feminist activism of well-intentioned efforts to make women more visible that have entrenched existing exclusions and privilege. The most urgent calls to action from feminist scholars and activists today concern the intersection of gender with race, class, colonialism, sexuality, disability and those working on trans issues. When we talk about the woman writer in 2015, how then do we situate the vital insights of intersectional and trans feminism at the centre of our discussions? This, to me, is the most pressing challenge posed by the Stella Count.

In a recent reflection on prize culture for Overland,  Maxine Beneba Clark pointed to the lack of conversations about intersectionality in the Australian literary world. She asked, ‘How can our major prize for the best book written by a woman in Australia have so far only been won by white, tertiary-educated women with academic backgrounds, whose (albeit very excellent) work is largely concerned – in character and ambit – with white Australia?’ If the Sydney Review of Books were to achieve gender balance only by promoting this same group of ‘white, tertiary-educated women with academic backgrounds’, what kind of progress would we have achieved?

Were cultural diversity the metric to be used to assess the Sydney Review of Books, we would fall short, and so, I would wager, would every other publication subject to the Stella Count. Australian critical culture is dominated by white voice and interests – and women from diverse backgrounds are doubly under-represented. I predict we’d diagnose another version of homogeneity in the Australian literary world too if we were somehow to measure the class background, sexuality, postcodes, gender diversity or age of writers. How many working class writers get a run? Where’s the discussion of queer authors and themes in mainstream media outlets? What percentage of reviewers and authors in Australian publications call the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne home? There’s room for improvement here too, across all the publications surveyed for the Stella Count. I’d add that I can discern a far more visible commitment to diversity in the thriving cohort of lit mags than I can in mainstream publications; similarly, it’s independent publishers, not the majors, who do the work of bringing authors from diverse backgrounds into print.

I understand the Stella team is considering the broader collection of statistics around diversity and their events program shows an admirable commitment to women writers from diverse backgrounds. This year VIDA launched the VIDA Women of Color Count, a metric that examined the visibility of women writers and reviewers of colour.  We don’t collect statistics about the cultural background of our contributors at the SRB – maybe we should – but the changes required are cultural and institutional and thus not so easily tabulated. What I hope the Stella Count prompts is a sophisticated ongoing conversation about gender and critical culture, one that does not shy away from diversity issues – and ultimately, a much more representative schedule of reviewers and books.

A final note from the editorial desk: some of the essays that appear on the Sydney Review of Books are commissioned by me, others are pitched directly to me. Although we receive far more pitches and expressions of interest than we are able to publish, I’m always on the lookout for new writers. Our schedule for 2015 is more or less fixed and I’m holding off on new commissions until mid-November; after then I’ll be very happy to consider pitches for 2016. Send your pitches to editor [at] sydneyreviewofbooks [dot] com.

Thank you to everyone who has completed the Sydney Review of Books reader survey. If you haven’t had a chance to complete it yet, please do so. Your responses will help us understand who reads the SRB – and how our readers use the website. We want to hear about what you’d like to see more of on the SRB and where we can improve.

The survey will be open until 6 November.


‘The word middlebrow galvanises the rhetorical opposition between commerce and art; it’s a provocative, loaded word that usually gets a response.’ Our first essay this week, ‘Could Not Put It Down’ is by Beth Driscoll, who considers three new novels by Stephanie Bishop, Antonia Hayes, and Susan Johnson that have been promoted by their publishers to a broad audience of female readers. How, Driscoll asks, might such promotion shape the critical response to a particular work? She writes:

As these three novels show, contemporary readers, critics, authors and publishers are constantly negotiating cultural distinctions, moving in and out of middlebrow and literary modes of appreciation, valuing books for their manifold pleasures. Each of these novels has much to offer readers.

Today we continue our series of interviews with Australian authors. Ellen van Neerven spoke to the Sydney Review of Books about her dual career as a writer and an editor:

We often talk as a community about how we need to have more Indigenous readers and more awareness within the communities of our own work. Maybe these works are not being promoted as much to potential audiences. I hope that things are changing. The more readers we have the more writers we have – and then hopefully there are spaces that pop up for more stories to be told. Which is I think really happening at the moment. Initially the Aboriginal stories that were told or got published, at least, were life stories, stories of struggle, but now it’s opened up to fiction and to many genres, whether it’s crime or romance.

This week we also publish an essay by novelist Anthony Macris, adapted from a talk he gave at the recent China Australia Literary Forum. ‘ I knew I wanted to be a writer who wrote about the world’, he recalls in ‘The Novel, Sense-Making and Mao’.

The world of work I was to enter in the early 1980s saw an Australia at a tipping point, steeped in a kind of clanking, mechanical/electrical Fordist modernity, but on the cusp of radical change. It was recognised that, globally, this (late) Fordist model would no longer be able to provide the levels of prosperity it had so far delivered, and Australia set about restructuring itself to enter the postmodern age of globalisation, digitisation, and flexibilised labour. Thus equipped, we set sail on the high seas of ‘open’ markets. So, this was the world I was entering, and it was the world I wanted to engage with as a writer. But how could I do this in the form of the novel?

In From the Archive this week we return to Ivor Indyk’s discussion of the Stella Prize. While the Stella Count does survey reviews of books by women poets, poetry is excluded from the Stella Prize. He writes:

The Stella Prize makes much of the fact that women writers are under-represented, in the literary pages of the newspapers and in the literary world generally. Well, if you really wanted to tackle the issue of under-representation, wouldn’t you start with poetry, and with women poets in particular, who are such a strong presence in a world that is usually ignored or treated with condescension, and not just by the newspapers?