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16 April 2009

Sugar and Spice and All Things Not Award-Winning

Last week the Children's Book Council Book of the Year Shortlist was announced. There were sixteen books on the Older Readers Notable list, with six books on the actual Shortlist. Of the sixteen Notables, four books have female protagonists. On the Shortlist, there's just one.

Firstly, congratulations to all the authors on the lists. Please don't think for a moment that what follows is a criticism of your work. You're all awesome and totally deserve to be there.

But where are all the girls? Where is Simmone Howell's Everything Beautiful? Or Joanne Horniman's My Candlelight Novel? Or Michelle Cooper's A Brief History of Montmaray? Or Julia Lawrinson's The Push?

If you take a look back over the years at the books that have won and been shortlisted in the past, you'll notice that there aren't many girls at all (Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca are among the handful of girl-protagonist books awarded the gong in over 60 years).

And it's happening everywhere! Today the Miles Franklin shortlist was announced. How many women writers on the shortlist? NONE. Ironic, huh? For a literary award that was named in honour of a woman who had to pretend to be a man in order to get published. A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.

What's going on? Why, as a society, do we privilege stories about boys and men? Why are their stories more Literary? Is it because people figure that girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls? Is it because girl-stories are often focussed on an emotion-based arc, rather than an action-based one?

I'm currently in the very early stages of thinking about The Next Book. And I wanted to try writing a book for girls, but with a male protagonist. But now I'm not so sure. More girl books, I say! More spunky girls being awesome! Awards be damned!

(for more on this, check out Kirsty and Adele and Judith)


Steph said...

I'm sorry, but I can't help saying "You go girlfriend!"
I agree, I agree, I agree. I love books with male and female protagonists, if only there was more balance when it comes to awards.

Tom said...

It's an interesting phenomenon and one that I really only began to notice once it had been pointed out to me (10 years or so ago).

There's a possibility that I hadn't really noticed the discrepancy for so long because I'm a boy, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the same thing occurs everywhere (film, television, politics, work) and that having a female protagonist (PM, CEO) is so unusual that it warrants special comment, instantly reducing it to a niche category (however unfair that may be). And this catergorisation automatically makes people feel like it's some sort of 'girly' book/film/PM.

Because of this, I then tend to wonder if maybe I genuinely DO enjoy books with male protagonists more as they don't carry those connotations. But when I actually think about it, that's not the case at all.

When I was reading this post, I tried to conjur up the books that have stuck with me the most and just assumed that they would have male protagonists for the reasons outlined above. But the first ones that came to mind were: Merryl of the Stones (I don't have a great memory for books I read a long time ago, so this is a big one); Margot Lanagan's Tender Morsels; and, in fact Scatterheart (and that's not a clumsy attempt at flattery, it's for reals (though possibly tainted by the fact I'm reading your blog)).

I don't enjoy books with male protagonists more, in fact I think I would go so far as to say I enjoy them less. So why principal female characters continue to be underrepresented in literary awards is a mystery to me.

My only guess is that it has less to do with the 'type' of story (emotion v action) and more to do with the niche thing: the feeling that a female protagonised (?) book/film doesn't fit into the 'normal' male-dominated world.

Whatever the reason, it sucks.

I'll stop talking now.

lili said...

All most excellent points, Tom! (and thanks for the flattery!)

Penni said...

Susan Johnson wrote about this a while ago on the Sarsaparilla blog. I think her point was rather than emotional/active that the didactic at work had to do with the personal/political, private/public thing. Eg books by or about women are all about the personal, the intimate, the interior, the subjective and therefore are not world breaking. Books by or about blokes are about Important, earthchanging things. The political, the public, the exterior, the social, the sphere of objective truths.

Honestly, if a woman had written The Slap do you reckon it would have been shortlisted? It would be considered good quality Chick Lit, not award winning literature. And I'm not saying this to be mean, I adored it.

I know that people have had trouble with the whole der it's fiction even if the character has the same name as the author and it's a novel even if it is short, but where the freak is The Spare Room on the Miles Franklin list (I don't think it was even longlisted)? To me that's absolute proof that the problem is not with the books themselves but with the judges and the whole way we look at fiction. Because The Spare Room is pretty much a perfect book. It's highly subjective, so personal you can hear its voice quavering, and yet it's the best writing from one of our best writers. How can it not even be shortlisted?

As for the CBCA. Quiet humph. That is all.

Melina said...

Hey Lili. It’s hard for me to comment and not to comment because Finnikin is on the CBC list and books like Everything Beautiful, which I loved loved loved , isn’t and I wish it was. In no way have I felt that the blog dialogue has been an attack on any of the novels that made the shortlist and I feel that it’s been respectfully dealt with, by most.

But I think some of the points you’ve made raise big problem for us as writers, especially in wanting to write a book about girls, but from a boy’s point of view. Writing from a boy’s point of view doesn’t mean that we can’t still be writing about “spunky girls being awesome”. I agree that awards shouldn't determine the direction we take in our stories and we can say ‘awards be damned’, but in the end it still means that by not doing what we set out to do (writing a book about girls from a boy’s point of view) an award shortlist is still navigating our work.

We know as writers that characters hound you, stalk you, wake you up at 3 in the morning demanding that you write about them. Deep down, I want mine to be female because I do believe there is too much focus on boys’ education and stories for boys and boys at risk and because the absence of women, or strong female representation, in Australian television and film has reached a frightening high. But when those pesky characters who come hounding me aren’t girls, I don’t want to send them away. Ultimately, I know the focus of my novel is going to be about how these young men are going to be shaped by the women in their lives. I’d like to think that although Finnikin of the Rock has a male protagonist, the story belongs just as much to Evanjalin of the Monts and I hope that the reader can see it’s a story about the power of women and their role in the emotional, political and cultural development of their community. In my next novel a father and son share the title, The Piper’s Son, but for me, it’s a story about the women in Tom’s life working with him through a time of intense grief.
I know what I’m saying doesn’t solve the problem of why there aren’t more novels with primary female protagonists on our shortlists, or even about the absence of female writers on the Miles Franklin, but I worry about how all this will affect how we tell our stories.

JessicaFrancis said...

It is ironic that while male writers are being told to target female readers because "boys don't read" this bias towards male protagonists exists.

I am also astounded that so many of those whose work is honoured by these awards do no support the CBCA with membership.

Congratulations to all the authors and illustrators who made "the lists" this year.