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Eleanor Catton takes on gendered language in book coverage


Eleanor Catton: woman, writer

Last week, Neko Case created a stir on Twitter when she responded to a tweet from Playboy.com that claimed she is “breaking the mould of what women in the music industry should be.” The phrase that roused Case’s ire was “women in the music industry,” which prompted a furious, all-caps response: “I’M NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC,’ I’M A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!” (The complete exchange, which includes Case using the Mad Men character name Peggy Olson as a compound verb, is archived at The Daily Dot.)

As with music, so too with books. The annual CWILA and VIDA review counts have shone the spotlight on gender disparities in what gets reviewed in major publications on either side of the 49th parallel, but there is a much more insidious kind of sexism at work in a literary culture that still ghettoizes “women’s fiction” or “women writers,” while their male counterparts avoid such adjectival scrutiny. This is particularly ironic given recent BookNet Canada statistics showing that 59 per cent of Canadian book buyers are women and that women comprise the large majority of fiction readers.

This kind of casual sexism was the subject of a panel, called Judging Women, held at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this past Friday. One of the people on the panel was Eleanor Catton, the 2013 winner of the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. Catton is quoted in the Guardian about the way her prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, is perceived in the public psyche. “Because you’re writing about 12 men, it’s a book about astrology,” Catton says. “If you wrote 12 women, it would be a book about women.”

Catton’s fellow panellist, Stella Prize–winning non-fiction author Clare Wright, agrees. Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, is also quoted in the Guardian: “People don’t say ‘Your book is about democracy.’ If it’s seen to be gendered then the topic itself is diminished and it’s not seen to be about the big issues.” The Guardian piece goes on to quote Wright, who is Australian, bemoaning the fact that books by men are routinely given priority shelf and table space in her home country’s bookstores, while books by women on similar topics are sidelined.

Here’s a modest proposal as a start down the road to addressing Catton and Wright’s concerns. In the spirit of Neko Case, Quillblog would like to suggest simply dispensing with the term “woman writer” when describing an author who happens to be in possession of a XX-chromosome. The designation “writer” is both 100 per cent accurate, and less likely to result in the authors’ works being belittled or dismissed quite so easily.