Qualitative Methods? Reading Recent Australian Women's Fiction

Article excerpt

His words were oddly craven: he said that women were represented qualitatively, not quantitatively in his journal, but they had brought out a book of poetry by a woman. I didn't think that having to speak unusually distinctively in order to get a word or two in the dominant discourse would be news for many women, though maybe being cited as one of its bright stars might be slightly novel.

Our conversation took place at the May 1987 Conference on Literary Journals at the Humanities Research Centre in Canberra. The Conference, in its formal agenda, managed to address only evasively the politics of some prevailing controversies. But these proved ultimately irrepressible, with the challenges posed by some speakers being extended by questions from the floor and in informal discussion.

It may be disappointing that a fairly recently-founded journal proceeds from aesthetic assumptions that avowedly discount current debates about the construction of literary value.(1) This isn't a new observation about Scripsi, (although the question might be asked of how far that journal's success in dominant terms is related to its energetic championing of particular conventions). But basically, I've mentioned an editor's musings on some of his principles of literary selection in order to refer to a related current discussion. This concerns the publication and reviewing of books by women, with rumours circulating that in Australia women are having a comparatively easy time of it, while men are suffering from sexist discrimination.

The debate is focussed on writers of fiction. Gerard Windsor, who raised what he sees as "favoured status treatment" for women, as part of a more general critique of current reviewing, at Writers' Week at the 1986 Adelaide Festival of Arts, has made clear elsewhere that he doesn't think that women poets enjoy the same advantages.(2) Windsor's charges could well be read as the public airing of views held by several male authors, as is suggested by the publication of Gerard Lee's supportive, if tongue-in-cheek comments: "A whole generation of male writers has been lost."[!](3) Comparisons with middle-class men nervous of equal opportunity and affirmative action in other workplaces are irresistible(4) -- but in relation to writing, these threatened opinions have arisen because of the quantity of Australian women writers whose work is seen by many of the literati (including men) as `qualitatively' excellent: Helen Garner, Elizabeth Jolley, Olga Masters, Beverley Farmer and a number of others. Interestingly for my discussion, these value judgements don't find comparable expression in the proportion of the more substantial Literary Arts Board grants awarded to women.(5)

Windsor's comments were quickly reported in the Bulletin, and later, and in more detail, in Island Magazine where they provided the basis for a literary forum.(6) A session at the 1987 Canberra Wordfest was also devoted to debating women's putatively favoured status, and there has been plenty of less formally-constituted discussion. There are, however, further questions to consider in association with this rearguard action, one being, perhaps, how Windsor's comments became constructed as representing a debate in the first place. That his critics were also widely published suggests that issues of female and male equality now have at least a place on the established literary agenda. Yet the ways in which the speedy circulation of Windsor's comments produced more debate on women writers, and less on his other, provocative views points among other things to an edginess in Australian institutions over what seems to be for some a new phenomenon.(7)

In Australia the influence of the women's liberation movement, and the success of overseas women's publishers like Virago, have helped produce audiences which today are receptive to some kinds of women's writing. Australian publishers have become more willing to take commercial risks on books by women, now there is evidence that sufficient numbers of people, including women, will buy them. …