Features Australia

You can’t judge a book by its author’s genitalia

Feminism has lost the plot with the Stella Prize schools literary program

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine that Kevin Andrews and Gerard Henderson, aggrieved at the lack of representation of Catholic authors on the high school English curriculum, set up a program whereby they visit schools to promote Catholic authors. ‘Why, when 25 per cent of Australians identify as Catholics,’ they say, ‘do we see few books by Catholic authors such as Chesterton, Waugh, and Greene on the reading list?’

The howls of protest, quite rightly, would be heard across the land. This isn’t just about religion: allowing groups pushing agendas into our schools, no matter the amount of altruism in which they are wrapped, lies somewhere between dangerous and scandalous. Yet the organisers of the Stella Prize, an annual literary award for Australian female writers, get a free pass to visit schools promoting the works of women to school children, because the organisers feel there aren’t enough books by female authors on the curriculum.

When those in possession of a cure diagnose a problem, it ought to arouse suspicion. The arts community has long possessed a spirit of martyrdom that places The Art ahead of supposedly vulgar considerations such as material wellbeing. Yet every writer knows that having your book on a school or university reading list is the route to financial success. The arts are not above financial gain nor free of nepotism, and it cannot be passed without noting that the people promoting the program and visiting the schools are Australian female authors who have a direct commercial interest in the program.

As someone still scarred by the dullness of Wuthering Heights, read in a misguided teenage attempt at female solidarity, the thought of the Brontes padding out the syllabus in the name of equity is horrifying. The historical domination of men means that there are more male authors; if we value excellence, the curriculum will rightly be skewed against the fairer sex. The more pertinent question to ask is whether there should be more modern literature featured on the curriculum. It is here that we see a fine exposition of the gains in equality and opportunity: think of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors of the last decade, and Zadie Smith, Anna Funder, Hilary Mantel, J.K. Rowling, and Eleanor Catton immediately spring to mind. Indeed, the last two winners of the Miles Franklin award for the best Australian literature – a unisex award – were women (amusingly, the 2013 Miles Franklin winner Michelle de Kretser was shortlisted for the first Stella Prize but did not win it.)

The Stella concept raises further questions. Do we give additional weight to the discoveries of Marie Curie in the chemistry syllabus in order to inspire young women to study science? If most of the computers in the library are IBMs, do we let Apple through the gate to promote their products in the name of fairness? Hemingway was a bit of a prick: do we exclude his novels from the curriculum?

It also introduces the risk that by viewing works through the gender of their authors, we may reduce literature to its context. ‘Words, words. They’re all we have to go on,’ Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern told us, and it’s a thought worth rumination. Ethical militancy is rarely without irony, and here in the world of words, Stella is asking that numbers – proportionality of authorship – take precedence. When we begin looking at books in this way, the path is obvious: others will seek to mandate that school books are chosen to cover an array of authors from varying races, classes, religions and sexual orientations, instead of selecting works on merit and relevance.

The mystical and manipulative Lady Macbeth, one of literature’s great female characters, can be viewed as a representation of attitudes toward women in Shakespeare’s time. She can be viewed as representative of the attitudes of Shakespeare himself. Yet she is also a deep and fascinating exposition of the thirst for power, a plot device, and a showcase for lyrical Shakespearean prose. While we cannot say that context isn’t important – imagine reading Dickens absent the backdrop of the industrial revolution, or Woolf without knowledge of her mental illness – we cannot give it primacy. Just as Julia Gillard noted of sexism during her prime ministership, ‘It doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain nothing. It does explain some things’, in secondary education, a study of authorship is an addendum, not a starting point. When you start trying to even the score of history, you place literature in an uncomfortable political self-consciousness; you reduce complex works to the sum of their parts.

Judging an author on certain characteristics is the old mindset from which we have escaped. The women’s movement that once believed that women should not be defined by their gender is now defining books by the gender of their authors. It points to the flaw of modern feminism, which once sought freedom and now seeks regulation. It opens up a new front in the culture wars, importing identity politics into the English curriculum. A simple proposition will test the political depth of this: will the organisers of the program advocate the works of the extraordinarily right-wing libertarian author Ayn Rand?

We know that girls consistently outperform boys in literacy tests, casting doubt over the nebulous power of role models. This unprecedented era of brilliant female writers in western literature is a triumph of education and opportunity afforded without discrimination. The fact that this campaign is led by a group of authors with a direct interest in it gives one the feeling that the ‘every child gets a prize’ mentality has matured into adulthood. It is as though everyone now has the right to be heard. We’re all critics, but with the internet democratising publishing, everyone can be a producer too. The earnest optimism of this age of dream-following led essayist Christopher Hitchens to the wry observation that it is said that everyone has a novel in them, but in most places that is where it should stay.

Like the classic device of the play within the play, the idea of feminising the curriculum is supposed to act as an example of good moral hygiene for our children. Not only is a self-appointed group policing equity a worrying precedent, but it seems we won’t be able to have a reasoned debate on how to balance literary heritage with the cultural relevance of modern works. Attempting to cure historical wrongs by a suppository of tokenism is the kind of idea best left to fiction.

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