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The Stella Count: judging books by who is on the cover

Posted October 2, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Last week saw the release of the Stella Count, the first official compilation of statistics around book reviewing in Australia, with the aim of showing how many of the reviewed books in major newspapers and literary magazines were written by men, and how many by women.

The Stella Count – created by the Stella Prize in conjunction with Books+Publishing – was itself based and modelled on a similar compilation by VIDA, an organisation that was founded on the need of addressing how female writers in the US were critically received, particularly across the publications that dominate book reviewing.

VIDA has now had three counts, all showing a fairly strong imbalance favouring male authors over female in those reviewed. The Stella Count similarly showed a clear picture that across the thirteen major reviewing publications, only two – Good Weekend and Books+Publishing - showed a majority percentage to female authors. The other eleven publications ranged from a slight preference to male authors (57% Daily Telegraph), to an overwhelming dominance (80% Australian Financial Review). This is despite the small field – reflective somewhat of Australia’s population against the US – and that the count does exclude other worthy reviewing publications, perhaps with the aim of acknowledging the dominant mainstream view, rather than a more specialised one.

Regardless, the picture is clear: in Australia, more male authors are reviewed than female authors.

So what does this mean? What do we do, now that we definitively know something that perhaps we suspected all along?

As has been written about elsewhere with the VIDA counts, the stats are limiting. While the Stella Count does show a clear picture of the reviewed authors breakdown, VIDA go further by examining the breakdowns of bylines and reviewers as well, to illustrate the representation of gender across a broader spectrum in book publications. In some cases, the percentage of female reviewers is even less than that of female authors, pointing to another issue that literary editors need to acknowledge.

Still, the statistics about reviewed books are only beneficial as an illustration of book publishing if they are simpatico. If the statistics from the Stella Count reflect the percentages of male authors published in Australia to female authors, then they can be used as such.

If more men are published than women in Australia, then the stats are merely representative of that. However, it is not particularly easy to find statistics of all published books in Australia in 2012, and then the breakdown of those statistics into author gender.

On the other hand, if more women are published than men, then the Stella Count is even more damning. What it would show then is a misrepresentation of a minority into a majority through book reviews, which then creates a different picture of authors, of books and of reading in the minds of Australian readers. Certainly this is information worth knowing.

But it doesn’t stop there. If we consider that perhaps the reviews are correct and more male authors are published than female authors, then do we lay this at the feet of publishers? Perhaps. But what if the percentage of male authors published against female authors is representative of submissions to publishers by prospective writers?

Furthermore, it doesn’t all have to be about gender. If anything is required from book reviews, and reviewing publications, it’s that we need a fair representation of the books that are available. It would additionally be prudent to acknowledge if particular genres are more likely to be reviewed than others, and if this too is reflective of publishing – and writing – practice. One could even then examine the gender of authors fluctuating across different genres (more male authors in, say, horror fiction vs. more female authors in romance fiction). But if, for example, more reviews are written on literary fiction than other more heavily published genres, then what does that say about what we think is worth reviewing?

A full picture is needed. The Stella Count is useful only if it is representative. At this stage, that is unclear, and it feels more like a very small tip of a very large iceberg. A comprehensive analysis of authors, publishing, reviewing and reading is necessary for a full understanding and appreciation of the industry. If there is a strong and entrenched gender bias in book reviewing, then we need to consider what this says about us as a country, and as a reading population.

Do more men write?

Do more men review?

Do we expect that writing is a male profession and therefore manufacture it in the reviews?

Do we only consider certain types of writing worthy of reviews?

Do we think men should write one thing and women another?

The Stella Count is a worthy start, that tells us a lot at first glance, but also shows just how little we really do know, or have easily accessible. It would be glorious to not have to examine the gender of authors, to not be in a world where we still think it a dominant feature of the writing and of the story that the book was written by a man or a woman. But perhaps too many of us as readers, writers and reviewers need to consider how much we really judge books by what – and who – is on the cover.

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Nuke subs for Australia?

Posted November 15, 2012 by John Birmingham

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Nah, prolly not. There’s always been a lobby in Australia, especially on the conservative side of politics to atom up the sub force. It usually travels in lockstep with enthusiasts for base load nuclear power stations. And fair enough. If you’re going to run a nuclear powered sub fleet you’re going to want some sort of nuclear expertise and infrastructure in country. Otherwise you run the risk of finding yourself strategically dacked at just the wrong moment.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that the RAN did lease nuclear powered (but not nuclear armed) boats from the US. If, as suggested, none of the on shore facilities needed to maintain that fleet were here – if, as suggested, we simply leased the hulls and left everything else to the US – where would that put us in a confrontation with a foreign power that effectively divided the loyalties of our foremost ally?

It’s happened before. US and Australian interests do not always align. While leasing a fleet of nukes would be a good way of ensuring a reliable off the shelf design with all of the shake out work already done, off-shoring the crucial maintenance facilities potentially cripples the usefulness of the weapons system.

To say nothing of the fact that diesel subs do have certain inherent advantages over nukes, all of which you lose, along with control of your supporting infrastructure. Cost is one. Nukes are hellish expensive, compared to trad diesel electric boats. Just cos your leasing rather than designing and building, you don’t get to skip the cost.

Operationally, diesel boats have been catching up with nukes in some areas. For instance they can remain submerged for up to a month now, where as previously they were forced surface much more frequently. When submerged, traveling on batteries, they are incredibly stealthy. Even more importantly, a diesel sub can go dark, powering down it’s engines and laying in wait for its prey on the ocean floor, an option not open to a nuclear powered craft.

In the littoral environments of Asia, where the RAN lives and works, the ability sneak about unseen in shallow waters is literally a killer advantage.

It doesn’t mean there are no arguments in favor of acquiring, or leasing nukes, but they’ve been examined and rejected for decades.

 

Later this week JB will be hosting a discussion of Stalin’s Hammer: Rome over at his blog. Stay tuned for more details. 

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John Birmingham’s Stalin’s Hammer: Rome is the continuation of the Axis of Time series, which started with a 21st century battlefleet being dragged through a wormhole into the past.

Clearly JB is an expert on defence strategy, including but not limited to nuclear submarines, and you should read everything he has to say on it.

Available now for $4.99

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How to be a leader on an Antarctic expedition

Posted August 13, 2012 by Adrian Caesar

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There is much written and spoken about the subject of ‘leadership’ these days. In researching and writing The White I became fascinated by the contrast in leadership styles between Scott and Mawson. How much of this was due to the psychological differences between the two men and how much due to different cultural traditions is a matter for debate.

Scott, of course, was a naval officer and his Antarctic expedition was organised on principles gleaned from the Senior Service. This meant that the expedition hut was divided by packing cases into ‘Wardroom’ and ‘Mess Deck’ so that officers and men could enjoy their separate social traditions. The scientists in the party, being middle-class, belonged to the ‘Wardroom’. Class distinctions endemic to English society were thus reinforced, formalised and institutionalised. Though sound easily penetrated the packing-case divide, both ‘Officers’ and ‘Men’ agreed to behave as if it did not; each group was to have the privilege of freedom of expression in language of their choice in their own enclaves.

Mawson’s expedition was a more civilian affair. The expedition hut was not divided and all the expeditioners shared the same duties. Though this undoubtedly reflects the more egalitarian ethos of the Australian expedition, it could also be argued that Mawson’s team was more homogenous than Scott’s. The majority of the men with Mawson were scientists and, as such, educated men; they were for the most part middle-class. Mawson, then, had no advantage of rank or class over the men he led. His authority derived from the imposition of his will. Perhaps as a consequence of this, his written orders to the men whom he led, can today sound both authoritarian and dictatorial –peppered with verbs like ‘must’ and ‘should’. It is also clear from the diaries of men with him that he could be impatient and irascible if he thought individuals were not pulling their weight or were making mistakes. Yet the men recognised him as the unquestioned leader. He was nicknamed ‘DI’ – Dux Ipse – the ‘leader himself’.

Mawson seems to have been encumbered by few subtle theories of human behaviour. In his diary he opines that there are two kinds of people: those who can do things and those who can’t. He had scant time or patience for the latter. By his willingness to lead from the front, he demonstrated his own aptitude for ‘doing’. When a wooden case was dropped between ship and shore while landing in Antarctica, it was Mawson who got his gear off and entered the icy waters to retrieve it. He set the pace while landing and erecting the hut by working 18 hour shifts. He was the first to take a turn as night watchman. In other words, he led by example rather than precept. In this, perhaps, he embodied something of the pragmatic and practical ethos of Edwardian Australian masculinity.

Scott, on the other hand, seems to have found the role of leader more difficult than Mawson. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Scott’s companions and author of the wonderful memoir, The Worst Journey in the World, has some acute and fascinating insights into Scott, which I drew upon for my characterisation in The White. While asserting that Scott was, ‘the most dominating character in our not uninteresting community’, Cherry-Garrard also remarks that Scott was, ‘femininely sensitive, to a degree which might be considered a fault’, and that to such a man leadership ‘may be almost a martyrdom’. It is Cherry-Garrard who also noted that Scott had ‘moods and depressions which might last for weeks’ and that he ‘cried more easily than any man I have ever known.’ In order to reinstate Scott as a hero, Cherry Garrard urges us to read Scott’s diary towards the end. It is these entries, he says, in which we will see what manner of man Scott was.

Some have suggested that in The White I have criticised Scott in order to build up Mawson. I don’t think that’s the case. I am more interested in what made Mawson a survivor and arguably a better leader than Scott. In the unforgiving environment of the Antarctic, Mawson’s practicality (some might say his brutal pragmatism) allied to an iron will were his greatest assets. Scott on the other hand was an idealist and a dreamer. The greatest irony of their stories is that it was Scott’s writing that immortalised him. As he was dying, he became the writer he’d always wanted to be.

 

 

To read more about Scott and Mawson in the Antarctic click here for The White.

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Reflections on the Lindy Chamberlain case

Posted June 12, 2012 by Mark

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I’m writing this late on Friday night. We’ve been informed that on Tuesday, the final ruling of the coronial inquest into the death of Azaria Chamberlain will be handed down. As someone who has just begun a career in publishing, working on this book has been an amazing opportunity. I had grown up with the case on as background noise. Azaria vanished a little over a year before I was born, and Lindy’s ordeal through the court system, imprisonment and then freedom went on during my early childhood. It was always on in the news, spoken about by my parents and their friends at social gatherings, and as the years progressed the saga continued.

As a child, my understanding of the case was limited. How much can a child understand the many layers of the case? My parents didn’t have strong opinions on it, at least nothing they shared with me. My father was always a passionate advocate of outback and rural Australia, and he always spoke of the need to protect dingoes. He is a country person stuck in a city person’s life and body. At least, that’s how I think he perceived himself for several years.

He took us on a trip to Uluru when I was eleven. I loved it and felt connected to that place in a very real way. Whenever I return from an overseas journey, the first sense I have of being ‘home’ comes when I see the red centre of this country from 30,000 feet.

The first time I saw a dingo was near Uluru on that trip. We were on a day trip with a group of others and we’d stopped for lunch. We were fairly isolated. There was no main road, just a dirt track. One or two trees were the only shelter from the sun. It was eerily silent. Our tour guide whispered, and pointed. We all looked and there was a dingo, simply walking past. He wasn’t close, and barely paid us any attention, and was soon gone. What I remember most is the uneasy look in my father’s eye, and the way he positioned himself between me and the dingo.

I went to Uluru when I was eleven and I didn’t think of Lindy or Azaria Chamberlain once. When I go back, I know that I will.

I have a child of my own now, and working on this book has been a harrowing experience. My daughter is 18 months old. Over the previous year and a half I’ve watched her grow, watched her personality develop, and taken great pride in all her little achievements – learning to say ‘bath’ and ‘more’, understanding that she needs to cover her mouth when she coughs, playing hide and seek. But my favourite part of being a parent comes from those moments when she needs her daddy. Today I took her for a needle at the doctor’s. It hurt and she cried, and I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. When she’s distressed or in pain I need to hold her and protect her. I can’t stop the pain, but my grip on her makes her think that I can.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Lindy and Michael. To know that despite their daughter’s pain and distress there was nothing they could do. They didn’t get to hold her tight and whisper that everything would be ok. Because of this they never got to see her grow, and take pride in hearing her say ‘bath’.

Had Azaria lived, she would be a grown woman. Older than me, probably with a career and family of her own. And the world would not have known her name, and her mother would have never been wrongly imprisoned for her death.

Today is about many things for Lindy. It will be a painful and satisfying day where she will no doubt reflect on what she has lost but finally get to close a traumatic chapter of her life. I’ve never met Lindy, but I’m sure she’ll be thinking of Azaria.

I hope one day to take my daughter to Uluru, as my father took me and as Lindy and Michael took Azaria. And when I’m there I’m going to think about the little girl who vanished that night. Her body was never found. That place is now her place.

Click here for more information on The Dingo’s Got My Baby by Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton 

 

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