‘Goodreads’ readers #ReadWomen, and so should university English departments


The social network website Goodreads provides insight into what some women are reading.
(Flip Mishevski/Unsplash)

Karen Bourrier, University of CalgaryEven in the 21st century, women writers are often consigned to what American novelist Meg Wolitzer has called “the second shelf.” Women’s novels are designed and marketed with a female audience in mind and publishers still presume that novels about women won’t appeal to male readers. Unfortunately, even in 2021 there may be some truth to this presumption.

This sexism can be seen in the continued speculation that female-identifying novelist Elena Ferrante is actually a man.
Vanity Fair contributing editor and book columnist Elissa Schappell summarized the assumptions behind the speculation: the novelist’s prolific output of “serious” books that interweave history, politics, violence, sex and domestic life, while “unflinchingly showing women in an unflattering light.”

Books by female-identifying authors are also less likely to be reviewed in prestigious literary magazines. In 2019, more than 60 per cent of reviews in magazines including London Review of Books, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, were of books written by men. This is actually an improvement since 2010, when between 69 per cent and 80 per cent of reviews in these magazines were of male-authored books.

The popular #readwomen hashtag on Twitter has been one response to the marginalization of women authors or sexism about their work. The social network website Goodreads can also provide insight into what women are reading.

Reading women

My collaborative research with data science professor Mike Thelwall has explored the reading habits of a cohort of mostly female readers (76 per cent) on the popular social network site Goodreads. As a group, Goodreads users also skew younger, whiter and more educated than the general population.

We examined what books readers read on Goodreads compared to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project.

In past decades, researchers relied on handwritten diaries, letters and surveys of readers to find out how everyday readers responded to the books they read. Goodreads, which collects book reviews and ratings from 90 million members, offers one portal into reading habits.

On average, women Goodreads users read twice as much as male Goodreads users, and are more willing to read books by both male and female authors.

We scraped data from Goodreads and found that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.

These women authors fell into two categories: young adult authors (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth) and 19th- or early 20th-century authors (Jane Austen and Harper Lee). The popularity of young adult series by women, including the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, means that 13 of the 19 most popular titles are by women.

Cover of three books from the Hunger Games series
A study found that that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.
(Shutterstock)

Compared to what professors teach

In a second study, we compared what books Goodreads users read to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project. The Open Syllabus Project originated at Columbia University. It amasses syllabi, or college reading lists, from openly accessible university websites. Open Syllabus currently has a corpus of over nine million syllabi from 140 countries.

Our study focused on Victorian literature, literature published during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), which is both commonly taught at the university level and still read by general readers.

For the most part, we found that Goodreads users read books — including classic works by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde — about as often as university professors taught them.

However, we also found that the books that Goodreads users read more often than they were assigned in university tended to be by women writers, to feature strong female protagonists and to be aimed at a young adult audience — or all three.

Taking women writers seriously

This research is important because it suggests that professors who want to connect to students should take women writers more seriously.

Women writers show up less often than male writers on university syllabi. A survey conducted at McGill University in 2018 showed that 73 per cent of writers assigned on the university’s English literature syllabi are men.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise: English Prof. John Guillory’s work on canon formation captures the state of college English classes 30 years ago (and sometimes even more recently) when it was not uncommon for English professors to teach only white men.

Works by women writers are formative for many readers. For example, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are often among the first “adult” novels that young English-language readers read. Their combination of romance and strong female protagonists continues to appeal to 21st-century readers outside the classroom.

Our study also showed that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — three works of young adult fiction featuring girls — were also read more on Goodreads than we would predict given how often they were assigned on syllabi.




Read more:
Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel


It is more than time that publishers, book reviewers and university professors give women writers the respect they deserve. In an era of declining English majors when most English majors are women, English departments can at least start by assigning more women writers.The Conversation

Karen Bourrier, Associate Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I studied 31 Australian political biographies published in the past decade — only 4 were about women


Mick Tsikas/AAP

Blair Williams, Australian National University

This week, a new Australian political biography will appear on bookshelves. This is The Accidental Prime Minister, an examination of Scott Morrison by journalist Annika Smethurst.

While a prime minister makes for an obvious – and worthy — biographical subject, it also continues Australia’s strong tradition of focusing on the stories of men in politics.

History as a discipline may have been grappling with gender issues since the 1970s, but political history has been especially resistant to questions about women and gender.

In a recent study for the Australian Journal of Biography and History, I looked at Australian political biographies over the past decade. I found female political figures are almost always ignored.

Why biographies matter

Political biographies add life, colour and depth to historical events and personalities. They can shape the legacies of politicians long after they’ve left politics. They also show us who is worthy of being written about and who is overlooked in the pages of history.

However, most Australian political biographies have been written about men, particularly male prime ministers.

This inevitably calls to mind the enduring myth of the “Great Man” as the architect of historical change. This is best described by 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who believed “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

Labor senator Penny Wong.
Labor senator and former finance minister Penny Wong is one of the few women MPs to be the subject of a recent biography.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

As women were largely excluded from politics until the end of the 20th century, it could be argued they simply haven’t had the opportunity to be seen as “great politicians” worthy of literary examination.

Yet, as political biographies define which personal and political qualities suggest “greatness”, it could also be argued we tend to associate these qualities with men and masculinity. Male leaders’ gender is never discussed or explored in their political biographies. Masculinity is portrayed as the unseen norm while gender is an attribute only ever identified with women.

This argument gains further support from the fact there are more women in Australian politics than ever before, yet there remains a notable lack of political biographies covering their lives and stories. In my study, I examined Australian political biographies published in the past decade. Only four out of 31 were on women politicians.

This small minority includes Margaret Simons’ Penny Wong in 2019 and Anna Broinowski’s 2017 biography of Pauline Hanson, Please Explain.

Why are women ignored?

There are three key factors that can explain the lack of biographies written on Australian women politicians.

First, as previously noted, there is the lack of gender parity in Australian politics. The 1990s saw a surge of women enter politics, partly due to Labor’s gender quotas. Yet at the moment, only 31% of the House of Representatives are women and all major leadership positions are held by men.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


Second, Australian political biography itself has a role to play here — the Great Man narrative is an enduring problem. It leads to an overemphasis on so-called “foundational patriarchs” and overlooks the impact of political players who don’t conform to this stereotype.

In the past decade, two biographies each were written on former Labor prime ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke and former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies. Another biography on former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam added to the ever-growing stack of tomes dedicated to these leaders.

Third, women politicians might be more hesitant to expose their private lives to the same extent as their male counterparts. Women politicians frequently experience sexist media coverage that often scrutinises their personal choices as a reflection of their professional capabilities. It is hardly shocking that they might be hesitant to cede agency over their own story and endorse an official biography.

So, there are several glaring omissions in Australian political biography. Where is the biography of our first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard? Former deputy prime minister Julie Bishop is another that comes to mind.

There is also pioneering former Labor minister Susan Ryan, who was pivotal in the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Affirmative Action Act. And Natasha Stott Despoja, the youngest woman to sit in the Australian parliament and former leader of the Australian Democrats.

Sisters must do it for themselves

So where are all the great women political figures? Well, they’re in the memoir section.

Through my research, since 2010, I found 12 autobiographies and memoirs have been published by women premiers, party leaders, federal and state MPs and senators, lord mayors and, of course, our first and only woman prime minister (though I also counted over 30 written by male politicians).




Read more:
Julia Banks’ new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality


Autobiographies can be a valuable way for women politicians to recover their voices, reassert their agency and reclaim their public identity by telling their own life story.

An ambition to take charge of their public image is a common thread running through these books, usually paired with a desire to expose sexism. Gillard’s autobiography My Story, published in 2014 (the year after she left politics), is a notable example of this, holding her opponents and the media to account for their frequently sexist behaviour.

Many women from across the political spectrum have now published comparable memoirs, including Labor MP Ann Aly, former Greens leader Christine Milne and former independent MP Cathy McGowan.

This year, former Labor cabinet minister Kate Ellis’ Sex, Lies and Question Time and former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ Power Play have provided two more examples of how women politicians — particularly those who’ve left politics — use the power of memoir to reclaim their stories and critique the sexist culture in parliament.

History/herstory

While it’s great women are using memoirs to voice their stories, we should not give up on conventional political biography.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2018.
There is no definitive political biography of Julia Gillard.
David Mariuz/AAP

As this genre continues to shape our understanding of political culture and history, it is more important now than ever that women are included to dispel once and for all the myth that their stories are not worth recording.

Rather than adding to the sexist speculation that women politicians experience, political biographers should offer their support for these stories to be told in a consensual and meaningful manner.The Conversation

Blair Williams, Research Fellow, Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL), Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The women who appear in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ are finally getting their due, 700 years later


In a 14th-century illustration, Dante reaches out to Sapia, whose eyes have been sewn shut.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-NC

Laura Ingallinella, Wellesley College

When Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on Sept. 14, 1321, he had just put his final flourishes on the “Divine Comedy,” a monumental poem that would inspire readers for centuries.

The “Divine Comedy” follows the journey of a pilgrim across the three realms of the Christian afterlife – hell, purgatory and paradise. There, he encounters a variety of characters, many of whom are based on real people Dante had met or heard of during his life.

One of them is a woman named Sapia Salvani. Sapia meets Dante and his first guide, Virgil, on the second terrace of purgatory. She tells the two how her fate in the afterlife was sealed – how she stood at the window of her family’s castle and, with troops gathering in the distance, prayed for her own city, Siena, to fall. Despite their advantage, the Sienese were slaughtered – including Sapia’s nephew, whose head was paraded around Siena on a pike.

Sapia, however, felt triumphant. According to Dante and medieval theologians, she had fallen prey to one of the seven capital vices, “invidia,” or envy.

The portrayal of Sapia in the “Divine Comedy” is imbued with political implications, many of which boil down to the fact that Dante blamed the violence of his time on those who turned against their communities out of arrogance and greed.

But the real Sapia was even more interesting than Dante would have you believe. Documentary sources reveal that she was a committed philanthropist: With her husband, she founded a hospice for the poor on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome. Five years after witnessing the fall of Siena, she donated all her assets to this hospice.

Sapia is one among many characters from the “Divine Comedy” that deserve to be known beyond – and not just because of – what Dante decided to say about them in his poem. With my students at Wellesley College, I’m reviving the real stories behind the characters of Dante’s masterpiece and making them available to everyone on Wikipedia. And it was especially important for us to start with his female characters.

Why women?

Among the 600 characters appearing in the “Divine Comedy,” women are the least likely to appear in the historical record. Medieval authors tended to write biased accounts of women’s lives, motives and aspirations – if not ignore them altogether. As a result, the “Divine Comedy” is often the only accessible source of information on these women.

At the same time, Dante’s treatment of women isn’t free from misogyny. Scholars such as Victoria Kirkham, Marianne Shapiro and Teodolinda Barolini have shown that Dante relished turning women into metaphors, from pious maidens to villainesses capable of bringing dynasties to their knees.

Side profile of a man.
A recreation of Dante Alighieri’s death mask at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images

For this reason, fuller pictures of Dante’s women have been elusive. As a researcher, you’re lucky if you can come across a contemporary who supported or built upon Dante’s tangled reinvention, or documents in which the woman in question is mentioned as mother, wife or daughter.

Putting together the pieces on Wikipedia

The more my students asked me about the women in the poem, the more I wondered: What if we found a way to tell everyone their stories? So I approached Wiki Education, a nonprofit that fosters the collaboration between higher education and Wikipedia, to see if they would partner with me and my students. They agreed.

The recipe behind Wikipedia’s two decades of success is its stunning simplicity: an open encyclopedia written and maintained by a worldwide community of volunteers who draft, edit and monitor its free content.

Wikipedia’s status as a crowdsourced work is one of its greatest strengths, but it’s also its greatest weakness in that it reflects the world’s systemic flaws: The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors identify as male.

In 2014, only 15.5% of Wikipedia’s biographies in English were about women. By 2021, that number had risen to 18.1%, but that was after more than six years of sustained efforts aimed at bolstering the representation of women on Wikipedia by creating new entries and referencing scholarship authored by women.

Knowledge as advocacy

For my students, researching and composing Wikipedia entries on Dante’s characters doubled as advocacy.

Writing for Wikipedia is different from writing an essay. You must be unbiased, avoid personal flourishes and always back your statements with external references. Rather than producing an argument, you offer readers the tools to build an argument of their own.

And yet the very act of writing an entry about a person does advance a specific argument: that their life is worth being the focus of attention, rather than an easily forgettable name in the backdrop of a grand narrative. This choice is a radical one. It’s an affirmation that someone possesses historical value beyond the fact that they provided a spark of inspiration to an author.

Drawing of a woman floating before a surprised man.
Beatrice Portinari guiding Dante through paradise in a drawing by Sandro Botticelli.
The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Pursuing this goal was not without challenges; it could be difficult to maintain an unbiased tone while telling stories of violence and abuse.

That was the case with Ghisolabella Caccianemico, a young woman from Bologna sold into sexual slavery by her brother, Venèdico, who hoped to form an alliance with a neighboring marquis. Dante told his readers a “filthy tale” that would make them indignant. In it, Ghisolabella is a silent victim surrounded by men.

However, we turned Ghisolabella into the subject of her story, threading the fine line between giving a starkly objective account of the violence she suffered and preserving her dignity.

“Ghisolabella’s extramarital relation[s] with the marquis, though against her will, was ruinous to her status,” wrote my student, citing early 20th-century scholars who canvassed the archives of Bologna for evidence on Ghisolabella.

“Dante’s inclusion of Ghisolabella,” she added, “eternalizes Venèdico’s sin.”

Turning the tables on Dante

Researching these women also turned into an opportunity to upend Dante’s personal views.

Take Beatrice d’Este, a noblewoman Dante criticizes for marrying again after her first husband died. Dante was outraged by widows who dared to remarry instead of remaining forever faithful to their late spouses. Not everyone, however, agreed with his defamation of Beatrice.

Side profile of woman with blonde hair.
Beatrice d’Este.
Wikimedia Commons

To tell Beatrice’s story, my student just needed to look into the right places – namely, an exceptional article by Deborah W. Parker, who put Dante’s treatment of Beatrice into context.

Parker explains how Beatrice was likely pressured into her second marriage and tried to negotiate her place in a world that subjected her to slander. By having the family crests of her two husbands carved side by side on her tomb, she made a pregnant statement about her identity and allegiances.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Thanks to our work, in addition to Ghisolabella and Beatrice d’Este, there are now over a dozen biographies of these women on Wikipedia: Alagia Fieschi, Cianghella della Tosa, Constance of Sicily, Cunizza da Romano, Gaia da Camino, Giovanna da Montefeltro, Gualdrada Berti, Joanna of Gallura, Matelda, Nella Donati, Pia de’ Tolomei, Piccarda Donati and Sapia Salvani. They join Beatrice Portinari and Francesca da Rimini, the only two historical women from the “Divine Comedy” who had acceptable entries on Wikipedia prior to our work.

As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes in “Living a Feminist Life,” “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.”

One brick at a time – one page, revision or added reference at a time – Wikipedians can broaden our understanding of the past, centering women’s stories in a world that has long edited them out.The Conversation

Laura Ingallinella, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and English, Wellesley College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Sindiwe Magona’s devastating, uplifting story of South African women


CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

Reading South African author Sindiwe Magona’s latest novel When the Village Sleeps reminded me of my time researching and teaching in the country’s Eastern Cape province a decade ago. While involved in community engagement for Rhodes University I heard stories of young people who would deliberately contract HIV in order to receive government disability grants.

When the Village Sleeps spans three generations of women in one family and the central role of ancestral belief and ancient custom – or a lack of it – in their lives. It initially focuses on Busi, a promising young student who benefits from an education at a good school due to the hard work and friendship of her grandmother with her former white employer.

It reveals the devastating motivation behind Busi’s teenage pregnancy orchestrated to produce a financial reward in the form of a child support grant from the state.

The shocking story at the centre of Magona’s latest novel is as heartbreaking as it is cruel – and yet the character of Busi’s daughter Mandlakazi (or Mandla) completely overturns the notion that her birth is a tragedy. She becomes the heroine who unites her family.

A book cover showing the title 'When the Village Sleeps' inside an illustration of a giant moon, trees and lands in the foreground and the name of the author, Sindiwe Magona.

Pan Macmillan/Picador Africa

Magona is a pioneering writer who, with this new novel, continues to feature challenging contemporary issues in her work, with incisive commentaries on power, masculinity and the role of women.

The old and the new

Mandla’s great grandmother, Khulu, who takes baby Mandla to the rural Eastern Cape to recuperate from birth disabilities and strengthen her, is central to the story and it is her unending devotion that seems to bring about such a significant change in the “broken bundle” she brings home to Sidwadweni.

Referencing the poetry and teachings of celebrated isiXhosa-language author and historian S.E.K. Mqhayi, the narration frequently shifts into poetry to enable the voice of Mandla to articulate her nascent consciousness which seems fused with her ancestors, “the Old”. From her earliest moments she would:

fall asleep to the ministrations

of her hands infused with care

and into that sleep

the lyrics of songs pouring from an ancient throat

sink deep into my mind

into my brain, my heart, my limbs.

No wonder Mandla is so transformed by the years she spends under Khulu’s care. She returns to Kwanele township in Cape Town with a divine gift that enables her to access the ancestral realm, and predict the future.

Central to the novel is abenzakalise (those who have harmed) and the consequences of their actions. On a personal level this relates to Busi’s strained relationship with her mother Phyllis and her estranged father, and then, as a teenager, the alcohol and the street drug tik she imbibes in order to deform her baby and receive the state’s disability allowance.

However, all of these characters are shown to be capable of redemption and change, as long as they adhere to Khulu’s wisdom – which is by no means a fixed regurgitation of “tradition” but a practical, living faith. So the resilience and strength of all the female characters shines through, as it does in Magona’s celebrated 2008 novel Beauty’s Gift.

A devastating critique

On a wider allegorical level the novel reads as a critique of South Africa itself, the impact of colonialism and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who have harmed the people through corruption and a failure to tackle inequality, stunting the growth of a healthy, prosperous nation.

Explicit critique of the government and particularly government handouts which do nothing to really alleviate poverty, but just entrench feelings of helplessness, is evident throughout the novel.

Magona makes incisive judgements, through her characters – especially the elder Khulu and young Mandla – and offers possible solutions, which include honouring the earth and returning to self-sufficiency. This idealism can feel naïve at times but there’s something very seductive and straightforward about the self-care, and self-respect that comes from citizens helping themselves and transforming their communities from within.




Read more:
Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona


Towards the end, the book tips into a kind of disabled girls’ manifesto or set of instructions for how to set up community-based support for disabled and marginalised young people. However Magona expertly shifts the narrative at that point back to a dialogue with the ancestors and manages to transform the didactic elements of the tale into wisdom that reaches up to the present day and the threat of COVID-19.

Very recent commentary on the difficulties of enforcing social distancing in communities which rely on food parcels during the pandemic, forcing locals to gather together to collect much needed help, is painful to read. The mistakes are so preventable and obvious and yet are made time and again.

The prophecy

Most interesting to me is the way in which the novel manages to balance the re-introduction of neglected female initiation rites alongside the magic realism of Mandla’s prediction of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse’s 19th century prophecy – which led to a millennial movement that culminated in the cattle-killing and famine of 1856-7 – Mandla’s foretelling that “the world will die”, comes true, although perhaps not on the scale the “voices” decreed:

The ground will not be able to swallow all the dead!

O-oh! The multitudinous dead!

There will be none left to bury the dead.

In many respects this prediction blurs, in my mind, with the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that killed more than 2 million South Africans, with 7.7 million currently infected with HIV. Magona has written searingly on this topic before.

Once again excoriating the corruption and failures of government, the Fields of Hope project, which young Mandla initiates to grow food for the township, shines like a beacon when “what government help does for the poor is cement them in poverty… Here comes help that is real!”

Ending on a shockingly blunt and abrupt note, Magona leaves us, as always, with a lot to think about.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Goodreads’ readers #ReadWomen, and so should university English departments


The social network website Goodreads provides insight into what some women are reading.
(Flip Mishevski/Unsplash)

Karen Bourrier, University of Calgary

Even in the 21st century, women writers are often consigned to what American novelist Meg Wolitzer has called “the second shelf.” Women’s novels are designed and marketed with a female audience in mind and publishers still presume that novels about women won’t appeal to male readers. Unfortunately, even in 2021 there may be some truth to this presumption.

This sexism can be seen in the continued speculation that female-identifying novelist Elena Ferrante is actually a man.
Vanity Fair contributing editor and book columnist Elissa Schappell summarized the assumptions behind the speculation: the novelist’s prolific output of “serious” books that interweave history, politics, violence, sex and domestic life, while “unflinchingly showing women in an unflattering light.”

Books by female-identifying authors are also less likely to be reviewed in prestigious literary magazines. In 2019, more than 60 per cent of reviews in magazines including London Review of Books, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, were of books written by men. This is actually an improvement since 2010, when between 69 per cent and 80 per cent of reviews in these magazines were of male-authored books.

The popular #readwomen hashtag on Twitter has been one response to the marginalization of women authors or sexism about their work. The social network website Goodreads can also provide insight into what women are reading.

Reading women

My collaborative research with data science professor Mike Thelwall has explored the reading habits of a cohort of mostly female readers (76 per cent) on the popular social network site Goodreads. As a group, Goodreads users also skew younger, whiter and more educated than the general population.

We examined what books readers read on Goodreads compared to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project.

In past decades, researchers relied on handwritten diaries, letters and surveys of readers to find out how everyday readers responded to the books they read. Goodreads, which collects book reviews and ratings from 90 million members, offers one portal into reading habits.

On average, women Goodreads users read twice as much as male Goodreads users, and are more willing to read books by both male and female authors.

We scraped data from Goodreads and found that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.

These women authors fell into two categories: young adult authors (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth) and 19th- or early 20th-century authors (Jane Austen and Harper Lee). The popularity of young adult series by women, including the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, means that 13 of the 19 most popular titles are by women.

Cover of three books from the Hunger Games series
A study found that that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.
(Shutterstock)

Compared to what professors teach

In a second study, we compared what books Goodreads users read to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project. The Open Syllabus Project originated at Columbia University. It amasses syllabi, or college reading lists, from openly accessible university websites. Open Syllabus currently has a corpus of over nine million syllabi from 140 countries.

Our study focused on Victorian literature, literature published during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), which is both commonly taught at the university level and still read by general readers.

For the most part, we found that Goodreads users read books — including classic works by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde — about as often as university professors taught them.

However, we also found that the books that Goodreads users read more often than they were assigned in university tended to be by women writers, to feature strong female protagonists and to be aimed at a young adult audience — or all three.

Taking women writers seriously

This research is important because it suggests that professors who want to connect to students should take women writers more seriously.

Women writers show up less often than male writers on university syllabi. A survey conducted at McGill University in 2018 showed that 73 per cent of writers assigned on the university’s English literature syllabi are men.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise: English Prof. John Guillory’s work on canon formation captures the state of college English classes 30 years ago (and sometimes even more recently) when it was not uncommon for English professors to teach only white men.

Works by women writers are formative for many readers. For example, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are often among the first “adult” novels that young English-language readers read. Their combination of romance and strong female protagonists continues to appeal to 21st-century readers outside the classroom.

Our study also showed that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — three works of young adult fiction featuring girls — were also read more on Goodreads than we would predict given how often they were assigned on syllabi.




Read more:
Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel


It is more than time that publishers, book reviewers and university professors give women writers the respect they deserve. In an era of declining English majors when most English majors are women, English departments can at least start by assigning more women writers.The Conversation

Karen Bourrier, Associate Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2021 Davitt Awards Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the 2021 Davitt Awards Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/07/26/190342/davitt-awards-2021-shortlists-announced/

Julia Banks’ new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality


James Ross/AAP

Joshua Black, Australian National University

Political memoirs in Australia often create splashy headlines and controversy. But we should not dismiss the publication of former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ book, Power Play, as just the latest in a genre full of scandals and secrets.

There is a long tradition of female parliamentarians using memoirs to reshape the culture around them. Banks — whose book includes claims of bullying, sexism and harassment — is the latest to push for equality and understanding of what life is like for women in Canberra.

The power of a memoir

There are many ways to tell your story — from social media posts to podcasts and speeches to parliament.

But there is something enduring about memoir. Sales figures aside, the political memoir can be a significant event. The inevitable round of media interviews, book tours and literary festivals can allow an author to stamp their broader ideas onto the public debate and shed light on the culture of our institutions.




Read more:
The ‘madness’ of Julia Banks — why narratives about ‘hysterical’ women are so toxic


They also have the advantage of usually being written when women have left parliament, and no longer need to place their party’s interests ahead of all others. Indeed, Banks tells us that her story is that of “an insider who’s now out”.

It started with Enid Lyons

In 1972, Dame Enid Lyons (the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and wife of former prime minister Joe Lyons) published Among the Carrion Crows.

In her memoir, she offered a compelling insight into how she dealt with the male-dominated environment of parliament house. She recalled feeling like a “risky political experiment”, as if the very “value of women in politics would be judged” by the virtue of her conduct. She joyfully described how her maiden speech had moved men to tears.

In that place of endless speaking … no one ever made men weep. Apparently I had done so.

She also recorded key moments when she had vigorously presented her views in the party room and the parliament. She asserted the right of women to stand — and more importantly, to be heard — in parliament.

Encouraging women, challenging men

Since Lyons, women have continued to use autobiographies to promote women’s participation in politics and challenge the masculine histories of political parties.

When the ALP celebrated its centenary in 1991, it was the male history that was celebrated. Senator Margaret Reynolds (Queensland’s first female senator) “decided that the record had to be corrected”.

Former Labor minister Susan Ryan.
Former education minister Susan Ryan wanted to encourage other women to go into politics.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Reynolds’ writings on Labor women occurred alongside the ALP’s moves toward affirmative action quotas in the early 1990s. As well as a memoir, she wrote a series of newsletters called Some of Them Sheilas, and a book about Labor’s women called The Last Bastion. In it, she recorded the experiences and achievements of ALP women over the past 100 years.

In her 1999 book, Catching the Waves, Labor’s first female cabinet minister Susan Ryan acknowledged there was “a lot of bad male behaviour in parliament”. But she argued this should not “dissuade women from seeking parliamentary careers”. Importantly, Ryan saw her autobiography as a collective story about the women’s movement and its “breakthrough into parliamentary politics” in the 1970s and 1980s.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


While Labor women like Reynolds, Ryan and Cheryl Kernot were publishing their memoirs, few Liberal women put their stories on the public record. Former NSW Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski’s 2004 memoir, Chika, was billed as the story of a woman who

learnt to cope with some of the toughest and nastiest politics any female has ever encountered in Australia’s political history.

In 2007 Pauline Hanson published an autobiography called Untamed and Unashamed, telling journalists, “I wanted to set the record straight”. But these were exceptions to the rule.

Julia Gillard’s story

Following the sexism and misogyny that disfigured her prime ministership, Julia Gillard’s 2014 memoir My Story helped revitalise the national conversation about women and power. Hoping to help Australia “work patiently and carefully through” the question of gender and politics, Gillard promised to “describe how I lived it and felt it” as prime minister.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard at the Sydney Writers' Festival
Julia Gillard released her memoir in 2014, the year after she lost the prime ministership.
David Moir/AAP

Importantly, she held not only her opponents but also the media to account for their gender bias. Critics like journalist Paul Kelly derided Gillard’s version of history as “nonsense”, but the success of her account suggests otherwise. My Story sold 72,000 copies in just three years.

In her 2020 book, Women and Leadership co-authored with former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Gillard interviewed eight women leaders from around the world, further showing how gender continues to shape political lives.

The risks of writing

A political memoir can be fraught, however. After a decade in parliament, Democract-turned-Labor MP Cheryl Kernot published her memoir Speaking for Myself Again in 2002.
She had hoped it would argue the case for Australian women “participating fully” in politics to promote “their own values and interests and shift the underlying male agenda”.

Former MP Cheryl Kernot
Former MP Cheryl Kernot’s memoir release was overshadowed by controversy.
Julian Ross/AAP

But the release was quickly overshadowed by revelations of an extra-marital affair with Labor’s Gareth Evans (which were not in the book). Her book tour was halted amid the fallout. Kernot later despaired journalist Laurie Oakes — who broke the story — had managed to “sabotage people’s interest in the book”.

Others, such as Labor’s Ros Kelly, have told their stories in private or semi-private ways. Kelly’s autobiography was privately published as a gift to her granddaughter, but she also gives copies to women in politics, many of whom “have read it, and sent me really nice notes”.

Power in numbers

In the past five years, several women from across the political spectrum have published life stories.

In her memoir, An Activist Life, former Greens leader Christine Milne argued that women should perform feminist leadership rather than being “co-opted into being one of the boys”. In Finding My Place, Labor MP Anne Aly, showed women of non-Anglo, non-Christian backgrounds belong in parliament too. Independents Jacqui Lambie and Cathy McGowan used their memoirs to show female MPs can thrive without the backing of the major parties.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Former MP Kate Ellis on the culture in parliament house


Most recently, former Labor MP Kate Ellis published Sex, Lies and Question Time, which includes reflections on the experiences of nearly a dozen other women in parliament.

For fifty years, Australia’s female politicians have used their memoirs to assert the equal rights of women in parliament, party rooms, and the media. Drawing on that lineage, Banks is the latest to help reveal and disrupt the sexism and misogyny in political life.The Conversation

Joshua Black, PhD Candidate, School of History, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2021 Stella Prize – Longlist, Shortlist and Winner


The links below are to articles reporting on the 2021 Stella Prize, from the longlist to the shortlist, and then to the winner, with the most recent article (on the winner) appearing at the end of the list.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/03/05/163600/stella-prize-2021-longlist-announced/
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/03/25/183993/stella-prize-2021-shortlist-announced/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/22/a-true-work-of-art-evie-wyld-wins-50000-stella-prize-for-the-bass-rock
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/04/23/185427/wyld-wins-2021-stella-prize-for-the-bass-rock/

The Stella shortlist: your guide to 2021’s powerful, emotional books


Stella Prize/The Conversation

Julia Prendergast, Swinburne University of Technology; Catherine McKinnon, University of Wollongong; Donna Lee Brien, CQUniversity Australia; Gay Lynch, Flinders University, and Julienne van Loon, RMIT University

Editors’ note: We congratulate Evie Wyld, winner of the 2021 Stella Prize for her book The Bass Rock. Zoya Patel, Chair of the 2021 Stella Judging Panel says: “Evie Wyld has chosen each and every word with precision, building a novel that is a true work of art.”

Each year, The Stella Prize honours writing by women. Good. We’ve come a long way. We’ve a long way to go.

The 2021 shortlist encompasses contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction, and undertakes impressive trapeze acts across genre boundaries.

The books investigate the riddle of familial duty and the cost of patriarchy; Australia’s racist colonial history; species-ism and humanity as it exists within the natural world; the devastating impact of sexual violence for victims as well as criminal justice professionals; the trauma associated with physical violence inflicted upon women.

The authors write about sacrifice, grief, mental illness, power, privilege and connectivity.

Collectively, the books are testament to the minds of thinking, writing women mapping the architecture of social and cultural change.

WINNER: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock cover

At the opening of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock a young girl discovers a suitcase washed up on the beach: a dead woman’s fingers inching out, and between them, an eye that blinks.

At the novel’s closing, a woman is hurriedly packing a suitcase for her and her daughter, intending to leave an abusive marriage. She is waiting for a taxi when the front door quietly closes.

These two short scenes frame a novel that dwells on the violence inflicted on three women by manipulating and aggressive men. Set on the coast of Scotland, the dark volcanic Bass Rock looms over North Berwick as a dark presence around which the stories are fashioned.

In the 21st century, Viviane is living an unpredictable existence in London, when her Uncle Christopher requests she look after the family home in North Berwick until it is sold.

Shortly after the second world war, Ruth is living in the same North Berwick house with new husband Peter and his two sons.

In the 18th century, Joseph recounts how Sarah, accused of being a witch and brutally raped by village boys, is saved from being burned by his father. But when the thugs rally support, the girl and family must run, or they could all burn.

The Bass Rock has seven sections, each containing five chapters that move from the present through to the past and back again. Themes of mental illness and grief are braided into the novel, and the young children in Ruth’s story, become the older characters in Viviane’s.

At the end of each section a short tale is recounted about a nameless woman; each woman suffering maltreatment.

This is a deeply disturbing novel, yet one also revelling in grace and the small wonders of life: new and fragile friendships, tender moments of love and unearthly happenings.

–Catherine McKinnon

Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs

Many of us enjoy venturing a few metres out into the sea to swim, surf or just cool off. Rebecca Giggs’ enthralling Fathoms: The World in the Whale presents whales as immense, enigmatic, intelligent and majestic sea creatures, but also vividly describes the intricate ecosystem of the vast oceans in which they live and die.

Fathoms cover

Drawing from science, history, literature, art and mythology, Fathoms is both epic in scale and rich in detail about the life cycle of whales, their behaviours and sociality.

This sweeping research is interspersed with Giggs’ own quest for understanding, which begins at a whale stranding and continues through experiences of eating whale meat and closely observing these mammals on a whale watching tour.

This makes Fathoms filled with information but also personal, as Giggs weaves her own insights and feelings about whales and the natural world into the narrative.

Arguing passionately for whales’ right to survive, many of her stories of our treatment of these creatures are heartbreaking and haunting. Whether it is humans hunting and killing whales and overfishing their food sources, or our polluting the oceans and destroying their habitats, whales remain highly vulnerable.

This could make for profoundly depressing reading. Instead, Fathoms is optimistic. We can address over-fishing, stop polluting the seas and start working seriously on restorative remediation.

This message is especially important in a year in which concern for the environment has fallen behind the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fathoms calls for a new “Save the Whales” campaign. Public activism has stopped most whaling and we can rise to this new challenge, in the process also safeguarding countless numbers of no less important sea creatures.

–Donna Lee Brien

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S. L. Lim

Revenge cover

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts has a vortex-like rhythm, with its gut-wrenching tale about the cost of fortitude and self-sufficiency.

If you break between sittings, you are likely to dream in the way narrative wires us to dream: circling standalone memories that never stand alone in the mind’s eye, turning time inside out.

Yannie lives in Malaysia, her life largely devoted to caring for her parents.

Despite her intellectual feats, which exceed her brother’s exponentially, her parents tell her they can’t afford to send her to university. They have agreed to provide additional support for Yannie’s brother to undertake further study. He, too, betrays Yannie.

The reader falls for Yannie, wanting to know and unknow her in the way we want to unknow all of those things we know innately and immediately yet incompletely.

Yannie is highly emotionally intelligent, artistic and thoughtful. Her everyday practice is self-denial. The word “entropy” emerges literally and metaphorically throughout the novel. Lim invites us to consider the ramifications of the slow seep of unused energy, the cost of duty and sacrifice, deep inequity, unrequited longing.

Revenge is an unflinching investigation of how a life cultivates a mind. Lim pushes us to consider the enduring and sometimes devastating impact of missed moments and our thinking upon them.

Books that do not end, and will never end, leave us with questions. At the heart of this book is the following question: “What does it take, to see and not see […] at the same time?”

–Julia Prendergast

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in that Country is that rare thing: an intellectually ambitious, formally innovative Australian novel that is accessible to a broad readership. It’s also wonderfully macabre.

The Animals in That Country cover

The central character is Jean, a mature-aged alcoholic working her way up at a remote wildlife park. She used to clean the dunnies, now she drives the little tourist train.

Jean’s ambition is to become a ranger, but anyone can see she’s incapable of completing the required certificate. Her boss changes the subject whenever it comes up.

Jean has one sober day per week: it’s a massive effort, but it’s a service in aid of maintaining her primary human relationship with her six-year-old granddaughter, Kimberly.

Kimberly and Jean love animals. They work tirelessly together on a scrapbook filled with plans for their own animal park. The relationship between these two is precious, refreshingly full and beautifully rendered by McKay: cementing Jean, despite all her faults, as a heroine with true heart.

I was surprised at how bloody funny this book is. The first 50 pages move a little slowly, and at times the Aussie vernacular is too over-cooked, even for comic effect, but once Jean hits the road in pursuit of Kimberly, who has been stolen by her mother’s ex, the narrative takes a sophisticated turn and the book’s extraordinary, slightly surreal central project, takes off. Down the highway, we’re in the realm of horror.

This is a work of fiction utterly capable of swaying the cultural imaginary.

McKay completed this novel as part of a creative writing PhD at the University of Melbourne, and it is a testament to the quality of writing coming out of Australia’s higher-degree writing programs: well-researched, impeccably crafted, and, above all, intelligent.

–Julienne van Loon

Witness by Louise Milligan

Sexual assault and murder carry high maximum sentences for good reason. They cause damage, havoc and lifelong pain and can rip society apart. None of us want perpetrators to stay hidden and unjudged. We want the criminal justice system to do its work.

And so, when victims of sexual assault envy murder victims “because they don’t have to relive being killed, over and over”, when what finally breaks them is not the crime but what happens next, we all have a stake in making justice work better.

Witness cover

In Witness, Louise Milligan asks where is the balance to be struck between the rights of defendants and the rights of witnesses – and of complainants in particular.

Can we presume an accused person to be innocent – as she agrees we should – without irreparably damaging the lives of those who report sexual crimes and give evidence?

Milligan has the credentials: court reporter; investigative journalist; witness in the trial of Cardinal George Pell; and the victim of the crime committed by an invisible stranger who repeatedly threatened to kill her.

Milligan has clearly earned the trust not only of victims, but also of judges and senior barristers who speak candidly about the impact of vicarious trauma on them and their colleagues, and who know they are working in an imperfect system.

She writes about the “cognitive dissonance” required for a barrister to be able to belittle a child witness, ultimately proved to be telling the truth about sexual abuse, and then go home to their own children.

Witness is a harrowing read. Not because Milligan has sensationalised the experiences described to her: the court transcripts speak for themselves. But because she exposes the damage done, not only to complainants, but to everyone involved in the criminal justice system, and makes it our concern.

-Julia Prendergast

Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe

Stone Sky Gold Mountain is a bellwether novel, acknowledging Australia’s racist colonial history, suggesting that settlers from many countries were complicit in the worst outrages against Indigenous people, and underlining centuries of attack and control of women by men.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain cover

Set in 1877 in Queensland’s Palmer River goldfields the novel imagines a gap in Australian history, bringing to the foreground young working women, shackled by class, gender and race, seeking freedom and tenderness in a violent shanty town.

The story begins with the exiled Lai Yue and his sister Ying questing for gold to free their siblings, sold into slavery to pay their father’s gambling debts; and with the grieving and myopic Meriem, a single mother keeping house for a whore.

Ying dresses as a boy to survive. Meriem and her employer Sophie ply traditional women’s trades – housekeeping and sex work – and the three defend each other.

We fear for Lai Yue, burdened with filial duty, paying the price of men’s brutality to each other. Chinese speculators outnumber Europeans yet remain vulnerable to racism, their homeland criminal gangs, known as tongs, and starvation. Is Ying’s brother enlivened only by conscience, or is his inner voice darker, more unsettling than that? Who is responsible when an explosion of frontier violence subsumes him?

Taken deep into each character’s consciousness, we absorb their trauma and resilience.

The bush and riverscape seethe with heat and humidity. Riwoe’s language is assured, lyric and lush with vivid imagery of transplanted Chinese culture.

Historical detail is always immediate and visceral. As befits a good crime novel, each chapter cranks up tension, escalates action, and coded objects – a green ribbon tied around a tree, blackbirds, snakes’ eyes and sour plums, talismanic wood carvings – lead readers towards inevitable climaxes.

Ghosts and opium memes bring foreboding. How does one tell white men apart when they all look the same? Ever ironic, Riwoe. Read in two sittings. Twice.

–Gay Lynch


The 2021 Stella Prize winner will be announced online at 7pm AEST tonight, April 22.The Conversation

Julia Prendergast, Senior Lecturer, Writing and Literature, Swinburne University of Technology; Catherine McKinnon, Discipline Leader—English and Creative Writing, University of Wollongong; Donna Lee Brien, Emeritus Professor, Creative Industries, CQUniversity Australia; Gay Lynch, Adjunct academic in Creative Writing and English, Flinders University, and Julienne van Loon, Associate Professor, Writing and Publishing, School of Media & Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.