‘Imagining Women—On Gender and Genre’
Overland 208, 2012.

Edited by Jeff Sparrow.

An Excerpt

During an interview to promote her first book Into the Woods in late 2010, Anna Krien was asked by Alan Attwood of The Big Issue why it was that the best nonfiction in the country was being written by women. Expanding on his question, Attwood cited Helen Garner, Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper and Amanda Lohrey as members of the female nonfiction vanguard. Lohrey, he prompted, had deemed Krien ‘brave’, applauding her unflinching analysis of the red-blooded Tasmanian Forestry Industry in Into the Woods. Hanging in the air without answer, Attwood’s assertion seemed to imply multiple contentions. Was there, perhaps, a mentorship dynamic that could account for the boom in journalistic essays and books being written by women? Had the category of nonfiction subtly shifted to include more intuitive, emotional or psychological writing? Or could it simply be said that after so many years of pioneering feminist thought, women were finally learning to write politically about issues of national concern; to demonstrate complex and noteworthy opinions on industry, business, labour and civics? In the footage Krien appears momentarily, if graciously, taken aback.

Attwood pursues an earlier question: ‘let’s talk about the female factor … was it a handicap or was it possibly a help, to be a woman?’ Krien picks a thread off her thigh and talks about interview technique—how a subject might be more readily disarmed by a female interviewer. She tethers her answer to the specific circumstances of writing Into the Woods, avoiding general declarations about women writing nonfiction.

Then the interview lurches awkwardly forward, into different fields.

During this past summer—a time when women’s writing has been the subject of renewed attention—I have found myself wondering why a direct answer to that question is so hard. It would be exceptionally unusual, one imagines, for an emerging male author to be asked why so many of our best books are currently being written by men. And yet it would also be wrong to say that the query, asked of a female writer, is unforeseeable. As regressive and problematic as the question seems, it remains relevant because of the prevalence of its assumptions in publishing and readership communities. To foreclose on Attwood’s right to ask about the specific role of women in nonfiction, is to abandon the opportunity to learn from our stumbling answers.

Read the complete essay here.