Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Women Writing and Literary Practice / Anna Couani
This paper is not a paper in the academic sense because it is written from the point of view of a writer and small press publisher. It is written in three parts:
In the 70's there was a trend among writers and journalists to declare their position prior to discussing any issue. To continue this tradition I include a poem I wrote last year which seemed to address this topic.
THE SALTY SEA ©1994 Anna Couani
I remember the time we watched the day break over the beach
sitting crosslegged on the road around midnight
(this is late 70's, I was very physically fit)
looking up along the studs running up the side seams of a man's jeans
still believing in the public performance of poetry
and in the efficacy of the lifestyle which sustained it
being out of touch with a domestic life, out of touch with men
and therefore out of contact with the normal 70's woman
There's the flash of a car's headlights sweeping across the grass in the park
there's the shock of the sight in the rearview mirror, those eyes
what question are they asking?
well, everyone's a foreigner to me
and the car, a longed-for oasis
thirsting for sleep, longing to be home at last
so far away now we might as well be in another country
Other countries seem so close
that now travelling and staying here are not dissimilar
I saw a real desert oasis tucked into its waddy
breath-taking, thirst-quenching, vegetation threatening to burst out into the
desertlike the patterns of the mosaics and carpets in the Dome of the Rock
that fabulous building
I remember the way I felt about the boulders embedded in the dry creek bed
and the way the casuarinas all bent in one direction
as I sketched them
then understanding later that they'd been bent by floods
and the whole painting had a sense of aftermath
it was the biggest painting I ever did
And the woman who was there with me
must have been thinking very different thoughts
she and her husband setting up house together
in a different way from me
where their nesting instincts definitely centred on children
and in my memory the image of her stomach and her breasts
as we lay near our tents under the trees by the river bank
and the idea of embryos implanting themselves in the uterine wall
For me the painting, structurally a bit like blue poles
was more important
I could feel the sense of choking claustrophobia and boredom
in the other alternative
there wasn't much variety of lifestyle in the 60's
I remember looking at buildings out of interest in them
wanting to discuss ideas
being interested in male intellectuals for that reason
(being deluded about the nature of their interest in me
and not assessing them as husband material)
and being swept off my feet by their lack of interest in me
as a thinking person, their imperviousness
bearing down on you like a blistering wave of heat
over the point from the huge and inert silos of White Bay
inert by day and by night
I remember the inner city lifestyles of the 70's
the kitchens, the tarot, the numerology
the herbal tea, things that are institutionalised now
my world straddling the women's movement and the small press scene
when performance was the only way we could reach an audience
in times before the institutionalised creative writing courses
and the massive takeover by the multinational presses
marketeers reaching into our back rooms and kicking us out
whitewashing the whole thing, creating acceptable poets
acceptable feminists, acceptable ethnics
There used to be wild and interesting women around
articulate and heroic at meetings and in lectures
being politically correct, actually
not like now when people are too scared to say boo
as though the tidal wave myth actually came true
in a metaphoric sense, sweeping away everything in its path
and the survivors are the ones who retreated to the country
or just retreated into a defensive position
I remember a dream I had of a wide salty sea
the water shallow and whitish with salt
there was nothing but water, no land
and I swam up to a figure draped on a dead tree
an old female relative, so old that her body was like silky hemp
she had no clothes only long blond silky hair
she was more than helpless, she was no use
outside the water her body had the stiffness of hemp
but in the water she was amorphous like fine seaweed
it seemed like the previous generations weren't going to be much help
and this proved to be true
In another dream we were forced to move way out past WoopWoop
to apartments on the tidal flats
and once the tide came in at night we were trapped there
a metaphor for an oppositional upbringing and its legacy perhaps
but not just where you choose to be, exile is not it
Trying to leap across fields across continents
to build up a sense of complexity and density
to simulate the experience of the metropolis we don't have
to escape the parochial in a parochial environment
without denying the significant things
to locate significant work and become immersed in it
to make your life multidimensional
to leave the multitude of connections
to avoid tying up loose ends
to collage like a violent mosaic
where every piece is torn not neat
to expose the ruptures not smooth them over
to participate but refuse
like the old idea of seizing the available platform
The actions of the traditionbreakers persisting in our memories
alongside the fragments of the old traditions
and now difficult to disentangle
I have been engaged in issues related to fair representation in publishing for a long time, and I have worked in the literary arena in the past as a small press publisher and as a poetry organiser for the Poets Union. In those public activities I have made it my business to support and promote women writers, gay writers, new writers and writers from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) because those groups have always found it difficult to break into the literary scene and have traditionally not been well represented there. As well I have written articles and given papers on these topics.
However, my knowledge about how well represented these groups are has always been impressionistic, so for this paper I decided I would try to find some statistics which might back up my impressions. I have spent quite a lot of time on the phone looking for the statistics-basically trying to find out what the ratio of women being published was. I started out with a vague statistic in my head about the ratio of women being published in the 70s. Someone said once in a women writers' group that they had analysed University of Queensland Press statistics (and UQP would be regarded as a relatively enlightened publisher) and that the proportion of publications by women there was about 20 per cent at that time.
I rang D.W. Thorpe, publisher of Australian Books in Print and Who's Who of Australian Writers. I rang the National Book Council, the National Library, the Australian Book Publisher's Association, the State Library of New South Wales, Penguin, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australia Council. I also spoke to Susan Hawthorne, the publisher at Spinifex Press, and to one of the owners of Gleebooks in Sydney. No one knew of any statistics readily available which listed the percentage of women writers being published today in Australia. It would be possible though, with more time than I have had at my disposal, to scan a publication like Australian Books in Print or the Austlit database held by the Australian Defence Force Academy to deduce the statistics.
Susan Hawthorne said that her feeling was that about 40 per cent of books published were by women. She also said that Dale Spender cited a statistic that 86 per cent of book buyers were women. Susan and I talked about the number of women writing compared to men, and the number of women attending institutional writing courses and less formal workshops. With some experience between us, we felt that the ratio of women to men in courses and workshops was about 80 per cent women to 20 per cent men. This anecdotal statistic could suggest that there are many more women writing than men and it could also suggest that the men writing tend to be autodidacts more than the women are. But my feeling is that women writers make up many more than 50 per cent of all fiction writers and poets. And if that is the case, then equal representation of women to men published would have to be different from a 50:50 split if women published were to become equal to the percentage of women writing.
People at the Australia Council were very helpful in my enquiries and sent me the Australia Council statistics for the Council's initiatives. It was interesting to find that for 1993 - 94, the split was, as Susan Hawthorne had predicted, about 60 per cent of titles by men and 40 per cent of titles by women. The Council also gave twice as many four-year fellowships to men as women that year but women gained about 50 per cent of the six-month and one-year fellowships. I could not glean anything accurate from the Council statistics about NESB writers.
The Council also sent statistics on the gender breakdown of writers published in funded literary magazines. The overall ratio was 60 per cent men to 40 per cent women but those figures included Hecate which publishes only women. Generally magazines fell into 3 groups:
- those with more than 80 per cent of contributions by men including Quadrant, the Sydney Review and the Adelaide Review
- those with an almost-standard 60 per cent of contributions by men including Island, Overland and Meanjin with Imago and Australian Short Stories in the low 50 per cents
- those which published more women than men, ie. just over 50 per cent including Westerly and Southerly. Hecate has 100 per cent.
Mainstream media attitudes
It seems that things are better than they used to be. My feeling is that women are getting published in mainstream presses and most importantly, there are now presses which are exclusively for women which was not the case before. There are more women in positions of power in the publishing industry as well. But there are still things which I find problematic. For example, is the feminist voice being heard amongst the women being published? When we walk into bookshops these days and see lots of books by women, are they Australian or are they mainly by overseas writers (British and American)? And to what extent does the book trade deny access to marketing by the smaller and local publishers? My experience as a small press publisher is that it is as difficult as it has ever been for small local publishers to distribute and sell books and it is in these smaller publishing enterprises that you find the new, the feminist, the multicultural, the gay and the experimental writing.
As well there is the not-so-occasional backlash against women writers and feminists which we have to contend with, like the backlash against multiculturalism. The excluding idea of excellence is still very much with us and is the argument used against those of us who push for fair representation in print.
On this point of the backlash-I was sitting in a doctor's surgery a few weeks ago and happened to have plenty of time to read this year's February issue of Vanity Fair which contained two interesting articles. Interesting that is, when seen in relation to each other. One was the cover story about the film star Brad Pitt titled: Brad Boy, why Brad Pitt is Hollywood's ultimate sex symbol. It was an interview, more or less. The other one was about the English woman writer, Jeanette Winterson, titled: Winterson's Discontent and cited on the cover as: Does Jeanette Winterson Think She's God? It was not at all an interview and maybe an interview had been refused. Both articles were written by female journalists.
In the Pitt interview, the journalist finds Pitt not very communicative so she quotes other people talking about him as well. The Pitt quotes are not too deep, like: 'I say whatever helps you sleep at night, fine by me.' However, the article is extremely positive, particularly about his looks, and he is shown in a sort of hip beefcake kind of way-golden, leonine. By contrast, the Winterson article is scathing and negative. The journalist says that Winterson believes she is God's gift to literature and that her developing egomania has resulted in the demise of her literary talent as evidenced in her latest book, Art and Lies. The evidence for her literary collapse is that Art and Lies departs from Winterson's previous narrative style and uses a collage technique, collaging a variety of texts and is quite discontinuous in the narrative sense. The journalist also cites some of Winterson's behaviour and statements as evidence that she is quite unhinged, just like her new writing. Winterson is heavily criticised for being self-promoting partly because she chose one of her own books when asked to select her favourite author writing in English in 1994 by The Daily Telegraph in England.
My feeling when I read that was to laugh and think it was an interesting thing to say and sounded like a political statement in a way. It reminded me of the _O poem from the Penguin anthology Off the Record called mayakovsky a la koch (sortov) which repeats the line i'm brilliant many times. _O's performance of the poem is interesting as a political statement because he looks like and speaks like a Greek-Australian and enunciates positively about himself what few Anglo-Australian critics would enunciate about him. So far anyway.
In the Winterson article, Winterson is also quoted as saying 'As long as I am being pummelled, I know I am on the right track.' The journalist says that this statement is evidence of Winterson being an embattled writer which is linked to her being the adopted only child of fundamentalist Christians. So much about Winterson is reduced to the personal rather than contextualised and understood politically. She is even attributed statements which characters in her novels utter. My feeling about the Winterson article is that if her work is to be criticised, can't it be done fairly? And about the Pitt interview, does this male film star have to be seen as so fabulous? Well, maybe in the mainstream press, that is the way things do have to be.
I think that more women have to get into print and that a wider variety of opinion needs to be heard even though we have made gains. It seems that all the work done by women over the last 20 years has only resulted in a limited success, that equality is still a long way off. I wonder if this fight will continue until women writers have equality of opportunity or if the backlashes against equal opportunity will swamp us. I hope that there will be many more women to come who will continue the struggle.
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