Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Future Directions in Australian Women's Writing / Sophie Cunningham
It is inevitable that one feels a sense of dis-ease when tackling such a broad topic. What, for example, is meant by Australian, what is meant by Women's Writing? As a publisher I often feel less well read than those outside the industry, my scope being limited to some extent by the reading I do for my own list. This questioning of the question is not intended to be obtuse so much as to recognise the fact that there is no neat category that is 'woman'. To mix my metaphors, my experience both as a woman and as a publisher has been that there is not a battle between the sexes where the sides are clearly delineated so much as a minefield through which all women have to walk. These mines include generation, sexual orientation, the genre one writes in, class and race. While I am aware that such comments can result in reducing any political movement to a level of chaos that makes it politically ineffective, I do think that the act of writing is an extremely personal thing, which makes these subtleties all the more important. And certainly these other issues can inform a woman's work as much as her gender.
All that said, there is a difference I believe, in the way women and men perceive things-events, relationships, landscapes-spaces and this difference needs to be valued and encouraged. And it is: the number of women writing and being published today represents close to fifty per cent of authors. The number of female publishers is ensuring that the response to many women's concerns is empathetic.
Several recent best sellers, all by women, point to the problems and I suppose, the exciting possibilities of debate that surround women's writing. Helen Garner's book The First Stone also drew attention to the tensions caused by generational difference, as I believe did the Helen Demidenko affair. In the former, Helen Garner could be accused of not being empathetic towards the way in which a younger generation of women position and identify themselves, while the opposite could be seen to be the case with Helen Demidenko in which all the judges were too easily impressed by her voice,
perhaps because she had taken on the so-called big issues at a young age. I would argue that if a young woman had written a manuscript of the quality of The Hand that Signed the Paper with contemporary sexual mores as her subject she would have been dismissed reasonably promptly. It was her audacity I think, that blew the judges away and perhaps blinded them to some of the problems in her work.
Justine Ettler's novel The River Ophelia, also a best seller, triggered one of the most scathing reviews I have ever read of a novel, in which Rosemary Sorenson described the experience of reading the book as akin to having someone throw up in her lap. That said, the book has sold more than 10,000 copies and largely, so I can gather from the anecdotal evidence of booksellers, to young women. They are not uncomfortable with the bleak, mono-rhythmic style or the exploration of sexual obsessions and degrading behaviours.
Discussion of Garner, Ettler and Demidenko/Darville all serve to draw attention to the commercial potential of writing by women. Recent changes in structure at the Australia Council do, however, point to the fact that this notion of 'commercial viability' is in danger of becoming a millstone around many creative writers' necks. There is the danger of feeling pressured to 'be in fashion' when, as all good writers know, attempting to write to requirements other than one's own impulse is usually doomed to failure. I am not arguing that it is the state's role to fund writers for the whole of their careers, but it does strike me that there is a halfway position possible between the current proposal for a one-off fellowship and the mentality that grants should be on tap.
Women's writing is being encouraged to be lateral, to deal with new technologies and the associated coming together of text and image, as well as to tackle contemporary issues in a street-smart way. Information-based writing is also particularly well served by shifts in funding policy and the development of these new technologies.
This is not all bad news: the conventional book industry is being encroached upon by other technologies and other ways of gathering information, fictional and otherwise, and I think an extremely important and interesting strand of writing will arise from the Internet experience and the development of CD-ROMs. Certain writers who are good at dealing with material in a lateral way and who can represent themselves both with illustrations and words, may be in a much stronger position to make an impact on the up and coming generation of readers than are writers who are not as multiskilled. Kaz Cooke is an example. It is extremely important that writers keep themselves abreast of changes in
technology and the publishing industry even if they are not overly interested. It is also important to learn to speak the language of the future, even if it is not your favoured or native tongue.
It is clear that there is going to be less and less funding and fewer grants available to writers, and they will have to fall back on to other resources to make a living. While writing may remain the avenue through which they make money-via commissions or freelance writing-as any creative writer knows, such work is not the same as creative writing. I also understand writers' concerns that it is not as easy to write on commission as it is to sculpt or paint. While a painter or sculptor might be given artistic freedom, writing is a medium which a projects sponsor may feel more tempted to control. As women are less likely to be supported in their craft by a partner than many male writers are, and are more likely to have their time taken up by traditional caring roles, this government-enforced trend towards self-sufficiency may indeed impact more on women writers than male writers.
Generational difference is one of the particularly important 'mines' that I mentioned in my introduction, partly because it is implicated in the direction of the future. It is something that I have become particularly aware of in the last few years, not least because as a younger publisher I represent a new generation of publishing and became very quickly aware of vast differences between my world-view and those of women who have been working in the industry much longer.
A case in point revolves around the cover that I did for a detective thriller some years ago when I was a publisher at McPhee Gribble. The main character was a Koori detective woman and the plot was action-packed. The kind of cover that I came up with was a bit like a Wonder Woman cartoon sketch, a bam! wow! pow! image of a large-breasted woman standing astride a small man and holding a gun at his head. l was drawing very deliberately on the cartoon genre and the sense of empowerment that this very sexy if somewhat two-dimensional figure had. Her power was not just about sex, it was about a number of things, not least of which was the fact that she was the owner of the gun. I was also trying to create the sense that this book was in a tradition of fun, rather than an overly earnest attempt to be 'correct' which could restrict the readership to a couple of thousand converts. Well, the author hated the cover, her agent was offended and told me she had not seen such a sexist cover in twenty years in the industry and she was shocked that a woman could have presented such a cover. I was quite distressed. She then proceeded to lecture me about feminism. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the imagery I chose to use, I was offended by the assumption that I had no knowledge of the history of feminism and that I had not incorporated it into my world-view at all. My point is that a large number of things are incorporated into my world-view, cartoons and modern media having as much impact on these things for me as more conventional notions of feminism.
I pass on such examples not to whinge so much as to point out the absolute difference of perception that younger women often find when they are attempting to relate to women of a generation above them-as a book like The First Stone makes clear. There is a sense of quite entrenched views from an existing generation of feminists who are waiting for younger women-us-to get it right.
How does this relate to the future of women's writing you might ask? I think it has a lot to do with it: with a lot of younger women choosing to write for 'zines' published on the Internet or Net. Their style is very fluid and dramatic style and often incorporates both illustrations, text and a fairly unconventional use of grammar. This can lead to many older readers of both genders to dismiss such writing as un-thought-through or scatty, not to say badly written. Certainly I have heard such accusations placed at the door of some younger women writers. Younger women do feel alienated about submitting their writing to the mainstream media (though the notion of a 'mainstream' is getting more tenuous, I believe) and are less likely to build up a reputation in this way than the previous generation of writers.
There are a lot of problems, I suspect, with new technologies. And a danger that new technologies could decrease access as well as increase access. The problem of CD-ROMs for the publishing industry has to do with the difficulty and expense of production and marketing. There is a large investment required for the production of CD-ROMs and it is difficult to retrieve these costs from the Australian market alone. This could mean that publishers focus on 'big' ideas, and import from countries such as the US and UK. The situation could be seen as similar to the one the Australian film industry finds itself in with relation to Hollywood. The Net poses some solutions in that Net products are relatively inexpensive, but there are still many problems associated with it. There is a difference between an author going into a site and typing her thoughts on an issue in a casual way and the publishing process, which involves a lot of editorial input, design input, and discussion about the focus of the book and the shape it will take. If people can download whole books on the Net at zero cost, do authors, or publishers for that matter, get paid? How is a writer of any gender to earn a living as a writer?
As well there are associated problems of the information-rich and information-poor. It is very expensive to keep up with new technologies and if, as statistics suggest, women have a lower level of income, they are going to be disadvantaged both in their access to the equipment to produce their books in a form suitable to publishers-though there are obviously ways around this-and in their access to material and information.
None of this is to say that what is more conventionally known as literature is going to die out, but I do believe that the literature of ideas will be displaced somewhat. People's knowledge of what women are writing and of the concerns of women is going to be gleaned as much through spin-offs from books as from the books themselves: the film, the CD-ROM, the extracts on the Net. All of which points to the importance of a good contract with your publisher and a commitment to remain as hands-on in the production of your work for new technologies as you would with production of a print book. Don't let the new technologies and modes of production bamboozle you.
The original ideas and original publication will always have a very special place in my heart and I assume this is so for most people involved in publishing, but I do sometimes fear that this is nostalgia rather than any firm reality. An extreme example would be the adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma into a terrific film about teenagers called Clueless, in which the very broad-brush idea that Jane Austen was working with has been translated into a modern context.
Critics are right in saying that there is a monotonic repetitive style to the younger generation of writers, and that their world view has a bleakness and a hard edge, but I would argue that this is a growth of a different aesthetic, one that I certainly feel very comfortable with. While some of the writers of this generation, the so-called grunge writers, are not very good writers, some are extremely good, and people's response to content very much obscures their response to the prose at times. But one thing that will ensure a healthy prognosis for writing in the future is a greater generosity of spirit and reading of the younger women writers. The point about the future is that it does not in fact belong to those who are key figures in the present, and it involves letting go of control, aesthetic and otherwise. One of the tasks for feminism in recent years has been the celebration of difference, and this needs to be remembered as women explore new ways of writing and expressing themselves.
That said, I do have a concern about a younger generation of writers. There seems to be a real dislocation from the past, the reasons for which I think are multiple, but it can limit a writer's field if she cannot place herself and her writing in an historical context and if she does not feel free to rake the past for ideas.
The tensions highlighted by generational difference do provide a possible exploration for the future of women's writing. The tendency in younger writers to move outwards and explore lateral connections, to create a web, if you like, around themselves, rather than to explore deeper, more focused connections to people and place is very much a product of the modern world: the notion of the global village, ease of air travel, new technologies, an eroding environment and the dissipation of the nuclear family structures that have evolved in the West since the industrial revolution. The challenge for all artists is, I believe, to explore the constantly shifting world we live in as well as to develop new possibilities for spiritual lives, for loving lives, for cultural lives in the face of this movement towards constant change. How do we celebrate and embrace lives lived in states of permanent 'future shock'?
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