Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Panel Session: Publishing: Fact and Fiction / Sara Dowse
I would like to take this opportunity to say a few things about what it is like to be a writer, a female writer, writing in Australia at the fag end of the twentieth century. Firstly, no-one is at this seminar because they're writing for the money, neither the writer nor the publisher. I am very, very aware of the position of publishers, especially Allen and Unwin, because one of my sons works there now with Elizabeth Weiss. I myself once worked as a publisher, like Stephanie Dowrick - although not in such a grand or creative way.
I have straddled many worlds, I have been a publisher and a femocrat, and I am still trying to get to grips with this in my own writing. I am also the mother of five children-and I do not often say this in forums of this kind-but recently I was at the PEN International Congress in Perth and I was introduced in this way. Twenty years ago that would have been a no-no; today I feel very proud that I have been able to combine what has been to me a very satisfying and rich experience with that of being a writer and a feminist and a bureaucrat.
Two aspects of my life in fact, are incorporated in the National Library of Australia's collection. I first began donating papers as a result of my study being clogged up with material from the early days of what is now the Office of the Status of Women. It was only subsequently that I began turning over papers as a bona fide writer, something that I have always, all my life, wanted to be.
When in my late thirties I gave up my job as a senior bureaucrat to become a writer, it was like Zelda Fitzgerald announcing that she was going to take up ballet. A lot of my friends and acquaintances said that this was an extraordinarily mad thing to do, and it was. But I think the best things in life are the mad things.
Oddly, because I was a feminist and because I had a very large part to play, if marginally, in the public world, it never occurred to me that the decision I was making to become a writer was in fact part of the women's movement: that there were all kinds of women everywhere at precisely the same time, making the same sorts of decisions and that the conditions for publishing our works were enormously right. This is odd, but when we are working away in a little room, as we all do as writers, we are often isolated from these events and movements, although in some osmotic way we are also tapped into them.
So, it was a big surprise to me that after I left the bureaucracy, Brian Johns, who worked in the Prime Minister's Department with me, also resigned and went to work at Penguin to build up an original Penguin fiction list. He came to see me one day and he said, 'Sara, I hear you have a manuscript'. I said, 'Well, I don't have a manuscript but I have an idea'. What I wanted to write about was, of course, the experience of being a feminist in the bureaucracy. He was very patient and had it been any other person in the world he would have walked out the door right then and there, because a book set in Canberra about feminists and about the bureaucracy was not something that was going to sell very well, or so we both thought. I thought that I would be spending the rest of my life in a garret, scribbling away at a book nobody else would ever want to read.
To my surprise Brian was very enthusiastic. He said, 'Come on, come on, we want this manuscript', which was very good in a way, because I had a dream run as a writer compared with some of my friends who struggled and struggled to get published. In another way it was very difficult because this, in fact, was my apprenticeship novel and I did not get the time to work on it that I might have had if I gone the traditional route of most writers, which is penury, penury, penury and more penury for years and years and years. I have had plenty of penury but it has not taken the usual trajectory.
West Block, the novel I am talking about, was published in 1983, again to my great surprise and, needless to say, pleasure. But its reception was very problematic and I think that there were several reasons for this. One of those reasons was to do with some of the influences that were working on me as a writer. Oddly enough, they were mostly from male writers. Because of my respect for time I will mention only two: John Dos Passos and James Joyce. It is odd that a feminist writing in the 1980s would be absolutely immersed in the works of two male writers but that is what I was. Both of these writers gave to me forms and consciousnesses that we seem to ascribe to women's writing: that is, the marriage or interaction between the public and the private, and a sense of fragmentation which appears on the surface to be very characteristic not only of women's lives, but of modern life in general.
When I wrote West Block I was absolutely deeply involved in these sorts of questions and West Block is a fragmented book. It is also a book written by a woman with, I hope, a feminist perspective but nonetheless about the public world. That made it difficult to place me as a writer in the explosion of the eighties, where women's writing was seen, rightly or wrongly, to be about the woman's world, about domestic matters, about the private. There was a lot about the private in West Block, but that is not what received the attention. It did very well, it sold very well and I was lucky. However, it placed me in a difficult position with respect to the critical reception it received.
I then wrote Silver City, which had a very special kind of etiology. The next major work was Schemetime, a book that has fallen into a big hole-it is not even in print any more. I am very fond of this book, but I have to admit that, once again, I had written a book that a woman was not supposed to write. The publishers found it very difficult to deal with. We ended up marketing it as a Hollywood love story in a kind of desperate bid to sell copies. However, it was actually Ulysses recast, set in Hollywood and written from a feminist perspective. Nobody knows this, or cares, except me. It was written in a very terse Raymond Chandleresque style. The hero was a man who was a Stephen Dedalus character, with all the difficulties we associate with Stephen Dedalus as a character-you know, the male artist-and it was written from a female perspective. The Leopold Bloom character is a Hollywood lawyer who embodies, in the narrator's perspective, what is good about being male. It is a feminist position on how men should be. Well, no wonder it did not sell.
There are lots more horror stories associated with Schemetime: in-house troubles with editors, et cetera. I was kind of a worry to Penguin, although they were very, very good to me and supported me through all these troubles.
When I wrote Sapphires there was an almost audible sigh of relief because here was a book that was far more acceptable. It was still fragmented but fragmentation was okay now. There was a theoretical basis or a justification for this kind of writing and also it was about women. This was seen to be a really good thing from the publisher's point of view, a marketable thing. I remember having endless battles-although I was very careful because I now know that having battles with your publisher does you no good at all unless you do it very diplomatically-to make sure that the intellectual content of the book, and there is a good deal of that, got some sort of mention in its marketing.
I think what we are trying to do as women writers, at least what I am trying to do, is to break through the old moulds so that women can write about anything-about intellectual concepts as well as our own particularly female experiences. Trying to marry those two things is very, very difficult when you are working in a public arena.
There has been tremendous progress made in terms of women's writing and the reception of women's writing over the last 20 years. It is mind-boggling when you think of it, but there are still problems for us, for women writers. Ian Hicks, who is the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald literary pages, created a problem for me by putting Sapphires in a portmanteau review with three other books by three other women writers, including Thea Astley's latest, Coda.
Now it would be unthinkable to put the latest book by David Ireland or the latest book by Rodney Hall in a portmanteau review with other male writers. I pointed this out to Ian Hicks and he used every kind of classical male defence mechanism I can think of, including the one that neither Thea Astley nor I had written particularly good books and we deserved that kind of treatment.
At the moment we seem to be up against another curious phenomenon-and I hope the publishers on the panel will take me up on this-and that is about being young. It seems to me it is really desirable to be young now. When we were young, writers were not the same kind of commodity they are now. Anyway, that is another story. But now, okay, I am an older woman writer and what this means is, especially in the light of the proposed changes to the Australia Council funding, that I might apply in the future to writer's project grants to get a face lift!*
*This paper is based on an edited transcript of an audio recording, with the permission of Sara Dowse. Copies of Sara Dowse's books can be ordered from the National Library of Australia Bookshop.
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