Feminist Writing and Women in Publishing

Abstract: The following encloses the characteristics that are inclusive of an independently run publishing house by women. The reasons why most of their work is in effect of feminist nature speaks in itself of the challenges faced by women’s studies scholars to anchor the struggles faced by women as second citizen’s in the society. the paper overthrows the stereotypical notions of women’s writing from a patriarchal perspective but rather focuses on the aftermath of women in power through education and their freedom of writing.

Keywords: feminist writing, women publishing, health education, women’s movement

Fifty years (or half a century) is usually considered a good marker for looking back on a country’s history, or on developments of major social, cultural or political importance. In book publishing, however, which is a significant gauge of a people’s intellectual output, the last twenty-five years in India have been especially noteworthy. They have seen the emergence of a number of younger publishing professionals, many of them women. Of the ten or twelve new imprints that have been established in the country in the last twenty years, more than half have been set up by women and are run independently by them. These are in addition to family-run publishing houses and bookshops, many of which also have women at the helm.

The remarkable fact about the independent women-run publishing houses is that they cover the entire spectrum of English-language publishing in India: academic and scholarly; fiction; general interest non-fiction; children’s; feminist; and a combination of several of the above. They have pioneered publishing in areas and categories that had earlier been ignored, namely, feminist, Dalit, gay and lesbian, and writing in translation from regional languages. What is more, they have all survived in a notoriously difficult market.

This rather unusual fact is not limited to book publishing. The major book reviewing periodicals (those not associated with the books pages of national newspapers or newsmagazines) are also run by women, and often, women academics are books editors for academic journals, as well. Most editorial staff, including freelance editors, in publishing houses is female; publicity divisions are almost entirely staffed by young women, and the three new Indian branches of big multinational houses – Random House India, Routledge and HarperCollins – have women as their chief editors. [Editor’s Note: Some of these multi-nationals have changed their positioning in the publishing world since the publication of this article]

This is certainly a big change from thirty or forty years ago. Even fifteen or twenty years ago, if you were a woman and told anyone in the book trade that your area of writing and publishing was “feminist”, they would probably have advised you to immediately reconsider. No such thing exists, they would have said, what does it mean? And even if you were to explain yourself somehow, they would immediately tell you that there was no “market” for it. No obvious market, that is. The “institutional” market -libraries, government departments, college and university centres – hardly recognised the appellation; the “educational” market – school books, prescribed texts for undergraduate courses, required reading for examinations – has no provision for it, and students were hardly likely to buy books that were not part of the syllabus. The retail market – well, that was so unreliable that no publisher was willing to take the risk. Too much investment and little possibility of quick returns, so why tie up scarce resources?

In other words, no one was really willing to either explore or develop a readership or “market”, in publishing terms, for a kind of writing that had no real pedigree, no recognisable features, no easily identifiable ” slot” .

By the early 1990s, however, every major academic publisher in the country had a “gender studies” list – and they’re not wondering about viability or reliability any more. What could have happened in the space of just a few years to make them change their minds? What happened, very briefly, is that they “discovered” feminist writing.

There is a tendency to equate women’s writing with “women’s issues”, generally described as those concerned with the domestic sphere. Feminist writing, however, makes no such distinction between private and public; its issues could be economic liberalisation, globalisation, militarisation, violence, politics, health, education, the environment, law, literature, history or the arts. “Every issue is a women’s issue” has been the slogan of the women’s movement, and anyone can be a feminist writer, man or woman, if their perspective is a gender perspective.

Another common misconception is that such writing and publishing is by definition for women and women only, and that it has to be done by women in order to qualify. This is not the case. Feminist writing addresses a general readership but, like any other writing, it has an identifiable constituency, which is predominantly women; just as law books are read mostly by lawyers and law students, medical books by those working in medicine, architecture mainly by architects, and so on. It is also not true that only women write “all that feminist stuff” but it is a fact that, so far, more women than men have written on women from a feminist perspective – this is hardly surprising, given that women’s studies has generally been discounted in academic circles and institutions. But things are changing, and more male academics and writers are now giving it the serious attention it deserves.

This brings me to the second important development of the last decade or so with regard to feminist writing, and that is the acceptance, in principle, of women’s studies as a legitimate academic pursuit. Of course, there is still no degree, undergraduate or post-graduate, being offered in Women’s Studies, nor a discipline by that name in any college or university in the country, with the exception of Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow and Mother Teresa College in Coimbatore which offer post-graduate degrees; and the Tata Institute for Social Sciences which offers a diploma in it; this means that there is no syllabus and therefore no course material. Nevertheless, there are women’s studies centres in selected universities in the country; some departments have introduced papers on it in different disciplines, and others allow the awarding of M.Phil and Ph.D degrees on theses with a women’s studies focus. Thus, the scope for books on the subject has expanded appreciably over the last decade or so, especially in colleges and universities, and this means that more academics are undertaking research on it.

The other area that has grown tremendously and is a good market for women-specific material, is the development sector. Here, the bias is towards women/gender and development issues – broadly speaking, health, education work/employment, political participation, poverty, environment, and so on – and, the outreach is enormous. A great deal of feminist writing is directed specifically to this sector, which continues to expand as more and more activity takes place within it. Feminist publishing in India has been an outcome of women’s direct involvement with activism and local women’s movements, and often in response to an immediate or urgent need for making available particular kinds of written material on women. The production of books, pamphlets, research papers, theoretical work, even course material has generally followed, rather than anticipated, a felt need for these by activists and academicians, media women, and women writers. Women’s publishing, thus, may well be an extension of other developmental activity, of specific research projects and programmes, or of an involvement with women’s studies; or it may be an offshoot of related work on women and media, or of periodical publication. While there are women publishing professionals who have moved away from the more mainstream and into feminist publishing, many women who have ventured into publishing often have little or no prior publishing experience – but may have a solid base in development or “alternative” media.

Again, not very many of the groups that publish see publishing as their sole or primary activity. Most of them are multipurpose organisations, are simultaneously – and equally – involved in grass-roots work, in mobilising, in training, in working on health, education, political empowerment, and so on; their publishing – or production of material on women – is a component of other activities and takes its place beside them.

In practically every sense of the word, women’s publishing is a “developmental” activity – developing material, developing awareness, skills, writers and markets, and not least, developing a readership. Women write in the face of tremendous odds, sometimes under direct threat to their lives. Many are in self-imposed exile in different parts of the world because they refuse to be silenced; others are censored, either by their states – or by men and society. In countries where theocracies or regimes of the ultra right are in power, women may find they can only publish outside their own countries, and women publishers may exercise a form of self-censorship. In some countries, because of war or economic crises or ethnic conflict, it has been difficult to lay a sound foundation for a publishing infrastructure.

In India, research on women within universities and academic institutions is proceeding apace, even though as mentioned earlier, it has not led to any syllabi changes. The social sciences, in particular, and literature and history have been very active, and in the last fifteen years, a considerable body of feminist or “gendered” writing in these disciplines has been published. Because there are now at least half a dozen scholarly publishers who publish women’s studies titles, the choice for writers is much greater; but this has created its own peculiar problem. The relatively greater acceptability of feminist research within academia means that writers may wish to publish in the metropolitan centres of the West for greater visibility, better distribution and informed critical attention; or they may seek the security of a more mainstream or university press. For a women’s press trying to build up a list and a strong authorship, this can be an unexpected hurdle. But the opposite also happens – writers choose to be published by a feminist press out of solidarity and political conviction, and for many publishers, committed and loyal authors are as important as loyal readers. It has also made for some wonderful partnerships, where authors and publishers have grown together.

Perhaps the single most important constraint for feminist publishing is the lack of purchasing power and a local market that will support a diverse publishing industry. Conditions for what is often called a “book culture” are generally unfavourable – literacy levels are low, most publishing is geared to “programmed reading”, i.e., textbooks, and local publishers face stiff competition from western multinationals, and a great deal of publishing is still state-controlled. In India, where there is a relatively stable and old publishing industry, publishers have to deal with a multiplicity of languages and literatures and reading habits – the enormous domestic market is thus fractionated. Marketing and selling women’s books become a matter of skilful negotiation and positioning, and ensuring visibility. Although things are changing gradually, even today a general interest English language book that sell up to 5000 copies in one year is considered a “best-seller” – this in a country that is supposed to have a middle-class of 200,000,000 with a disposable income!

Today, a good thirty years after the first-ever feminist presses were set up in the West, the greater part of feminist writing – feminist defined in broad terms and encompassing theoretical and critical work; social science research; creative writing, and general interest non-fiction – is published by academic, university and trade presses, short on “politics” as we understand it in the movement, but long on marketing, financial capacity and sales. In addition they offer academics the company of a peer group, and the advantages of stability and status. Publishing on gender is a far less economically risky business today than it ever was and, in any case, commercial or scholarly publishing is able to withstand the shock of market fluctuations somewhat better than the generally under-capitalised feminist presses. Moreover, despite the fact that women’s studies does not yet exist as a discipline in India and therefore lacks the prospect of guaranteed sale through course adoptions, it is nevertheless profitable enough precisely because the space for it outside the educational institutions has now been made. Publishers are thus assured of sales as readership grows, slowly but steadily.

The importance of being economically viable is not lost on feminist publishers, but because their objective is primarily to be true to their politics as Susan Hawthorne says, they walk a tightrope. The skill lies in combining the commercial with the political – but there’s the rub. For feminist publishing, or publishing for social change, is by definition, a “developmental” activity in every sense of the word. It’s a long-term investment involving the surfacing or excavating of hitherto unremarked or unacknowledged work; often initiating research or writing on subjects that have been ignored or discounted; working closely – and uneconomically, it might be added – over long periods with authors; above all, developing material, awareness, skills, writers and markets and, not least, developing a readership. This is more or less true, generally, but particularly in countries of the South. Not only are we unable to provide advances or other inducements to our authors, we are simultaneously engaged in publishing the kind of movement-related material that no commercial publisher will take up: reports, primers, handbooks, training manuals, and so on. Slow gestation, low returns and difficult marketing characterise this kind of material which many may not even classify as “books” or “monographs”, for much of it is fragmentary and documentary in nature. Because it is unsuited to the retail trade, it needs to be marketed differently – through non-governmental organisations; alternative networks; in trainings and workshops; at women’s caucuses, conferences and seminars.

It has become a truism in the world of feminist publishing that it’s not enough to produce alternative “messages”, to write in a different voice on issues of social, political, cultural and economic interest. Equally, if not more, important, is getting this message across. The dissemination and circulation of all the material generated by feminist publishing in India has, in my view, not been wholly satisfactory. Generally speaking, books are distributed through the book trade, on the basis of orders routed through them, or received directly by them through their own promotional activity. But we have also used what we call alternative networks, nationally and internationally; direct mail, through mail-outs to selected customers, individual as well as institutional; regional networks and the services of individual activists travelling to different cities within the country; conferences, seminars, workshops and book fairs, nationally and regionally; specialised bookstores or women’s book-places; direct supply to the retail trade but because bookshops are so few and far flung in India, this is seldom the best option. Yet, they are the only places where individual buying takes place, and where books on women can get good exposure; and finally, though rarely, through alternative book-club schemes. Although this is a distinct possibility, several very practical problems keep it from being feasible, the main ones being a regular turnover of books, trained staff, and an efficient delivery system.

Despite all these problems, however, books published by feminist publishers do manage to get around, both nationally and internationally, though the numbers may not be large. There are several reasons for this: the spread of feminism and women’s movements the world over has created a hospitable international environment in which to publish, and export. Even though India may not have many courses on, or Colleges with, women’s studies, the rest of the English-speaking world USA, Canada, Britain, Australia – offer very good markets for books produced in India. Again, all over the world, women have built up networks in order to share information and knowledge about national, regional and international events, especially conferences and seminars at which material may be bought and sold and, not least, authors commissioned.

Feminist writing and publishing in India have also had a major part to play not only in presenting and disseminating critiques of the dominant development model, but in shaping it, through their close involvement with women at the grassroots, through workshops and training, and through making the necessary links between macro-level policy and micro-level reality. The theoretical perspectives on gender and development that have emerged from women bear the stamp of this politically engaged consciousness; the many networks that have taken up the issues in any number of ways, at any number of meetings, seminars and conferences, and in campaigns throughout the country have fed this consciousness back into women’s writing and researching, so that their activism and their publishing complement each other in a very fundamental sense. In such a situation, the one may not take precedence over the other, but each is certainly informed by it; well might we say, the activist as publisher – or the publisher as activist.

(Ritu Menon’s “Feminist Writing and Women in. Publishing” appeared in 50 Years of Book Publishing in India since Independence, ed. Dina N. Malhotra. New Delhi: Federation of Indian Publishers, 1998, 293-98.)

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RITU MENON

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