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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 23. 23rd September 1973

What Women Writers? — The New Zealand Literary Press As one of the last bastions of Male Chauvinism

page 12

What Women Writers?

The New Zealand Literary Press As one of the last bastions of Male Chauvinism

Ms Robin Johnson is a lecturer in modern poetry and literature in the extension studies department at UCLA. According to a report from a friend who recently showed her some recent copies of Edge she found that magazine particularly impressive but felt compelled to add that it was typical of contemporary literary publications for its discrimination against women contributors. According to Ms Johnson, even the very best women writers arid poets find it difficult to get into the major literary magazines and presses: and that they are, in short, one of the last bastions of male chauvinism.

My first reaction was crap! My second has been to find out just what the facts are before I shoot my mouth off too much — so let's do that first.

For group A, I have taken all currently operating New Zealand literary magazines known to the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers Australasia (COSMEPA), an organisation which is roughly to the literary press what the FOL is to trade unions. Within this group I've looked at their most recent three issues of this writing. With group B I've listed those literary magazines which, though no longer active as such, operated since 1970 or in 1970.

For all issues surveyed I have given the sex of the editors involved in all issues of any one magazine surveyed (business managers and layout editors counted in here also.) Then I've obtained a ratio simply by adding up male and female contributors (it is not a true ratio by the number of unsexed contributors but this could be expressed as a range of adding the unsexed contributors to both columns of sexed contributors.)

New Zealand literary magazines active as of August 1973 (most recent three issues): Arena (one male editor); ratio — 37:10. Cave (six male editors spread over the last three issues); ratio — 82:11. Edge (seven male editors over the last three issues); ratio — 99:9. Island (one male editor); ratio — 67:4. Landfall (two male editors); ratio — 39:11. Lipsync (one male editor); ratio 37:4. Mate (two male editors over the last three issues); ratio — 48:5.

New Zealand literary magazine active between 1970 and August 1973: Argot/New Argot (over Argot 28-29/New Argot 1 five male editors and two female editors); ratio — 68:4. Fragments (two male editors) ratio — 23:5. Freed at Last (a final fifth issue that was released in the 70's, one male editor plus one male design editor); ratio — 8:1. Orpheus (also a final fifth issue that was released in the 70's, staff of two males and two females); ratio — 14:3. Our Very Own poetry and Prose (an ill-fated one issue. One male editor); ratio 5:5 (but a high rate of contributors whose sex I was unsure of).

The average ratio for these 11 magazines is in fact 38.9:5.5 or something like 8 male contributors for each one female contributor. If we look at only the six at present operating literary magazines the ratio is 51.6:7.5 or something like 7 or 8 male contributors for every one female contributor: a figure not dissimilar from that of the total group. This is not, of course, a figure that corresponds to the ratio of men and women in the wider population which is much more closer to 1:1.

Interestingly enough if we turn to recent anthologies the ration becomes more like 3:1, for instance refer to: Poetry in New Zealand 1 (one male editor); ratio — 30:9. Poet (One NZ female editor); ratio — 18:7. NZ Universities Arts Festival Literary Yearbook (four male editors); ratio — 65:7.

Image of a girl and a tea party with dolls

I said the ratio in anthologies becomes more like 3:1 except for combined university students' association literary anthologies where the ratio is closer to 9:1 which is worse than the countries' literary magazines!

OK — so clearly both when it comes to editorships and to contributors males enjoy a distinct advantage against women. But why? Is it really male chauvinism Let's start with the editorships first. No editor at present does it full time. The usual story is someone starting up a literary magazine or press as an after work occupation. In New Zealand it appears that men have the guts it takes to do this (or, at least, the inclination to) but women do not, with the exception of Helen Shaw and Merlene Young (who ran the literary press Kosmik Studios). Except for Merlene no woman has yet assumed the final editorship of a press or literary magazine. Perhaps one also needs to add the name of Helen M. Hogan to the female editor short list for she has put out two anthologies of poetry (for the classroom market).

In fact Hogan's most recent My Poem is a Bubble, an anthology of poems by secondary school children, is a good place to start looking for an answer to my second question. (We should also look at the same time at the Caveman's Press's Young Dunedin Poets — a collection of the winning poems by school children in the poetry competition run jointly by the Dunedin Public Library and Radio Otago.

E Pakeha ma! Akona te reo Maori i tenei ra! Inaianei! Ket mahne koe i te tataritanga.

Are you still there Whitey! Learn the Maori language today! Now! Lest you get left behind in the sifting process.

My Poem is a Bubble (Whitcoulls, 1973, one female editor); ratio — 27:87. Young Dunedin Poets (Caveman, 1972, no listed editors or judges); ratio — 3:7.

This confirms another popular theory: that girls reveal and publish more poetry than boys. A clue as to when the ratio (of serious publication) reverses itself can be found in Hogan's introduction.

"One strong impression I got, however, was that it was easier for younger children to write freshly about simple things than for senior pupils who felt it necessary to take a more philosophic approach but were not yet thinking clearly enough at this level to be free from dreary platitudes. Whether this reduced creativity is the result of examination-oriented teaching (or learning) or is inherent in the growth of the pupil at this stage is a debatable point. One principal put it another way. She wrote : "My particular disappointment is that the sixth and seventh form girls have little to offer. Their emotional involvement with life seems to inhibit language; interesting ideas are shrouded with dull words."

There may be another interesting point here — or two related ones. Reading in schools and running poetry workshops in them, the girls are generally more interested — the boys may even take some convincing that "poetry" is not to be ranked with cooking and sewing... that it's not a sissy thing to do. A lot depends on the way their teachers present poetry to them, of course. Conversely I sometimes begin to suspect that a lot of our rising generation (and even our established one) of poets find it necessary to be overly male because they are poets is this a partial explanation for hard drinking, good time fucking and a tendency to wear shirts well open at the chest — or am I imagining things. And what about Allen Curnow coming on stage in black shoes, pants and shirt with that big flowing pink or white handkerchief on full show: is he admitting some kind of West Side Story homosexuality or merely telling the rest of us that in the end we are nothing but a lot of riming couplet queers? Interesting to speculate that North American literary publishing is often considered the bastion of Jewish homosexuality.

If the truth be known though — aside from obvious AC-DC exceptions — most NZ male poets get on a needle/bottle, get into a bin/ divorce court, get bloody desperate half the time because of the pressure created by trying to be a full-time poet in a country where that pays at best about $150 a year.

Because we have been using an editorial panel, Edge has had to keep a record of all submittances as they come in and go out (so that we know when someone has lost something). Looking back over these records one thing stands out: very few women submit and when they do they probably stand a better chance of getting accepted (statistically anyway). Now, I have no way of knowing whether this is generally the case but it must be part of the answer. I know that Arthur Baysting faced a similar situation in preparing the 1970 NZ Universitites' Arts Festival Literary Yearbook because in his introductory notes he writes:

"The absence of female contributors needs some comment. It's difficult to explain this scarcity although other editors assure me they have similar problems. Of the four young women who submitted material, one sent a slightly reworked Emily Dickinson poem and none of the others justified inclusion, even on a token basis. Such timidity among women writers is difficult to understand."

And there lies another problem because you might as well accuse New Zealand editors of being racist given the ratio between work by Maori and work by Pakeha contributors, but here lies perhaps another clue. Next February Edge is teaming up with the English magazine Modern Poetry in Translation to do a combined issue devoted to poetry in translation from Australasia and the South Pacific, I got some poems in Maori today for that issue — and the poet wrote that he had written many at one time but with nowhere except Te Ao Hou to publish them in, he had gradually given up and our doing this issue had got him going again (needless to say after that Edge at least will in future no longer be a solely English language literary publication if we can help it.) So there can be a kind of vicious circle: no outlets, therefore less work, less work therefore fewer outlets still etc ad infinitum. Doe female writing face (or feel that it faces) a similar problem?

At higher levels the problem, of course, compounds itself. 1972 was a real boom year in first books by new poets (I counted over 19), but not one by a woman. In 1972 Heinemann published Wynstan Curnow's Essays on New Zealand Literature but if English were a language in which "literature" took a gender, then that title would have had to have been in the male one. 1970 and 1971 weren't so bad by the way: Merlene Young published two collections of poetry (though one was with two other male poets and both books were printed by her own press) and Oxford published Fleur Adcock's High Tide in the Garden (though the NZBC YC Poetry Programme review caustically noted that she had to go overseas to get it done — by the way that reviewer was also an overseas one.)

Drawn portrait of a girl with a dog

And then there is that other, sadder side to the story: the housebound female poet writing her pretty verse for Thursday and Eve. Such a career leading inevitably to the South Island Women's Writers Organisation or its equivalent — our own version of The Daughters of the Mayflower. I shouldn't be sarcastic but I'm not really that wrong in being so. Fact: the vanity press finds most of its victims here. Fact: Frank McKay notes in the introduction to Poetry New Zealand 1 that "Sociologists may ponder the fact that almost two thirds of the submissions were from New Zealand Housewives." Take Anne-Louise Philpott's Of Life and Levi's (Pegasus, 1973). The only acknowledgement she was able to make was to Levi Jeans for the use of the word Levi. Even the Christehurch Press, a newspaper which has a name for giving first time authors an easy time of it, bluntly stated that the book should never have been published. Enough has been said about something — a group of poets — about whom we should all largely agree.

Drawing of a girl sitting back suggestively in a cane chair

And enough excuses too. I think a lot of us editors are biased. My wife showed me this when she asked me for my reactions to submissions by people of the following names: "Myrtle Alice Smith", "Pearl Jane Smith". It is, of course, only the first names that grate, and I also find it extraordinary difficult to calmly appraise sumissions by Jr.'s, Ill's, and Gober's. Still, there you go, there are a number of female names which somehow don't sound like great writers to me: it's irrational but it's there — and you can bloody well bet I'm not the only one (the lesson being, of course, to send your stuff under only your initials and last name with a contributor's note that doesn't let on either).

Or we can get really technical. I quote in full the section titled Sex Differences in Creativity (page 203) from John Nash's Developmental Psychology: A Psychobiological Approach (1970

"Reference has already been made to the observation that males are more favourably recognised for creativity in the arts and other fields than women are. The idea that this is a real difference and not a culturally imposed one is provided by a few studies of creativity or non-conventional thinking that show it to appear in children. Torrence (1962) has reported that elementary schoolboys are consistently superior to girls in the ability to produce inventive or creative ideas. Smith (1962) found that preadolescent boys of high IQ show more divergent thinking on a battery of Guilford-type tests than girls of similar intelligence do. Mendel (1965) has reported young boys to prefer novelty (in a toy array experimental situation) markedly more often than girls do. The cultural theory can, of course, be applied, but the same counter-arguments are also apposite (see Nash Chapter 16).

One study (Rivlin, 1959) has reported large differences in IQ between high school boys rated as creative by teachers and those rated able but non-creative. Little difference in scores was found in girls. Whether this tells us something about boys and girls or about the teacher is an open question.

Sex differences in creative problem solving were found by Gall and Mendelsohn (1967) in a study of the effects of facilitating techniques (notably incubation) and subject-exoer-imenter interaction on the process. Females to a marked extent were influenced by social factors (ie experimenter participation), whereas for males this influence was negligible, and we may have here a clue to one measure that might improve the creative output of women. This pointer would be worth following up and might have important educational implications."

OK — so where does all this leave us. Well, for a start it wouldn't hurt to remind our editors that issue number so-and-so was bloody well damn near all male. Make us sweat a little bit. Secondly write and submit (editors are, after all, restricted to what comes in). But maybe most importantly of all women should start literary magazines and presses themselves. It seems likely to me that the more outlets you create the more material gets written. (In fact — we need more fiction magazines, more non-English language ones, and more female editors: create the outlets and I bet people will reveal and create the material to go in them.)

So to that end, look in the communications section of the First New Zealand Whole Earth Catologue where it tells you how to start up and break even with a press or magazine (check the Supplements for more and recent updatings.) Write to COSMEP (P.O. Box 703, San Francisco CA 94101, USA) for a free copy of their The Small Publisher's Book. Write to COSMEPA (66 Preston Rd Christehurch) and use their free advice system for new publishers and editors (include stamped self-addressed envelopes for return replies). Take over the literary editorships of the University student association newspapers and write some replies to this article. If the editor sends me a copy I'll reply at least.

Peace and Good Living Don Long