Pandora's Box of Books

By Sheridan, Susan | Hecate, May 31, 1989 | Go to article overview

Pandora's Box of Books


Sheridan, Susan, Hecate


A Review of Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (London and New York: Pandora, 1988); Pam Gilbert, Coming Out from Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (London and New York: Pandora, 1988); Debra Adelaide, Australian Women Writers: A Bibliographic Guide (London and New York: Pandora, 1988).

Pandora, the Women's Studies imprint of Unwin Hyman Limited, is the publisher of the Australian Literary Heritage series under the editorship of Dale Spender. Over the past couple of years it has produced reprints of at least seven novels by nineteenth-century women (Ada Cambridge, Catherine Martin, Rosa Praed, Tasma), a shrewd move which must have helped considerably to finance the trio of books on Australian women writers reviewed here. The obvious precedent for such a publishing arrangement is Virago's successful combination of reprinting out-of-copyright (and therefore low-cost) fiction in the "Modern Classics" series and publishing a smaller number of works by contemporary writers. This proliferation of books by and about women is very welcome, and the attempt to keep retail costs down and spread the benefits is admirable (even if it has been effectively negated by the floating dollar and huge mark-ups on Australian sales).

However, any such `heritage' project is bound to have definitive effects. Pandora's box of books, including as it does both a survey and a selection of the field of Australian women's writing, thus raises important issues of `gatekeeping' and categorization, measurement or evaluation, and the uses or readings of literature. The outcome may be, like the contents of the mythical Pandora's box, good or bad things, depending on how you look at them -- or rather, perhaps, on who is looking.

Not so long ago Dale Spender wrote that academic publishing, in determining the "fashionable" questions (and answers), "constitutes the parameters in which discussion occurs and defines the terms of debate"; she examined in particular the role of the gatekeepers (editors, reviewers, advisers) who may "perpetuate their own schemata by exercising sponsorship and patronage towards those who classify the world in ways similar to their own".(1) She was of course concerned with the dominance of men as academic gatekeepers, and with women's lack of representation in such a group.

While it remains to be seen whether her own gatekeeping in the field of Australian women's writing will have this effect, it is very clear to me that not all women -- not even all feminists -- classify the world in ways similar to hers, or share her definition of the "fashionable" questions (and answers). Yet this is an issue which her own text cannot confront, because she constructs women as a homogeneous group with their own "schemata". Disagreements among women writers are denied (for example, the clash between Prichard and Gilmore over racism), or trivialized (for example, Stead's refusal to get involved in what she feared was a reactionary move in Nettie Palmer's postwar cultural politics).(2) As for disagreements among women including feminist critics, they are unheard of -- dissidents from the Spender construction of reality are by and large excluded from this book.

Another gatekeeping move is to arbitrate about what is central and what is marginal. When Spender comments on the Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets that "because this publication is considered `marginal', the status of the women [represented there] falls far short of the mainstream", she is simply perpetuating dominant patriarchal definitions of margin and mainstream -- not to mention the absurdity of describing as "marginal", in anyone's terms, a poetry book which has sold at least 11,000 copies and is into its third printing in less than three years. This lack of generosity in acknowledging the work of her sister anthologists is striking: she also accuses Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn (who are left anonymous in her text) of failing to reclaim all the women poets, letting some "superb poets" "slip through the net", when in fact their well-argued Introduction makes it perfectly clear that while casting a wide net was part of their scholarly labours, their decisions about what finally to include were made on aesthetic grounds, which they attempt to define for their readers' consideration. …

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