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Is publishing perishing?

The Women's Review's request that we share our thoughts about current trends in women's studies publishing has forced us to consider an uneasy sense that we and other scholarly publishers have - that there is not much happening.

lt is true that the entire scholarly publishing world (and even commercial publishing) is experiencing an economic downturn. The ennui in women's studies publishing, however, goes beyond massive returns and flat sales. Some scholarly publishers who have only recently jumped on the women's studies bandwagon may see it as a growth area. But an examination of our own two lists - Indiana University Press and Rutgers University Press - shows that we are still publishing about the same number of women's titles as we were ten years ago during the heyday of women's publishing. Women's studies titles currently comprise about 20 to 25 percent of our lists. But just a decade ago we could count on women's studies titles to sell better than books on more traditional topics. Even five years ago libraries could fairly routinely be expected to purchase five to six hundred copies of a hardback book when we simultaneously issued cloth and paper editions. Those days, however, are past.

Recently published women's titles place more emphasis on gender and less on women's or feminist concerns. In fact, it is the unusual manuscript submitted for publication consideration that does not purport to be informed by gender analysis. (This is a familiar pattern. A huge percentage of the manuscripts we see in the humanities and social sciences claim to be informed by cultural studies.) Many of these projects rework a select group of much-read theorists in often heavy-handed, unimaginative ways. We see little in the way of exciting new interpretations, and want to use this forum to call for more imaginative and daring forays. Even authors who have written ground-breaking books in the past seem to repeat themselves. The last few publishing seasons have produced neither major theoretical breakthroughs nor major syntheses.

Let us be clear: we are proud of our own publishing programs and have many books on our lists that are personal favorites. Gender Play by Barrie Thorne on the Rutgers list combines superb writing with fresh ideas about the ways children develop a sense of gender. On the current Indiana list, Sandra Harding's Is Science Multicultural? questions "first world" technoscientific cultural meanings. But as we assess where we are headed - and remember that we are looking at nascent projects that may not be published for two years, that supposedly reflect the future - we long for excitement and fresh insights over a spectrum of books.

We see energy and enthusiasm in areas such as cultural studies, popular and material culture, and science studies. In fact, at academic meetings these seem to be the hot new areas for publishers. Many academic presses previously committed to publishing women's studies have all but abandoned the field. At this most recent Modern Language Association meeting, one young scholar sadly remarked that she had surveyed the publishers present in the book exhibit area and found only five who said that they were interested in considering women's studies projects. Five years ago there would have been perhaps ten times that number. Yet it was feminists who opened minds and the canon to new ideas and scholarship. That heritage needs to renew itself.

Feminist theory has the potential to be relevant to non-academics. If feminist scholars would learn, or allow themselves, to write for a broader audience, the feminist discussion could be joined and enlivened by a more diverse group.

Some academic authors do understand this and create or employ texts that tell the stories of real people. This kind of writing is especially successful in undergraduate classes. Numerous professors and teachers have told us that their students prefer texts in which real women are allowed to tell their own stories. (Some recent interesting examples include Nancy Scheper-Hughes' Death Without Weeping, Liz Stanley's Diary of Hannah Cullwick, Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman and Rachel Calof's Story.) Introductory and community college women's studies courses regularly use autobiographies or journals as springboard texts for discussion and learning.

Many academic programs at the introductory course level do employ participatory and inclusionary learning techniques and writing, but the very scholars who espouse inclusiveness write in a hyper-academic style with the intention of impressing each other and their acolytes. The result is that these scholars form an elite group, which goes against the grain of their professed inclusive philosophy. The institutionalization of women's studies at some visible colleges and universities has made scholars forget the founding tenets of women's studies as they slavishly attempt to recreate it in the image of the traditional disciplines. It has been sad for us to watch this happen.

It seems ironic that women's studies courses, programs and enrollments continue to grow as intellectual discussions run out of steam. Surely this increasing audience of students should spur creative scholarship and thoughtful writing. Instead, we have seen a shift away from engaged feminist discussion to performance, celebrity and superstars. Some of this work is clever, smart and maybe important, but it has not led to new and sustained women's studies scholarship.

The return to discipline-bound scholarly writing certainly is good for traditional disciplines. The more substantive and interesting publications today examine traditional academic topics, employing the methodology of the humanities or social sciences and incorporating gender analysis. (This is especially true in literary studies, history and sociology.) These trends mirror the conservative turn seen in society as a whole. These books are 1990s versions of the scholarly monograph - narrowly focused, extensively footnoted and of interest to a group of specialists. They are the foundation for the development of scholarship in particular traditional disciplines, but not women's studies.

Feminist writers from the 1970s and '80s were more than just academics. In fact, not all feminist pioneers were part of the university world. Early feminist writing sought to create a public discussion, not an academic argument. Many of these works were published by small feminist presses at a time when university presses did not take this kind of writing seriously. Many of them are still relevant and read today - Ruth Bleier's Science and Gender; Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering; Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice; All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria Hull and others; Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing - to name a few.

Perhaps women's studies writing and publishing has succumbed to the inevitable. All revolutionary movements either dissipate or are institutionalized. The women's movement and women's studies have led to economic and social advancement as well as to the creation of women's studies programs and departments. But these gains will not be sustained unless scholars and writers develop a truly interdisciplinary scholarship that speaks to a broad range of readers. Women's studies has still not fully incorporated issues of race and is only beginning to deal with class, religious, and cultural differences.

lt appears to us that women's studies publishing has reached a plateau. If authors do not attempt to build on the writing of the past quarter-century and strive to reach an audience of readers who were not born 25 years ago or who were not part of that earlier discussion about equality and difference, then the trend will continue toward narrow, discipline-bound monographs. If women's education and scholarship are to meet the new demands for immediate relevance, then women's studies writing, like all scholarship, will have to be more meaningful to readers' lives. Authors will have to acknowledge that they may be trying to write for readers who do not wish to call themselves feminist or who may be turned away by such terms as "hegemonic," "extra-diegetically" and "signifying practice."

If current feminist writing quickly becomes irrelevant to undergraduate majors once they leave the academy, how can it be meaningful to those who never entered the Euro-American academy? Perhaps what is desperately called for is a radical shift in the way women's scholarship and writing is created and disseminated. The evidence - again from undergraduate women's studies courses - seems to indicate that thoughtfully constructed course packs or anthologies (such as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Black Sister, edited by Erlene Stetson, or That's What She Said, edited by Rayna Green), as well as journals and autobiographies, are more successful with students than long, complicated texts.

Years ago these kinds of collections were viewed as being in opposition to more traditional scholarship. But today the best serious scholars realize that a Norton-type anthology will have a greater scholarly impact not only on students, but on the canon itself. We cannot emphasize enough that writing for students, as well as non-academics, is a legitimate goal for feminist (and indeed all) scholars.

Feminist discussion should be open and non-hierarchical. Women writers and scholars could perhaps experiment with the much-trumpeted "egalitarian" new communication technology. Although a number of websites and listservs related to women's issues exist and provide useful information, they have not yet led to thought-provoking new ideas. Data delivery and the freewheeling openness of electronic discussion rather than the quality of what is transmitted have been the virtues of the Internet.

The Women's Review of Books, as one of the very few venues for broad-based discussion of women's writing, could perhaps open its website to interactive discussions of related topics and opinions, and act as a forum for continuing education in women's studies. Debates over the potential of women's political and environmental activism might generate new ideas and energy. From this dialogue individuals might be inspired or commissioned to write thoughtful articles which could also appear in traditional print format - and then become grist for treatment by writers or specialists in book-length studies.

We suggest this scenario, not in a futurist or flippant spirit, but in the hope of generating discussion about the direction and need for meaningful women's studies writing. Whether this dialogue takes place in an electronic format, in living-rooms, or in the old-fashioned book, it should be unapologetically open to the thousands and thousands of women who are not part of academe, but who have been influenced by feminism.
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Title Annotation:women's studies publishing
Author:Catapano, Joan; Wasserman, Marlie P.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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