Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2012

Women and nonfiction | Overland literary journal

Bec Zajac’s interview with Rebecca Giggs at Overland is must-read excellent, do check it out: Women and nonfiction | Overland literary journal.

This part was of particular interest to me:

Despite the fact that, as you write in your piece, women’s writing has been the subject of renewed attention lately, the under-representation of women in publishing and in the review pages continues to be a problem. What would you suggest are some of the ways those concerned about this can work towards reversing this trend?

Well, while I agree that the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, the answer is not (as some other commentators have put it) to concentrate on starting new publications, or to valorise the amount of women’s writing appearing on various blogs. A cottage industry of WordPress sites isn’t going to cut it – women’s marginalisation won’t be rectified by the wider promotion of women’s writing as unique and separate from the prevailing voice of our common literature.

Thanks to Scribe Publishing via Twitter for the tip.


  1. Great article Lisa … I haven’t checked Twitter for a few days … how to keep up?

    I have been thinking about Monday musings on Nonfiction – not as erudite as this one of course – but this might springboard it a bit. I have realised that most of the non-fiction I’ve read in the last couple of years has been by women – Hazel Rowley, Anna Krein, Brenda Niall, Anna Funder (though I currently reading Marr’s essay on Abbott).

    The thing that I’m finding interesting – and what I loved about and commented on with Stasiland – is her point that “Nonfiction writers are often expected to conspicuously sidestep their own presence – an illusion to which the reader surrenders”. I agree that there’s a certain dishonesty in it – though that’s being a bit harsh – and it’s why I particularly liked Stasiland. She put herself IN there. And then there are the autobiographies that cross over with fiction, like Francesca Rendle-Short’s. Really interesting stuff I think.

    So much to think about it this article!


    • I had a look at mine too, the M/F ratio for N/F authors is 20/14 (41% F) which near enough to the same as the ratio overall (42% at the moment, it hovers around 45% F most of the time). I don’t consciously make my choices on gender, I just keep an eye on it and if I thought there was a serious imbalance which was persisting, I’d be asking myself why.
      I’m not sure about the Stasiland approach. I think it depends on the topic or theme. The histories of Australian exploration which I’ve read, for instance, don’t lend themselves to such intrusion, whereas an indigenous author writing about the history of her country would belong there.


      • No, I agree that the Stasiland approach wouldn’t/doesn’t suit all nonfiction, but it probably could be done more than it is. The main reason it works in Stasiland is because she was writing about people she met. It made sense to insert herself in that one. As you say, a history about the distant past with no real personal relationship is unlikely to work with this approach. The point I think is that there’s more flexibility – and perhaps women are being more flexible in particular?


  2. One of my fellow postgrad students recently wrote a thesis that very much used himself in the telling. I think that it’s going to be published as a book (every post-grad’s dream!) I must admit, though, that from the sections that he presented at seminars, I was rather uncomfortable about the “degree of me” that was in his writing, and I was interested to hear that he received rave reviews from his examiners. His thesis, like Stasiland, drew a great deal on interview data, and given that an interview is a conversation of sorts, the interviewer is a participant, even if their words are not shown. I’m not sure how the “I” approach would work in a more document-based study- there’s a limit to how many times you can trot out the “excitement of the dust in the archives” line.
    I just had a quick count of the books that I’ve purchased on Australian history- and therefore ‘work’ books as distinct from ‘enjoyment’ books (although often the two overlap, fortunately!) I was surprised to find a 31% female ratio. I would have thought that it might have been higher. On the other hand, many of these texts are quite old (Blainey, Manning Clark, AGL Shaw) etc. and perhaps that reflects publishing ratios of the past


    • Hi Janine, welcome to the conversation:) I love your comment about ‘the dust in the archives’ LOL.
      I think it would be more likely that older Australian history texts would be written by men. A quick look at history shelves chez moi bears that out: Inga Clendinnen, (who’s really an anthropologis?); Robyn Annear, Judith Brett and Jill Sparrow, and that’s about it, apart from the biographies that I have of historical figures and a couple of culinary histories and other um, light social topics, most of the rest are by men. I’ll try to remember to check out the shelves at my local library to see what the pattern is there.


      • When I was in grad school in the 1980s, historians were male, almost by definitions, and we were seen as intruders. But in US history there were a group of excellent histories written by women in the past that simply were not read and absorbed by the profession and so never made it into the larger historical record. [important of publishers and reviews here.]

        Yes, I do see more historians of both gender bringing more of themselves into their writing. One of the first books I reviewed was by Micheal Feldman who went back and put articles he had written in the past–mostly about the civil war era– into personal context.
        I agree that women do it more and maybe more smoothly, but I think it can work for the distant past also with a bit of effort.


        • Marilyn, can you explain why you think it would be worth the effort to do it, (especially to go back and ‘fix’ articles written in the past)? From a non-historian’s perspective, it seems to muddy the waters. If I wanted to read about the Civil War, I would be interested in broad generalisations with a range of examples, not Feldman. I don’t really understand the theoretical position behind inserting the author into the writing. Does it relate to being upfront about the methodology used and/or the selection of texts?


  3. Thanks for sending me to the Giggs article. I couldn’t agree more. I believe that as long as the world we live in is gendered, our literary will be to a greater or lesser degree. And that women writers can disrupt some of our gendered assumptions.


  4. The article sounds great. Thanks for the link I would have missed it otherwise. Off to go read it!


    • Marilyn, Stefanie, you’re welcome. It was just luck that I found it, you know how Twitter just rolls on by and if you miss it, that’s it…


  5. The Rebecca Giggs interview has been rolling around in my head all day – thanks for drawing my attention to it. I agree with Janine that it could be rather tedious having historians inserting themselves into the histories that they write all the time using ‘I’. I also agree with you Lisa that only some histories lend themselves to the author stepping into the narrative in this way. However, strategically and creatively done it can work quite well. The issue that I think Rebecca Giggs is concerned about is the need to convey to the reader that a narrative is a point of view and should not be taken as an illusory scientific truth. There is a piece of the historian in every history they write. A historian’s cultural background, their life experience shapes their work, from the topic they choose to the conclusions they draw. The need is for the reader to understand this and interrogate what the historian writes rather than blithely taking their narrative as the last word on the matter. The historian needs to help the reader do this by alerting them to other points of view. This can be done by the traditional method of saying “XXX argues such and such, but I take a different view because of the following evidence”. That is a rather pedestrian presentation. Rebecca Giggs is arguing for more creativity in alerting the reader to the subjective nature of the author’s pen as well as conveying the uncertain and mysterious qualities of our world.

    Ultimately it would be great if we could all be truly ‘gender-blind’. However until we actually achieve that nirvana, a whole gamut of interim measures such as blogging, special awards etc. need to be tried to achieve equality. They provide a kick-start for us thinking about the issues women face in the writing world. It will take time.


  6. Yvonne, you are a gem. Yes, now I can see the underlying issue, the contrast between history as I learned it in secondary school where it was presented as a given, and as history is coming to be perceived today, as shaped by the historian and his/her experiences and drawing attention to its deficits as well the available evidence (as we’ve discussed before when talking about indigenous voices in history).
    As you say, the matter of how this is done is not inconsequential: I think popular history is enormously useful in spreading understanding about the past and learning from it, so the author has thedifficutl task of writing the history in an engaging way without a whole lot of cumbersome devices to shore up its authenticity, while at the same time being upfront about how the PoV has been constructed. It seems like a tricky balancing act.


    • And that’s what I love about it. It’s exciting … I only did one history course at university because I enjoyed history at secondary school but I didn’t like the whole way it was taught (even though I loved my teachers). The one course I did – and this was back in the 70s – was on historiography and we looked at history from the point of view of the historian writing it. It really opened my eyes … and I think it does relate to being upfront. It’s not the only way to do it of course but it’s one way. (This is a non-historian speaking from her lay way of understanding things!!)


  7. Yvonne has done a fine job of stating the basic issue; being upfront about point of view. I’ll add some later from my pre-blogging days.


    • Yvonne often makes me wish I had a proper historian’s background. It’s a slightly different way of thinking about the world and the evidence we have for thinking about the past the way we do.
      Her blog is a great resource for generalists like me.


  8. I recently read and reviewed Katie Gale, by Llyn de Dannon. She very deliberately put herself into her biography/history of a Native American woman on Puget Sound around 1900. In doing so she also makes generalizations about large factors — economic, etc. — that shape the woman’s life. It is an unusual book, but I liked what she did. That way of thinking and writing can be abused, but when done well I think it can help readers imagine another place and time.


    • Yes. It does take skill to do it well, but when it works, it’s excellent.


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