The Publishing Life

Counterview: Urvashi Butalia’s rejoinder to AR Venkatachalapathy on women publishers and editors

‘To say that women do not measure up to male editors seems to me to be deeply problematic.’

Long years ago, when I began working in publishing, it was an almost entirely male world. Women were to be found in some publishing houses, but mainly in administrative and secretarial positions. The bosses were all men – at least in English language publishing in India – and so were the editors. There was something about their anatomy that seemed to qualify them more to work in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge – an activity that is generally governed by the brain, something that lies between the ears (and not the legs) and looks the same no matter what sort of bodily shell it’s placed in.

As women, we – the handful of us who joined the industry at that time and who slowly made our way to becoming editors – knew well we would never rise to the top of our professions. My bosses at the Oxford University Press were concerned that I was a woman: “We’ve never employed a woman in an executive position,” they told me. “They get married and go away.” They made it sound like a crime – one, clearly, that the men never had to answer for.

The Oxford University Press, where I began work, was filled with kind and caring men: Charles Lewis, Santosh Mukherjee, Ravi Dayal, Adil Tyabji, Adrian Bullock, Dipen Mitra. Yet none of them ever had to answer to the kind of questions posed to me. None of them needed to worry about how they would get home at night if they had to work late. None of them needed to be concerned about the safety of seedy hotel rooms when they travelled on business. None of them had to defend themselves against leering printers who wanted to take you out to coffee when all you wanted was to get a book printed. Not surprising then that their paths to the top were smooth, whereas ours were non-existent.

Today, nearly forty-five years after that moment, much of this remains a hazy memory. And the current situation is very different. Publishing in English, whether academic, or general, or for children, or educational, is dominated by women (albeit upper class, upper caste women, and that’s a change that is waiting to happen). Indeed, if we give a new meaning to the notion of a glass ceiling and look at it not only in financial terms (as men have always done), but also in cultural terms, in terms of the creation of content rather than the creation of money, then women have more than cracked it, they’ve pretty much removed it.

We’re in the 21st century and we still have to deal with this?

I was powerfully reminded of the kind of discrimination women faced in the publishing industry in the early days when I read AR Venkatachalapathy’s strange and confusing piece about women editors. At first it was exciting to see a man, a literary man, appreciating the role of women editors, asking important questions about what it is about the editorial job that makes it such a “natural” for women (he compares it to housework, detailed, meticulous, often self-effacing) and why there are so many women in editorial jobs, suggesting that it could be because the jobs are not very highly paid.

But then, it became predictable. Women do good work, we’re told, and examples are offered of the author’s own encounters with women editors. Despite this though, they don’t quite measure up to men, it’s the latter who are really well known, who’ve actually changed the course of publishing, and who have even had films made about them (although this example is, mysteriously, of a foreign editor who has no place in the Indian publishing scene). But the real editors, the ones who are famous, the ones who’ve made a real contribution, are men.

In feminist circles, and sometimes even out of them, when women talk together we often find ourselves saying, resignedly, that when speaking about women, even the best of men will at some point, reveal the deep biases they carry inside them. We recognise these with a sense of familiarity, we’ve met them all our lives, but every time we encounter them – as in Venkatachalapathy’s piece – there’s also a sense of disappointment, almost of despair. We’re in the 21st century and we still have to deal with this?

In the piece, Venkatachalapathy names Tejeshwar Singh as one of the important editors in the Indian publishing industry (and indeed he was). Tejeshwar was my contemporary. As his friends and colleagues, many of us admired and appreciated his rise to the top. But as women, we also knew well, without being told in so many words, that none of us would ever be given the kinds of opportunities he and other men took for granted.

My ex-colleague, Ritu Menon, was also in publishing at the time, as were a handful of other women (including, if I remember rightly, Priya Adarkar, who is the only woman editor Venkatachalapathy credits with being equal to the men). On a scale of 1-10 (provided the scale looked at our competencies and capabilities), we would not have scored too differently from our male peers, but we could never have dreamt of having the opportunities they had. Small wonder then that Venkatachalapathy finds the “important names” to be those of men: the women did not have a chance at all.

Younger women, are bringing fresh ideas and insights to the world of publishing

When Ritu Menon and I broke away and set up our own publishing house, we began from scratch: no money, no connections, no big structure. Imagine the difficulty of taking such a step, a sort of leap into the unknown. Imagine further the difficulty of taking such a step if you are women, in a male dominated profession. How to get printers to take you seriously? How to ensure that distributors listen to you? How to deal with paper merchants? How to create, and secure respect for new, feminist content? This is what so many women have done in recent years, a fact that Venkatachalapathy does not seem to appreciate. His list of important men details their achievements: professionalising academic publishing, bringing trade publishing to India, putting caste on the map of publishing. How is this any less important than, say, completely transforming the world of children’s book publishing (one of the fastest growing sectors in Indian publishing today)?

If you look carefully here, you’ll see only women’s names: Radhika Menon (Tulika), Gita Wolf, V Geetha (Tara Books), Anushka Ravishankar, Sayoni Basu (Duckbill), Manisha Chaudhry (Pratham Books), Tultul Biswas (Eklavya), Priyanka Malhotra (Full Circle) Anita Roy (Zubaan) and Atiya Zaidi, whose focus is textbooks. How is this any different from creating a space for women and gender in Indian publishing? How is this any different from creating a space for translations? Scan the editorial departments of a random selection of publishers and you’ll find women at the helm. If they are not known it’s not because they are not competent, but because they are women.

And even as we note this, here’s another thing we need to remember: now that these women (of whom I am one) have made their space in publishing, it’s important they begin to unpack the category in which they are placed, and to look at the many identities – queer, Dalit, minority, regional, trans – that form the world of women. Their voices too will find space.

I have nothing against Venkatachalapathy appreciating the excellent male editors we’ve had in the profession. They were, and are, fantastic. But to say that women do not measure up to them seems to me to be deeply problematic. When Samuel Israel and Ravi Dayal were editing, there were no women in the industry. When Tejeshwar grew as an editor, there were women, but they lacked opportunities. When Rukun Advani and S Anand came into the picture, there were and are plenty of women, and they’re pretty damn good.

As someone who’s become a bit of an “elder” in the industry, one of the most heartening things for me is to see how more and more women, especially younger women, are bringing fresh ideas and insights to the world of publishing. Many of them, particularly from queer and marginalised communities, several from the bottom of the caste ladder, are strongly challenging the entrenched assumptions behind the creation and canonization of certain kinds of knowledge and turning that around. These are the new editors, the ones who are not only transforming publishing, bringing to it a fierce commitment and a multi-layered professionalism, these are the women Venkatachalapathy should have recognised.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.