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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