'We Took Nothing For Granted'

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As many New Matilda readers will know, Crikey publisher Diana Gribble died in Melbourne last week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three months ago. 

Diana was a hugely significant figure in Australian publishing. She co-founded the McPhee Gribble publishing house with Hilary McPhee and later the Text Media Group and Private Media, both with Eric Beecher.

Diana was my mum’s first cousin. I knew her as ‘Da’. My mum’s family is huge, warm and close-knit; it has thrown up many creative and interesting persons. Da was definitely one of them, and a particular inspiration to me.

What follows is not an obituary; moving tributes to Da’s life, work and sense of humour have sprung up on Crikey, the Meanjin blog and in the Byron Echo. In a powerful piece for The Drum, Hilary McPhee has detailed the circumstances surrounding Penguin’s absorption of the McPhee Gribble imprint, and the pain that entailed. I offer here an excerpt of Da’s own account of her life in publishing.

In 2002 I was working on an assignment about women in publishing at the tail end of my undergraduate degree. I interviewed Da in the Carlton warehouse she shared with her husband, the late Les Kossatz. Diana talks about starting McPhee Gribble, about the blokey culture of publishing in 1970s Australia, and about her love of the book as object.

I spent some time in London, came back, messed around, had various jobs and in 1974 I re-met my university friend, Hilary McPhee. We decided we wanted to work together. We were both not that rapt in what we were doing: she was working in publishing for William Heinemann, I was working for an advertising photographer in Chapel Street and flirting with the idea of starting a free weekly newspaper.

We decided to do something together, thought of all sorts of things and finally decided publishing was the thing for us. We borrowed two thousand dollars from my father — which we eventually repaid but not for years later.

We raised the money to start a publishing company firstly by doing work for other publishers. So we took in editorial work and book packaging — where you produce a book right up to the finishing point for another publisher … and we made enough money to start publishing under our own imprint: McPhee Gribble.

The first book we published, in 1976, was Thoroughly Decent People by Glen Tomasetti, and not long after that we published Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, which was a great success and won the Book Council award that year: that put us on the map a bit.

We had a struggle as women: there were several smallish publishing companies that started up around the same time; women were leaving big publishing houses then, because they were sick of being treating like servants, and doing their own things; there was a bit going on. We wanted to start a general publishing company.

The struggle was, because it was 1975, the assumption was made that we were a feminist publishing company. Although we were feminists we didn’t only want to publish feminist books, so we had to break out of that label. And in some ways we never did break out of that, male authors sometimes didn’t offer us their books. But we had successful books by men too, eventually we published Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, which is one of the most successful books ever written by an Australian author.

I didn’t finish my degree but when I started architecture in 1960, the culture at Melbourne University was apolitical. There were groups of students who were highly political, but the general temperature wasn’t. It was before Vietnam, before the student movements, so we were quite focussed on literature and thinking about the meaning about life, rather than the meaning of politics. We read books like Camus’ The Outsider, I did History and Philosophy of Science, we had a wonderful lecturer and read Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: that swept everyone away, we were mad on that.

We didn’t read many Australian books, but I’d certainly grown up on Australian books. I read Australian books as a child and adolescent: the Billabong books, Ethel Turner.

The books that had the most influence on me were French novels. As a teenager I read a lot of Colette, who was so deliciously wicked, compared to growing up in Melbourne in the 1950s. I adored it, tried to read it in the original French. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary had a big effect on me. Europe was very important to us, not so much America, we didn’t read many American books.

I started a ‘what’s on’ newsletter about theatre and visual arts with a friend, we ran it off on a Roneo machine, and silk-screened the covers in her garage and hung them on the washing line to dry.

I had a marvellous lecturer in first year who was a Bauhaus-trained architect called Fitz Geneva. He was Viennese and encouraged us to think outside the confines of our life and he had a big influence on me. Later, when I realised architecture wasn’t for me I did Fine Arts. I went at night to RMIT and I did industrial design, which wasn’t a great success — everyone else in the course was working in industry, they were all turners and fitters. The lecturer was another Bauhaus man called Gerry Hertz, he was fabulous, he used to take us to movies to introduce us to art-house films. Gerry Hetz used to take the whole class of fitters and turners to see European movies. Melbourne at that time had a small collection of marvelous art-house cinemas in the city and that was what we were interested in, the early films of all the old great Italian directors.

I was very interested in things visual and, being a huge reader, if you put those two things together you get a book. I became very interested in typography, under the influence of Fitz Geneva. I had holiday job with a firm of architects in Melbourne, and the senior partner in the firm was quite old and he loved architectural lettering, the pediments in old-fashioned buildings. He used to talk to me about that all the time, the relationship between letters and space between letters. At university when I was doing architecture I did sheets and sheets of lettering, so all these things came together. Not only the contents of books but the physical reality were interesting to me.

The publishing industry at the time was incredibly masculine. Publishing in Australia was a real boys’ club: they were intelligent, beer-drinking blokes. And women were editors and secretaries and publicity people, but they weren’t publishers. Women also weren’t allowed to work in the printing industry when I first started in publishing, it was a closed shop.

It’s very hard to realise now how shocking things were then, and like a lot of women I just constantly bumped up against things in my life, which stopped me from doing things I wanted to do. Women were silenced. I can remember, endlessly, being out at dinners with friends and men would completely dominate the conversation, and if women spoke there’d be a polite silence and then the conversation would continue as if they hadn’t uttered.

At McPhee Gribble we were so small to start off with that just by being a small group, we worked without hierarchy: everyone did a bit of everything. There were three of us to start off with and we grew very slowly. There was a lot of debate around that time about how efficient or not non-hierarchical structures were, and whether people wanted to work that way or if people did need to do the bits they were the best at and therefore you end up with a form of hierarchy despite yourselves, and that’s what we did.

We took nothing for granted, [we had]no fixed ideas about how things should be done, what people were like, everything was very fluid: it gave women this freedom to be outspoken, to have ideas, so it wasn’t anything like a male publishing house would be.

Monkey Grip got a lot of bad reviews. "Helen Garner’s published her diaries." "She’s talking dirty and calling it literature." "It’s about drug addicts and people having sex all the time…" It was shocking to people. Once I had quite a loud argument, after Helen had published her second book, Honour and Other People’s Children. In my opinion her writing is about honour, it’s about living honourably. And Monkey Grip was about behaving honourably in extreme circumstances, and that was my view of the book after I first read it, I thought it was a very moral book.

Monkey Grip also got a very favourable reception in some quarters. It would never have won the National Book Council award except that it so happened that that year there were two female judges and one male, and the women awarded it the prize.

The whole voice of Monkey Grip was very new, particularly coming from a woman, that intensely female first person voice. I think that’s why many people didn’t get it: they missed the message because of the shock of it.

McPhee Gribble was trying to publish very good books, which is hard to do in this country, because very good writers are quite thin on the ground, there’s a lot of writing, but very good writing is quite a rare thing, especially in a population of this size. Also, we wanted to give women a voice, we felt like there was a collection of women’s voices out there that weren’t being heard.

I was part of an oxymoronic group: the South Yarra Women’s Liberation Group! Germaine Greer came to Melbourne in the early 1970s, by which time new wave feminism had leaked through and a whole lot of women went to hear her in the assembly hall in Collins Street. As far as I remember I went by myself, a lot of women went by themselves. It was a heady feeling, it was the first time I’d been in a big gathering of women who were there to see a feminist writer, and an Australian. I hadn’t had contact with any organised feminist groups before and after Germaine Greer spoke the organiser said, "Alright, we don’t want to lose contact with each other". So we split up into areas and I ended up in this group of 10 women in the corner who came from Prahran, South Yarra, around there, and we formed the South Yarra Women’s Liberation Group.

In 1989 we sold McPhee Gribble to Penguin books. Hilary went to work for Penguin and they kept the imprint going and I went off and started the Text Media Group with Eric Beecher. I thought, "Ooh, I’ll have another go at this". We started with book publishing and media publishing.

We started Text thinking that what we wanted to do was make a difference, and we knew that to be a media company of any size we had to be successful so that we could make a difference. But over the years it became more and more commercial, and it didn’t ever really get to the point where we could make a difference, although our book publishing section, which is a very small part of the company, is wonderful, and I think it makes a difference, I’m very proud of that. After 12 years we started a new company called Private Media, and we’re going to do things we enjoy doing, and probably stay small.

I think independent publishing is about the same size as it was in those days [of McPhee Gribble]: it comes and goes, people have these flurries, they start publishing houses, and they go broke or give up and more come up from underneath … it’s an irresistible thing for a certain kind of person to do.

I think that people who love books and who start small publishing companies are just great energisers, they energise everyone who comes in to contact with them: booksellers, and the writers, they are a force for good!

The independents are really focussed on what they do. Big multinational publishing companies are machines for distributing overseas books in Australia, but within those big multinational companies, if they have local publishing efforts, the people who work inside the publishing divisions are the same kinds of people as those that are starting their own company, but they’re under a lot more financial pressure to only spend X hours on this book, and do more books … but they have the same instincts as the people in the independents. Big companies survive, and the small ones go broke because they spend six months on a book that sells 500 copies.

But I don’t think many of the big publishers would publish genuinely radical material. When McPhee Gribble started we weren’t publishing politically radical books but we were publishing radical writing, like Puberty Blues, which was banned in schools. The radicalism at that point was about sexuality and the culture of younger people, we’d been stifled by this middle-aged culture for so long. And I think there’s a version of that, that the small presses can still do. It’s the genuinely shocking stuff that big houses don’t do.

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