How to Conceive of a Girl

(Media Release, from Random House, October 1996)

cover image

I lay on the couch and watched my face in all the thousands of mirrors of a beautiful Indian wall hanging, made out of dozens of sections of wedding dresses...

Wives and mothers and grandmothers: the culturally
sanctioned, the ones stitched neatly and faithfully into the social fabric, the ones `accounted for'. And outside this, the faintly illicit, the ones never given a voice in the family, the lovers and daughters... The unaccounted for, the unattached.

 In language that is fresh and distinctive, and through a gallery of engaging characters (from Barbara Boulevard to Peta Pan) Beth Spencer looks at the 80s and 90s from the point of view of those raised on cartoons, platform shoes, no fault divorce and The Female Eunuch.

The title comes from an essay by French feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst, Luce Irigaray. In traditional western philosophy women have always been conceived of – ie thought about – in terms of men: as the same as men, or as lacking in some way (the 'opposite' or a complement). That is, as part of the male-female couple.

But the characters in these eleven stories and novellas all begin and end as single women. Each of them goes through a range of experiences with lovers, family, friends, private and public histories and life in general, but remains, at the end 'unattached'. They are the socially 'unaccounted for', the culture's 'loose' women  (especially in the age of AIDS and the new conservatism) - remaining fundamentally outside of the accepted ways of finding a home (a place, or sense of belonging).

And yet the stories are by no means negative or depressing: each does find something; and perhaps between them, they do find some indications of a way of becoming, and a place afterall, that is both powerful and significant.

How to Conceive of a Girl is innovative, topical and intelligent. In exploring contemporary Australian culture from this perspective it raises a number of issues: most importantly, what happens to culture if this conception of a girl is changed?

What reviewers said about How to Conceive of a Girl

'A writer of exceptional sensitivity, precision and courage... Her stories embody a profound critical engagement with the complexities, ironies and bewilderments of concepts such as sexuality, the family and history.'
 -- Peter Bishop, Director, Varuna Writers Centre

'Will appeal to anyone with an interest in ways of breaking out of  sequential narrative. Her montage or collage assembly of incidents and reflections,  rearrangements of time and place, attract me enormously... The playfulness of the methods she employs and the self-questioning throughout... reflect an intellectual toughness that deserves to be encouraged and promoted.'
--Michael Sharkey, The Weekend Australian

'This is something really special... written with an elegance and eloquence that is inspiring.' - City Weekly.

'At times Spencer’s stories made me laugh, they constantly made me reflect, once or twice they made me cry... a talented and inspiring writer.'-- Australian Women's Book Review

'By revealing that there's nothing ‘natural’ about being/becoming/conceiving of a girl… Spencer makes it more possible to rethink/renegotiate the social contract... I'm always grateful and amazed, renewed in my attempts to continue doing this when I read work like How to Conceive of a Girl. You could say that it en/genders courage.'   -- Kathleen Mary Fallon, Australian Book Review

'Witty, emotionally powerful, and very crisp.' – Louise Adler, Arts Today

'Beth Spencer flings herself into textual free-fall in this strange, delightful book... the collection simply buzzes... More please.'
The Good Weekend

'Rewarding and engrossing reading.' – Phillipa Hawker

'Spencer writes in just about every style that I can think of right at this moment -- dialogue, evocation, theory, magic realism, anecdote, letters, news items and creative appropriations of other texts, all patched together in collages that, despite their eclecticism, are far from random... If you immerse yourself and let the fragments accumulate, you get a new perspective on the messy, lateral workings of the human heart and mind. It's exhilarating.' – Jenny Pausaker, The Age


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