Commerce has struck a violent blow against culture here in a country where we do have to fight for a way to tell our own stories, and then fight to have those stories heard. A vast country with a very small population that is already inundated – saturated, in fact – with offerings from the United States and the UK. We’re already drowning in cultural influences that aren’t really our own. Australia, the great early adopter and mimic. And now the Productivity Commission has found in favour of lifting the parallel importation restrictions on books published overseas, a move, if adopted by government, that is terrifying for actual Australian practitioners both present and future. Commercial interests have decided recommendations in what ought to be a cultural debate. It’s just not right.
Australian authors and agents have been lobbying against flooding the Australian book-buying market with overseas titles because they want to protect Australian voices – voices which barely register above a whisper in a commercial sense as it is. Oh, everyone knows Tim Winton and Peter Carey, but financially, they’re the exception. The truth is there’s not a whole lot of profit to be made in the novel writing enterprise for most of us who are trying to do it. But that’s all right, because storytelling is valuable for its own sake. It is its own end, and its value simply CAN’T BE MEASURED in dollars and cents. I just bitterly resent and fear a world in which everything about who we are is decided by the bottom line of some vast corporation. The country’s biggest bookseller was hard at it, lobbying for the lifting of restrictions, and it could afford to make its case much more persuasively. It also stands to gain most monetarily. It’s not interested in the impact on the Australian writers and Australian readers who may soon wander into a bookstore and be unable to regularly discover a brand new Australian voice. Perhaps the day is not far off when they’ll forget it was ever any different. Australian writers will recede, increasingly consigned to some shelf of anachronistic remainder titles up the back of the store, a dusty curiosity, a small artifact of the days before we were shouted down. We simply don’t have the numbers to compete with the author populations and output of other English-speaking countries like the US and the UK. There’s more of them, lots more of them, and bringing in all their books for a pittance is going to crush ours. For someone like me, in the gestation phase of my first novel, this decision is an icy finger on my heart. It was already hard. Now, if the government accepts the Productivity Commission’s findings and changes legislation on the basis of it, it will be nigh on impossible for any unestablished Australian writer to make an honest go of it.
And can I tell you something interesting? The UK and the USA both protect their own authors. They have these same restrictions in place to protect, preserve and promote their own literary heritage and future. But Australia is being asked to abandon its protection of ours, and, incredibly, the Productivity Commission is suggesting we comply. I can’t decide what reeks of leftover colonialism more; the message that our authors aren’t as worthy of protection as theirs, or the way Australia rolls over and agrees.
Art cannot be judged solely in terms of income potential. Books are not just bits of merchandise companies have to move. They are works of art. They are cultural contributions. But their fate is being decided as though they were nothing more than trinkets, cheap souvenirs you pass by at the airport. “Where the hell are we again?” an American gentleman might bellow to his companion as they make their way to the gate. “Who knows?” his wife might reply. “It’s all the same to me.”