A Dark Day for Australian Writers and Australian Stories

July 15, 2009 at 12:22 am (Uncategorized)

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.”

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6 Comments

  1. Lilian Nattel said,

    Di, I totally sympathize. We’re in that situation in Canada. There is no protection and we are a small country inundated with books from the entire English speaking world. The public value of culture existed here 30 years ago and in that environment a number of Canadian writers got their start and became world renown. But not these days. There needs to be more education for the public and politicians on the value of art and culture. Trillions of dollars have gone to financiers. And what have they done for the world?

  2. doctordi said,

    And Lilian, our established authors and biggest success stories, those who have benefited from past protection and who are, I guess, our equivalent to Canadian authors like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, have spoken out against this and been totally ignored. I just want to scream.

  3. Grad said,

    It is very difficult to fight MONEY. I obviously don’t know anything about the Productivity Commision, but don’t writers and others in the book publishing world have any representation there? Is this decision popular with the book-buying public because it will result in cheaper books? It sounds as though you have an uphill battle, but I believe saving the unique Australian voice is worth it. P.S. WHY does it have to be an American bellowing?? Hmm? :>

  4. doctordi said,

    Ah yes, the filthy lucre, that many-headed beast. It’s depressing that in these days of total economic rationalism, nothing else seems to matter. Except maybe religion, but let’s not pretend that’s not mighty big business too. I am always surprised, always gutted, to realise how little the creators and keepers of our stories are treasured. It’s a mistake to decide this on money terms, but watch the powers that be do just that.

    Yes, writers, agents, some publishing houses have voiced their objections, many of us have signed a petition (I wish I believed they worked), and there have been written submissions as well as some well-timed spoken concerns, such as Winton’s recorded acceptance speech for his latest Miles Franklin. But personally I think there’s also a latent atmosphere of dismissiveness when writers speak out; a lot of people think writers are privileged, over-indulged dilettantes with no eye on the Real World (which is guff. Every single writer I know is obsessed with the real world, and most of us toast stale bread on a weekly basis. I just ate mine for breakfast). I know for a fact even people very close to me have very little concept of how hard it is, and how hard I work. One of my friends was telling me about all the games she and her colleagues play in the office – every week – and I was just gobsmacked. I never play games. But she’s considered to be in a REAL JOB and I’m always being asked how it is being a lady of leisure. Again, this is because I have a low and unreliable income stream from the work I do.

    Yes, the chief argument is that this is a win for consumers.

    And two reasons he’s American. One is that Englishmen don’t tend to bellow, and I kind of wanted my guy to be a blusterer. The other reason is that in recent years, we’ve become much more like a colonial outpost of the US than what we still are (THANKS AGAIN FOR TWISTING THE REFERENDUM QUESTION, LITTLE JOHNNY HOWARD – only the most humiliating referendum result in history), which is a constitutional monarchy under QEII. I often pass groups of teenagers speaking in affected American accents. It’s all pretty curious. I love you guys, but, I’m an Australian. We’re different. I like our differences.

  5. Grad said,

    Do we really have accents? I always thought you guys did!

    Anyhow, I agree that when someone identifies themselves as a writer, there are those who picture someone working in a solitary pursuit, thinking and then penning esoteric thoughts that the rest of humanity finds difficult to comprehend – or – they are only familiar with the fabulously successful, best seller list authors (J.K. Rowling, Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, et cetera) and think all writers must be raking in the dough. Like most stereotypes, both are false presumptions. I don’t know many writers, but I do know a few. They live far from cushy lives, have to deal with stopped up drains and leaking roofs and car pools like everyone else. They almost always have to find an additional source of income. But they also make us think, and take us places we would never otherwise go. They lull our children to sleep at night, and keep us company when we feel alone and perhaps afraid, or need to laugh. They come with us to the beach and the hospital and the train to work. They sit quietly by our side, waiting for the chance to speak to us. I don’t know if there is anything you can do to protect yourselves as a profession in Australia, and that sucks canal water. Perhaps it won’t have the deleterious effect you anticipate. (I hope).

  6. doctordi said,

    Indeed you do – but I don’t have any trouble understanding yours!

    That’s beautifully put, Grad. Puts a lump in my throat, actually, especially the bit about lulling children to sleep. When I was little, May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – about as Australian a children’s book as you’re ever going to find – was about the most exciting thing on the planet, and the dreaded Banksia men made me shiver with fear within the safe confines of my bed night after night. It’s an Australian classic, but I didn’t know that then. I just loved, recognised, and cherished its Australian character.

    And I’m an optimist, so let’s assume it won’t really be as bad as all that. Long live Australian writing!

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