Monday, 16 June 2014

An Acknowledged Truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there are fashions in art.  Equally true is that, at least at its higher reaches, fiction too is an art.  And will be, I think, as long as there are readers and writers.

A reader
There’s been much to do of late over the demise of the book and the dumbing down of literature, and I've been heeding the alarms.  Yet I don’t think this is the whole of it.  There are many more books being published in English today than there were when I began reading, and a great many more in Australia than when I arrived here back in 1958.  There are, as well, an awful lot more writers, many of the first mark.  And while it’s been said that what has changed is the place books and writers have in our hearts, only a glance at the attendance figures at literary festivals will put paid to that.  There’s been a change in reviewing, which my good friend and colleague Dorothy Johnston has discussed in a recent blog, but even this - the rise of the amateur reviewer – seems to suggest that people do care a lot about fiction.

But the books and authors they care about are not quite the same as the ones that appeared when I was beginning to be published.  Another good colleague-cum-friend of mine recently remarked that she doesn’t recognise the names of authors anymore.  Well, yes, there are the stayers: Winton, Keneally, Grenville, Malouf and Garner.  And Tsolkias,  Flanagan, and Miller, whose stars keep rising and rising.  But where are Kerryn Higgs, Georgia Savage,  Beverley Farmer or Keri Hulme?  What’s become of Carmel Bird,  Amanda Lohrey, Julian Davies, Jean Bedford, Maurilla Meehan or Gerard Windsor?  All contemporaries of ours, but we don’t hear that much, if anything, from them these days. 

Beginning in the late 1990s, several things happened that made the life of fiction writers more precarious than ever and can account for the virtual disappearance of a number of us.  But what should be understood at the start is the Whitlam government’s crucial role in encouraging the writing and publishing of Australian work. The appreciative climate the newly established Australia Council fostered, plus the financial support it made available, gave local publishers significantly more confidence to invest in local writers and our work.  This resulted in an efflorescence of Australian writing and publishing in the eighties and nineties.  But sometime towards the end of this period the Council changed its policy with respect to publishing.  Instead of granting support to publishers for publishing important fiction, the Literature Board restricted its grants to first books only.  This was a blow to what in the trade are called midlist writers, many of whom were cut off at the knees just as they were gaining readerships.  The policy encouraged a concentration on new writers, who were then subjected to the same lack of support if their first books didn’t sell.  Because of the small domestic market it had always been hard for writers to sustain themselves and this was a policy almost designed to make them fail.

Then came globalisation and the bean counters.  The most telling event heralding what was to come was the 1998 takeover of the British-based Pearson group by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann.  Even at the time there were alarms and whispers concerning midlist writers; the doomsayers predicted it would be the death of them.  For the most part the predictions proved true, and the reverberations would be harshly felt even on these far distant shores.  Penguin, which from the early 1980s had played a significant role in promoting new Australian fiction, began cashing in their contracts.  The aim was no longer to nurture local writers and a distinctly Australian literature, but to succeed on the global market.  There were countervailing pressures, to be sure, and even advantages to writers whose interests lay beyond depicting  specifically Australian themes, but the result was unmistakeable.  Many of our writers fell by the wayside.   Some were taken up by smaller houses, others struggled to get published, some were no longer getting published at all.

If that weren’t enough, other developments drove axes between the shoulders.  After years of campaigning, academics succeeded in getting creative writing taught at the tertiary level (a discipline, it should be said, well-established in the United States).  The ball got rolling, so rapidly and with such traction, that postgraduate studies also became available and it soon became possible to get a doctorate in creative writing.  The purpose of this was to give a measure of academic gravitas to what was widely considered in academic circles a lightweight endeavour, if not an outright indulgence.  It also served to provide employment, often to the graduates of these very same courses. According to the British author Will Self, a novel worked up for a doctoral thesis is unlikely to ever get published, but will form a path to a job.  There are exceptions, of course – the mind-boggling success of writers like Hannah Kent and Eleanor Catton can be attributed to this development – but it’s hardly the norm.  What can be said categorically is that it’s severely altered the ratio of supply to demand.  In other words, there are far too many writers for publishers, just at the time when what publishers there are are struggling to stay in business.

For there’s been, as well, the digital revolution.  It’s been difficult for writers and publishers alike to get a grip on such rapid change as this has been.  Having first been hit with the GFC, even the big multinationals have been challenged, as readers converted to tablets and downloaded fiction on them, culminating in a massive shift to digital sales, and the wholesale bankruptcy of book chains and independent bookstores.  I'm thankful that, after years of terror in the industry, a state of equilibrium appears to have been reached.  Digital sales are up, but hard copy books are selling too.  It seems to be a question of horses for courses: tablet downloads are good for travel; but for everyday, readers still prefer the physical heft and tactile experience of a book.  Publishers seem to be on top of the change, bookstores too.  But it’s been a bumpy ride.          

So books are back.  The doom and gloom of recent years reminds me of the dire prognostications for film when television first came on the scene.  Everyone said the movies would be dead.  But films did stay, evolving over the years a symbiotic relationship with the new kid on the block, as well as maintaining theatre exhibitions.  The analogy can be extended to television’s niche in the digital world.  The point being that, as the song goes, everything old is new again.  If not exactly the same.

Publishing is no more immune to these metamorphoses than other forms of entertainment (and that’s been the central change, that books have become just another kind of entertainment, instead of holding the principal position they had since Gutenberg).  Here in Oz we have a classics redux, with publishers like Penguin, Text and Picador reissuing books they deem worthy as such.  And writers whose decades-long absence from the literary scene has rendered them unknown, unloved and unread, are experiencing a welcome resuscitation. The most notable is Elizabeth Harrower, who, thanks to Text, is undergoing a substantial revival, including the rescue of a manuscript left unpublished nearly half a century ago. So even though there’s been an evident shift in style, privileging genre fiction, and relegating literary fiction to the shadows, it hasn’t been killed off altogether. 

In an important essay on the problematic, contemporary emphasis on storytelling (straight from the offices of film studio executives, it should be said), Maria Tumarkin writes that the key to appreciating literature is not to ‘connect’ with characters, as the current requirement goes, but rather with an author’s mind.  And mind too is making a comeback.  Gerald Murnane, of all people, has a new book out, and one by Mark Henshaw is forthcoming.   For those of us who long to be challenged as well as entertained, these are hopeful signs.  For it’s a truth that should be universally acknowledged that fashions in literature, as in all else, will come and go.  And pop up again.  It's my fondest belief that, in the end, you can't keep a good book down.