Thursday, September 21, 2006

The View from Australia

Carmen Lawrence describes in the Australian (a few weeks back now, but still up fortunately) how she developed the reading sickness as a kid. She also ponders the problems that the book industry is facing in Australia. The article is a shorter version of her Dorothy Green lecture for The Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and I think it's fascinating both for what it says about the state of Australian fiction, and because many of the points she makes about readership and the book industry are so relevant for us here.

Lawrence who is a former premier of Western Australia and a federal Labor MP begins by painting a bleak picture of the current situation:
I know that the proliferation of writers festivals and book clubs has led some to conclude that Australian literature enjoys a secure place in our civic and cultural life, but there are worrying signs that this is an overly favourable assessment. While we seem to be reading as many books as ever, more of them appear to be formulaic fiction or how-to guides for managing real estate, children, physical appearance and relationships. Sales of Australian fiction fell from $215 million in 2001-02 to $73 million in 2003-04 and few such books, even by well-regarded writers, sell more than 1000 copies. Royalties and fees for Australian-originated books are also down. First time and unknown authors struggle. Perhaps as a result, leading publishers appear to be vacating the field, producing only 32 books from Australian authors in 2004 compared with 60 in 1996.
Lawrence then examines the possible factors that have lead to a decline in readership.

Is it because of the quality of writing? she asks, and suggests that there may be some disenchanment with Australian fiction because local novels in the past which did not measure up in terms of quality.

Is it because Australian readers are simply losing the will to read? The situation seems to be part of a universal trend:
... perhaps it is, as Green observed in the '80s, that "there are not nearly enough readers capable of reading (books) properly" or, as publisher Ivor Indyk says, "It's not just that publishers have lost the will. Readers have lost the will, too." Philip Roth warned in the early '90s, in response to even more drastic declines in readership for literary fiction in the US, that the danger for all novels and novelists is that there soon may be no audience left. "I don't think there's a decline of the novel," he said, "so much as the decline of the readership ... Whether it is a matter of television, mass culture or shifts in the way people work and live, there is a change in the mental landscape having to do with concentration, and that is what's responsible for the declining readership."
She also cites lack of government support:
It has been obvious for some time that our leaders seem to place no value on literature, Australian or otherwise, or the arts more generally. I find it amazing there was no public gesture of welcome from John Howard following the decision by Nobel prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee to become an Australian citizen. I'm not as unkind as Mungo McCallum, who suggested that the last theatre Howard attended was to have his tonsils removed and the last book he read was the Boy Scouts Book of Knots, but in trawling acres of newsprint and transcripts that capture his every utterance, I found almost no evidence of him taking pleasure in reading fiction or celebrating the achievements of our literary high-flyers. This can be no accident from a leader who weighs each word. It is a message: the arts have no great value and artists are forever tarnished by their association with a previous administration and beyond the realm of "mainstream Australia".
She goes on to point her finger at Australian novelists for not tackling contemporary issues in their work, but sticking to the safety of historical fiction:
Some have charged that this climate has produced a distinct unwillingness by local novelists to engage in any serious rendering of contemporary moods and preoccupations at odds with the official line, to tell us what we may not want to hear, take us where we may not want to go. Our imagined history, according to this view, offers a safe retreat from having to deal with tough up-close-and- personal social questions; history allows us to keep our distance from bruising self-awareness.
Literature is vitally important to the heart of the nation, she says, and ends by quoting Dorothy Greene:
"Those who value political and personal freedom have the strongest motive to preserve respect for the word" and that "society in any significant sense of the word is simply not possible without literature" because it is "the memory of a society which provides it with its continuity and its enduring personality". Indeed.
This is an article well worth reading in full.


sympozium said...

Agree with you. A very well-written article.

The Visitor said...

hey, u took out the spammer entry!

btw, i am on leave for this week, so won't be seeing u in my ofis.

let me know when we can meet again, and i'll bring the DVD. do u still want Fear & Loathing?

oh yes, remind me to bring Hawksmoor as well.

Ron said...


The Great Swifty said...

Yeah, being in Australia for two and a half years, I always feel that this country's a Western version of, well, Malaysia.

bibliobibuli said...

sympozium - glad you found it useful i'm glad i posted it - there's so much in it.

visitor - yes, took it down. it seemed a bit self-indulgent, and although i feel justifiably self-righteous, i got up my own nose. self-editing!

many thanks ron. the full version is on PDF here. i had no idea i could read the whole thing online and so many other interesting things besides.

swifty - you could be right! i think the same problems are common ... maybe not just here but across the world. but i certianly saw the malaysian situation in everything i picked out.