After two weeks of frantic socialising and travelling, I’m very happy to be back at my desk, and I’m not budging until Christmas. I travelled to Armidale for a school reunion (20 years! jeepers), then caught the train (instead of the plane, to save carbon emissions) to Sydney. I met up with a billion friends and attended the second National Writers’ Congress organised by the Australian Society of Authors. I went to the first congress two years ago at the Maritime Museum and loved it, so I figured that as I was in the same state for the reunion, I should go again.
Continuing with things nautical, the venue this year was at Luna Park, beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The views were spectacular, and in his opening address David Marr (whom I had followed into the mouth of the clown with a coffee), urged us to preserve the ludic spirit. We were out and about and talking to real people, after all, instead of cramping over our desks with our characters. His entertaining delivery certainly set the tone for the two days, and we needed our humour when George Brandis walked into our midst.
The first session was my favourite, with a panel made up of writer Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft, writer and veteran reviewer Kerryn Goldsworthy and Australian literature afficiondo Brigitta Olubus, whom I often run into at conferences and who is lovely. Michael pointed out that conversations about whiteness centre around the relation of Aboriginal, Indian, Arab, Asian people to white people, which is ridiculous, especially when whiteness is something that’s completely arbitrary. He exhorted the gatekeepers of Australian literature – publishers, editors, assessors and judging panels - to have more transparency and diversity. This is something Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote about recently in an essay for Overland. At the Q&A at the end of the conference, I added that I'd like to see more writers with disability, as well as writers of colour, also recognised and represented by the ASA.
Brigitta reiterated that the study of Australian literature is far from dead, with AustLit, the Australian literature database, showing that it was taught in 199 courses in 2014 (and many of these courses are taught to teachers, who go on to talk about what they learn to their students). However, writers are readers as well. Debra Adelaide said that she always began her writing courses with two questions: 1) Who wants to be an author? 2) Who has bought a book by an Australian author in the past month? The same question is pertinent to those who’d like to be published in literary journals, as Matt Lamb, the editor of Island, has written.
Debra also mentioned that there was only one Australian book featured on the ABC book show last year, and that it was heavily criticised. Could we imagine, she posited, the US book show only ever discussing David Malouf and not Jonathon Franzen?
Jackie French (to whom I have bequeathed a small fortune, as I buy Diary of a Wombat for each of my friends’ children – and there are many) remarked that if your work is good enough, it will find a market overseas, and it will sell better than in Oz. I and a few others had some qualms about this, however. Perhaps it’s because we’re younger, and have seen just how damn hard it is to get anywhere in the industry.
On things international, Elizabeth Weiss, publisher at Allen and Unwin, said that many of the publishers operating in Australia are multi-national, and consequently there’s a lack of recognition of Indigenous authors. And while ebooks and digital publishing have enabled the distribution of Australian literature in unprecedented ways, there’s a smorgasboard of literature for readers and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be heard.
And then came Brandis, brandishing his doom and gloom. In the panel prior we’d had the shadow minister for the arts, Mark Dreyfus, citing that 87% of Australians had read some form of literature, making it the most favoured art form in Australia. He mentioned that at the Labor conference in July the party had reaffirmed its commitment to Creative Australia, and pointed out that the senate inquiry into Brandis’s snatch of $105 million from the Australia Council to create a National Program for Excellence in the Arts (which offers no funding whatsoever to writers) had one of the highest number of submissions for any inquiry (the average number is 50-100 but this inquiry had 2,500).
Brandis tried to make some jokes about his bookshelves and his poetry reading in parliament, but as he’d taken our livelihood, they fell pretty flat. And then came a fifteen minute litany (or liturgy) on his admired (mostly dead) writers, and politicians who were writers, not one of whom, it seemed, were women (although when chatting to some writers afterwards, I was told that one had been the daughter of a politician). He re-announced the Book Council of Australia, offered a tiny bit more detail on its make up, & then finished. He left no time for questions, though I had one prepared, but afterwards I noticed he was mobbed by angry authors. David Marr had joked that Brandis was always pursued by a long line of suitors beseeching him for money, and so it came to pass. I was very glad that David Day, the Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, had the balls to say that he had grave reservations about Brandis’s announcement, even if he was admonished for it by Louise Adler, chair of the Book Council.
It was altogether a dispiriting moment in an otherwise energetic programme. Even Kate Forsyth, ever positive and graceful (we had a lovely chat about Leona Edmiston frocks and her suitcase of Leonas that she takes travelling), was upset enough to pen a post on what she’d say to Brandis, while Jessica Friedman, in another plea for diversity (are people hearing this, yet??), has written on the Book Council’s make-up: ‘Where is the representation for disabled or non-neurotypical writers; writers of colour; writers whose first language is other than English, or the young or disadvantaged or experimental? It is a remarkably staid collection of voices, one that does not represent Australian letters in their diverse and exciting entirety.'
There is a letter that writers can sign if they would like a fairer representation in the Book Council. And let’s hope that Brandis’s successor (hooray!) will reverse the insane cuts to Oz Co.
I was also delighted to meet up with a fellow writer, Annabel Smith, whom I’d met on social media. Annabel was on a panel about opportunities for creators in the digital space, and was discussing the creation of her ebook The Ark, which sounded like a terrifyingly steep learning curve. I also caught up with feminist, writer and fellow Uni of Wollongong graduate Van Badham, who was on her deathbed with illness but still soldiering on. Kudos to brave women!
I haven’t covered all of the sessions here, but I would like to nod to the last one, on reviewing. Kerryn Goldsworthy spoke alongside literary agent Benython Oldfield and blogger Kat Mayo. Kat pointed out that readers speak to other readers, and offered advice on how to connect with readers, including through newsletters (by authors and booksellers), and providing excerpts and giveaways to core readers. She also, interestingly, added that iBooks is a great platform for blind readers because they can adjust the pace, something that hadn’t occurred to me before. Benython noted that a good professional review can take a book far, including overseas. When I raised the issue that this might create some problems for women writers given that there’s still a gender disparity in mainstream media reviews, Kerryn replied that as editor of the Australian Book Review she had made sure that the gender of the reviewed authors was 50-50, but since she has left, it’s gone backwards. Geez, it’s the 21st century! Distressing stuff.
On the whole it was a great two days but I was relieved, as I always am, to get back to warmer climes in Brisbane. After two weeks of hard socialising with real people, I’m now very happily going back into my writing cave.