I write this in between packing for Hobart (where there is to be a launch for Island magazine, in which the essay that I wrote for the Ridgeline Residency will appear), writing up an abstract for the ASAL conference next year, wrapping Xmas presents, mending my pearl bracelet, and contemplating with some dismay the shambles in my flat that has accumulated from another week of not-enough-sleep. But I wanted to get this post out of the way, so I can clear up my desk.
As is becoming usual, this is a post about an event several months ago - the Australian Society of Authors congress in October, held for their 50th anniversary celebrations, which attracted some 200 authors. This has turned into a pretty long post, and I’ve put it up mostly for my own reference, because the notebook in which this was written will go on a shelf shortly, as its been filled.
On the evening before the Congress I caught a bus into the State Library of NSW to hear Melissa Lucashenko deliver the Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture. She began with the story of the three little pigs, and used this to explore three stereotypical depictions of Indigenous people: the doomed innocent (like the first pig who made his house of straw) who is a child of nature, beyond modernity and civilisation, and who, it was believed, would die out; the tragic Aboriginal, like that featured in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, who was caught between two cultures and who, in transcending suffering, would lose their place in Aboriginal society (this is the pig who made his house out of sticks, who really tried to make it, but couldn’t); the third pig is the Indigenous person who has beauty, power, humour and land, who makes their house from bricks and is epitomised by the Indigenous man in The Tracker – this film offered a representation of Indigenous people that had been missing for two centuries.
Melissa also spoke of how art forms that involved collaboration, such as film, were usually more successful in their representations of Indigenous people, because the fiction writer was usually on their own, making things up. She also noted it was the responsibility of the artist to ‘First, do no harm’, because the artist dealing with hurt and fragile people, and there’s a responsibility to at least get it right. I really appreciated the lecture – Melissa was clear, smart, funny and informative — and a number of things that had been puzzling me about the representation of Indigenous people in literature began to fall into place.
The Congress was held at the National Maritime Museum over Friday 18th and Saturday 19th October. I bought a coffee to drink (it was ordinary) while I wandered across the bridge to Darling Harbour, and saw that the monorail was being dismantled, and wondered what had happened to the idea to turn it into a bikeway. Perhaps that had just been someone’s passing fancy, which is a pity.
In the lecture theatre in the museum, among model ships and an exhibition of Antarctica, I was overjoyed to find that the loop system was the best I had ever used, rivalled only by one in a tiny room in the Museum of London for a film on the 1666 Great Fire of London. On that note, the bushfires broke out over the weekend, and the air was rimmed with smoke, which set off my hayfever.
I have pages and pages of scrawled notes in my journal, which are somewhat hard to decipher, but here goes for a few transcriptions.
What does the sheet material of free content mean for authors? asked ASA Executive Director, Angelo Loukakis, broaching one of the themes that would surface repeatedly throughout the two days. It was taken up by Anna Funder, who expressed her disappointment at being asked to write a small piece for the Royal Academy’s ‘Australia’ exhibition for free. She also spoke of the infiltration of Google in our lives (possibly this related to her research on totalitarian regimes but I’m can’t read what I wrote), and how writers need to carve out spaces untouched by Google, for although our souls have been stolen and sold, we still have the idea of the interior journey, and people need to live the lives of the individuals they read of.
Rosie Scott spoke of the Literature Board and its contributions to the diversity of Australian literature, but noted it could be dismantled in a matter of minutes by a politician’s whim – just witness Campbell Newman’s butchery of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. She stated that ebooks represented 15% of sales overall and that, although the internet had opened up a readership and new means of funding such as crowd funding, this hasn’t really translated into an actual improvement. In 2001 the median income of creative writers was $23,000; in 2008 it was $11,100. Lucky I don’t need to eat much to get buy, and am a cheap drunk. Although there is the problem of the frock addiction. Writers are also being asked to do so much more themselves, such as writing their own blurbs and doing their own publicity. One possibility, she suggested, was forming an international association of writers organisations, to help safeguard the private act of writing.
Jan Richards, Manager of Central West Libraries, was then on a panel with Richard Glover, who was taking time out from bushfire reporting. If you want a literate society, Jan said, the best thing you can do is to teach kids how to read for pleasure. Meanwhile, 50% of the Australian population are active members of their society, which was a marvellous thing to learn. Richard brought up the internet, likening it to a giant echo chamber, in which its algorithms brought back the things you wanted to hear. Reading, by contrast, is a means by which you walk into someone else’s world. I’m not sure who said this (my scrawl doesn’t say), but at least 25% of booksellers have gone, but the kids books market is growing, and they want Australian authors, which will hopefully mean more kids reading for pleasure, as Jan advocated. Jan also noted that the busiest days of the year for the libraries are just after Xmas, when readers come in wanting to know how to borrow books on their ereaders. Meanwhile Jon Page, owner of Pages and Pages who engineered a Kindle amnesty this year (hurrah!), said that ebook sales in the US have plateaued at 30%, which means 70% of all sales are still physical book sales.
Next was info on copyright, delivered by Trish Hepworth, Copyright Advisor for the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee, and Michael Fraser AM, Professor of Law at UTS and founder of the Copyright Agency. Trish discussed how copyright was broken & needed to be reformed because it couldn’t keep up with changes, while Michael talked of how copyright helped writers earn a living from their work, and that ELR and PLR should be made into rights, and not be reliant on the whims of each minister.
The final panel for the day consisted of Susan Johnson and Antony Loewenstein. The latter noted how in places like India, the publishing industry has never been in better shape, and that it’s important to remember that the rest of the world is not the West. He also discussed how, if someone wasn’t getting upset, you weren’t doing your job, and that if you want to be a original and interesting writer then you need to learn to accept criticism. Susan, on a different tack, said that the job of a writer is to show how a character turns out, suggesting not so much provocation, as care for the reader.
I was too broke to go to the dinner that evening, but was delighted to hear that Belinda Castles, who was co-winner of the SMH Best Young Novelist with me, had won the Asher Literary Award for her novel, Hannah and Emil (which is on my reading list!)
The panel for the next morning was about commercialisation. Sandy Grant, who founded Hardie Grant, talked about GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – who presided over cheap consumerism, where everything is sold cheaper and free-er. Amazon, he continued, had a predatory price basis, in which they didn’t make any money, and which was corrosive. 60% of what Angus and Robertson and Borders sold was Australian literature, and now they’ve gone. Australia’s biggest seller is also Amazon, but their Australian content is minimal. In this climate, even good books are being rejected by publishers. The books that do succeed, really succeed, and publishers are looking for a narrow range of breakout books. He urged writers to look beyond our shores: Australia is a population of 22 million out of half a billion English speakers, so we must export to a wider, international audience, and turn the colonial tables around. Meanwhile Steven Lewis quoted that 56% (I think of Amazon self-publishers) would rather sell their book cheaply or give it away than not be published – these are the people driving the perception that books are free. He referred to them a ‘kamikaze authors’ which I thought apt (and cute).
In the next panel, on trying to sustain oneself as a writer, Kate Forsyth delivered a brilliant, witty and memorable talk on her route to publication. I loved her sense of drama, and what stayed with me was her unparalleled dedication to becoming a writer, which meant that she had once walked for an hour to the NSW Writers Centre for courses, because she was too poor to catch the bus. Other advice she gave was that writers shouldn’t be a one-trick pony, and that writing takes time, humility, honest and hard, hard work. Sophie Masson also had a number of useful tips: develop relationships with authors and schools; develop one’s craft; think about ways to market yourself; respect your readers and understand who your readership is; when approaching schools, be specific in your aims (for eg don’t waft on about themes like belonging); have some tricks up your sleeves to keep kids entertained in case you see them getting bored.
In the final session for the day, on the interplay between government and authors. Stuart Glover (who managed to post his thoughts on the event in the same week it happened, unlike yours truly) discussed how publishing studies are starting to appear, looking at the flow of power between them. He also mentioned the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and how the symbolic weight of canning them was far greater than the monetary weight. There was a concern that the prizes were funnelling money out of the state, as only a handful of Queenslanders received them, and there had been the controversy surrounding the shortlisting of David Hicks’ book for the non-fiction award. In light of this, having a structure outside of government, such as Screen Australia, would be helpful. Sophie Cunningham, the chair, also noted how, in this world in which writers and artists have so little currency, people stop feeling brave about things because they’re worried about losing their funding. Sometimes I wonder if Patrick White could only be as innovative as he was because of family money.
Aside from the fabulous venue and the stimulating talks, the best part of the few days was meeting and connecting with other writers such as WA author Natasha Lester (and here are her thoughts on the congress) and Cheryl Hardacre, which made me feel less lonely. It was also wonderful to be in Sydney again, and H and I went to Clovelly, caught up with CousinA who lives near there, and snorkelled with gropers, which sadly weren’t the blue ones.