All posts by Ian

How much do authors earn?

After half a century of outstanding literary achievement, a venerable Australian author has declared himself almost penniless. Approaching his 79th birthday, Frank Moorhouse AM, winner of numerous prizes for his work in several genres including the Miles Franklin award, ruefully divulges in a recent journal article that despite plenty of reputational success he has no financial security to show for it all.

Most authors learn to live with the fact that our writing is never likely to bring in big dollars from any source. A large 2015 survey of author income in Australia indicates that, even when the sample is confined to people with at least one book-length publication to their name, the average annual income derived from practising as an author is $12,900.

No doubt earnings vary a lot according to genre; poets, for instance, generally don’t expect to earn as much as someone who writes books for children. Of course there are superstar writers with handsome incomes, but very few. Hardly anyone in Australia makes a living out of creative literary activities.

The weight of numbers is against us. Although it’s hard to find reliable trend data, there’s no doubt that the book market is extremely crowded, as I mentioned in a recent post. More and more books are getting published (about 55 per day in Australia), but with shorter and shorter shelf lives, while fewer and fewer people seem to be buying what we produce. So we jostle one another aside, unavoidably, in a struggle for attention. The increased number of contenders for literary prizes is a reflection of this. In 1973 only six books were entered for the Miles Franklin Award, and the judges deemed none of them good enough to merit it, whereas there were 64 submissions for the 2017 award – still only a selection of the Australian novels published during the eligible period.

A 2016 Roy Morgan study of Australia’s reading habits found that the proportion of all Australians who read either fiction or non-fiction declined over the previous five years in every age group from 14 upwards, except for women over 65. Correspondingly the percentage of the population buying books these days is also on the wane.

A consequence for authors is that the unofficial benchmark for a satisfactory cumulative sales result is lower than it used to be. According to the grapevine, the average number of copies sold for a work of literary fiction by a first-time Australian author is now a bit under 1000. Based on average retail pricing and royalty percentages, this would usually yield little more than $2000 in royalties.

Average figures don’t convey the full story because royalty returns can swing wildly up and down from year to year, depending on whether we’ve just had a new book released. Anyhow, like most authors, I get only a small proportion of my writing income from royalties. We supplement those meagre direct profits with whatever we can get from indirect sources – a range of writing-related activities such as paid talks and teaching writing, plus fees for copyright (threatened by a Productivity Commission report currently under government consideration) and for public lending right and educational lending right. Perhaps, with better than average luck, there may also be occasional cash from residencies, festival appearances, fellowships, even prizes – all eked out, usually, with earnings from some unrelated day job.

Most authors daydream about the utterly remote possibility that our books will be snapped up by one of the giant publishers after a sensational bidding war for global or even galactic rights, and will then be vigorously marketed, distributed, translated into many languages and turned into a blockbuster movie and a Broadway musical. Unless that fantasy turns into reality for some wonderfully fortunate writer amongst us, we’ll just have to make do with scratching along, cobbling together bits and pieces of income from whatever comes to hand. That’s where the question of pay rates for authors becomes important.

The Australian Society of Authors, as part of its mission to provide members with Advocacy, Support and Advice) recommends benchmark rates of pay for various kinds of writing-related activities. These recommended rates help us to negotiate fair remuneration.

But market conditions keep changing, and the current rates are outdated. Many haven’t been revised for five or six years. Getting the right balance between realistic and aspirational rates is difficult. So the ASA has surveyed writers and illustrators on this topic. The process of compiling and analysing all the data isn’t yet complete. When it is, the ASA will go back to all participant organisations (e.g. writers’ centres) with a draft of proposed new rates. Once there is a consensus, new rates will be published.

If you’re not already an ASA member, joining now would be timely! There’s plenty of information about the benefits of doing so on its website: www.asauthors.org

 

[This is a much-abbreviated version of a talk I gave, in my capacity as a Director of the ASA, at a WritingWA Forum on 1st August, where I was able to reveal preliminary findings from the ASA survey.]

Hard times for Australian writers

For years the right of Australian authors to receive fair payment for their work has been safeguarded by copyright law. But proposed changes, pushed by the Productivity Commission and reinforced by lobbyists for large organisations and big technology companies such as Google, will severely diminish these copyright protections.

The Australian Government is currently considering the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for change. If adopted they would be ruinous to literary creativity in this country. (For more information, click here.) Preserving copyright protections is vital not only for individual authors but also for the millions of readers who care about keeping Australian stories alive.

This threat to copyright comes at a time when the income of those who write books is already meagre and declining. A recent national survey of Australian authors found that their average annual earnings from all writing-related sources (royalties, copyright, fees for talks etc.) amounted to a miserable $12,900. The book market is overcrowded with new titles: more and more books are getting published, with shorter and shorter shelf lives and less and less publicity backing, while fewer and fewer people are buying what we produce.

So it’s timely that WritingWA, the peak support body for literary creators in Western Australia, will hold a two-day ‘Writing and Publishing Sector Forum’ on 31 July and 1 August at the City of Perth Library and History Centre, 573 Hay Street, Perth. There will be sessions on the publisher-to-bookshop supply chain, on self-publishing, on copyright and ‘fair use,’ on the recent state government review of writing and publishing in WA, and several other topics. My own invited presentation will be on authors’ incomes and pay rates. Program details and ticketing arrangements here.

Required Reading

Our notions about literature, about what’s worth reading and how to read it, get shaped largely by the books we encounter at school. Texts set for study in English classes, especially in senior secondary years, tend to stay with us and influence our tastes as adult readers.

The authors and titles figuring most prominently in Australian surveys of the country’s favourite reading matter are much the same as those that recur in lists of required reading for thousands of school students. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet comes top of the list of Australian books, or very near the top, in the annual reader polls conducted by Booktopia. It was also the highest-ranking Australian title, close behind Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, in an ABC TV survey of ‘favourite reads.’

Such popularity is no surprise, because for more than 20 years Cloudstreet has been appearing regularly on the syllabus for secondary English and Literature in most states. No doubt this is partly attributable to its general ‘literary merit’, but many other highly meritorious Australian novels don’t achieve comparable recognition, and indeed ‘Cloudstreet is not widely accepted in the academy as a literary masterpiece.’ Its status probably owes a lot to ‘its power to evoke particular emotive responses with a voice, rhythm and location that is recognisably connected to the national mythology.’ Those quoted comments are by Claire Jones, discussing Cloudstreet as a ‘classroom classic’ in her chapter of a newly published book, Required Reading: Literature in Australian Schools Since 1945, edited by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett.

Some chapters in Required Reading look at the ‘teachability’ of other authors with a lasting classroom presence, such as Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and Judith Wright. There are also several broader historical analyses of curriculum change in particular Australian jurisdictions. My own chapter argues that text lists don’t tell the full story, because items selected for study are always ‘framed’ for their readers by ‘circumtextual’ factors – e.g. resource materials designated for use in teaching; official and unofficial rubrics inscribed in classroom practices; assessment methods and exam structures that encourage some choices or interpretations rather than others, and so on.

The book is based on a recently compiled database called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. It makes available for the first time a comprehensive source of syllabus details about English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in the texts prescribed for study over that period.

What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? You can find absorbing answers to those questions and many others in Required Reading.

Revisiting Patrick White: The Aunt’s Story

Most of what we read tends to be restricted to what’s topical. Review pages, bookshop displays, literary prizes, festival programs and reading-group lists all usually focus our attention on the Latest Thing.

It can be salutary to resist this tendency by returning occasionally to durable books from the past. So from time to time I post on this blog a few thoughts about some memorable literary work first encountered years ago that may have more lasting value than anything currently featured in the literary marketplace. I’ve previously written in that spirit about Kate Grenville’s comic masterpiece The Idea of Perfection and about early fiction by Peter Carey.

My well-thumbed copy, with its haunting cover picture by Sidney Nolan

This time I’m revisiting The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White, one of the first Australian novels I came across (when I hadn’t yet migrated to this country). Published in 1948, a quarter of a century before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s a novel that retains a capacity to startle me. I admire all of White’s fiction and regard him as Australia’s greatest writer. It’s odd that he isn’t as widely read today as he still deserves to be, especially as he has had such a palpable influence on some of the best compatriot writers (e.g. Shirley Hazzard, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Michelle de Kretser). White was brilliantly successful in his determination to prove, as he once put it, ‘that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.’ None of his works shows this with more verve than The Aunt’s Story.

At the novel’s centre is the character of Theodora Goodman, a middle-aged single woman. The narrative structure follows her erratic journey through the 1930s from rural New South Wales to middle America by way of a disintegrating Europe. To most of those who encounter her she appears strange and awkward. But as we see her world through her eyes, her gradual move into a kind of lucid madness is compassionately rendered. The novel’s richly textured language, full of nuances and disjunctions and arresting images, is a vehicle for conveying how Theo perceives what is happening around her and within her.

To a large extent this is a story about the limits and possibilities of storytelling. At the beginning, Theo sees herself as typical of ‘people who do not have many stories to tell,’ and several passages refer to storytelling in similarly negative terms: ‘There is nothing to tell’… ‘There is very little to tell.’ Seldom in the first or last of the novel’s three Parts do characters tell stories to each other. When they do, it’s usually just idle chatter. They show no confidence in being able to span ‘the distances that separate,’ either with tales of mundane personal experience or with grand modernist narratives of social progress. Theo is often described as ‘waiting.’ She is suspended between those two kinds of stories, the trivial and the portentous.

Part 1 (Meroë) includes glimpses of Theodora’s childhood, shaped by her extraordinary capacity for empathy – yet also by her experiences of painful exclusion. It ends with her feeling that ‘there is no lifeline to other lives’ – and therefore no worthwhile storyline. She is mistaken about this. Parts 2 and 3 move towards her discovery that our lives may become more bearable if understood as story-shaped.

The first paragraph of Part 2 (Jardin Exotique) repeats that Theo (now staying in a small French hotel filled with displaced eccentrics, the flotsam of cultural upheaval) is ‘waiting,’ just as Europe is ‘waiting for the crash’ – of markets, of tradition, of modernity. She feels directionless, ‘waiting to be told.’ Her travels in Part 2 take her through a wasteland of failed master-narratives:

Holding back the sun with her hands as she stepped out, she hoped that the garden would be the goal of a journey. There had been many goals, all of them deceptive. In Paris the metal hats just failed to tinkle. The great soprano in Dresden sang up her soul for love into a wooden cup. In England the beige women, stalking through the rain with long feet and dogs, had the monstrous eye of sewing machines. Throughout the gothic shell of Europe, in which there had never been such a buying and selling, of semi-precious aspirations, bulls’ blood, and stuffed doves, the stones arches cracked, the aching wilderness, in which the ghosts of Homer and St Paul and Tolstoy waited for the crash.

In fantasy, she begins to project herself imaginatively into the lives of her fellow-lodgers – Sokolnikov, Mrs Rapallo, Katina Pavlou and others. The borderlines between individuals, and between fact and fiction, blur in her mind.

Part 3 (Holstius) takes her through the rural American mid-west, which turns into a surreal landscape. In a deserted shack she communes with a mysterious figure called Holstius, who seems to be a comforting figment of her own invention.

In the peace that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music in Katina Pavlou’s hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo’s baroque and narcotised despair were the same and understandable. And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, […] these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.

At the Hôtel de Midi, Mrs Rapallo had urged Theo to relax with ‘a book where things happen.’ The Aunt’s Story isn’t that kind of book: instead of a chain of external events it provides inward-turning images and imaginary interrelationships.

My battered copy of this wonderful novel testifies to many readings, and I’ll continue to revisit it, discovering and rediscovering further details to cherish. I’ve written at length about The Aunt’s Story in one of the chapters of my book Narrative Exchanges, but I still feel I’ve hardly scratched its surface. No doubt it will continue to release new meanings each time I go back into its dreamlike world.

Reading groups: keeping the book industry viable

While book sales generally may not be thriving, one positive feature of the contemporary reading scene worldwide is the growth of reading groups, book groups, book clubs – call them what you like. The ritual that brings friends together regularly to discuss their recent reading is so widespread that, in the aggregate, it’s surely keeping the book industry viable.

These groups take various forms, from quasi-academic study circles to (more often) informal chat sessions. They meet in various places, from members’ houses to libraries and cafes. Though essentially self-managed, many have links to particular stores through which chosen titles are bought at a discount or borrowed through a consignment scheme; e.g. there are several hundred reading group members under the wing of my little local indie, The Well Bookshop.

Other groups may belong to a network coordinated by a small business operation, which provides fee-based services such as lists of recommended titles and discussion notes. A lively and well-run Californian example is Literary Masters.

Some groups known to me have been going for very many years, with original members continuing to participate actively as their tastes ripen. Other groups are newly established. I see no sign of a decline in the phenomenon, and in fact it seems to be burgeoning. According to John B. Thompson in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century, reading group membership has doubled in less than a decade. It’s estimated that there are now some 20 million members in the US alone.

Oprah Winfrey’s book club choices, publicised since the mid-1990s through TV and the internet, have had a demonstrably huge effect on sales.

A comparably influential British example is the Richard and Judy Book Club, which began as a TV chat show and was credited at its peak (2008) with 26% of all book sales in the UK. Subsequently, in association with the retail chain W.H. Smith, it became a website, and still has a large following.

In Australia the ABC’s nationally televised Book Club, hosted by Jennifer Byrne, is now a decade old. Its popular website and wide social media outreach have generated a high level of interest across all parts of the country in forming and joining satellite reading groups.

Several Perth-based reading groups have invited me along to their meetings to discuss one or more of my novels. I’ve always found it pleasurably informative to make this direct connection with a sample of my readers, respond to their questions, listen to a range of opinions, and observe how differently they go about comparing their literary experiences.

To judge from conversations with the groups I’ve attended as a guest and from positive comments that reach me from other such groups, it seems that my novels work well as a stimulus for the exchange of readers’ views. If you belong to a book group that hasn’t yet chosen one of these titles, you may like to consider doing so in the light of discussion notes that my publisher’s website provides on The End of Longing, That Untravelled World and The Mind’s Own Place.

Happy reading, happy talk!

Ask an author – FAQ #3: Why are your stories so dark?

While I’m not filled with gloom myself, it’s true I don’t write happily upbeat stories. Why dwell so much on shady characters, sombre moods and grim situations?

Although we may all want plenty of sunshine in our lives, most of us don’t want to read a lot about it, because the state of happiness is not particularly complex and there’s little of interest to be said on the subject.

Being conscious of unhappiness (some of the time, and in various ways) is surely one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals, and also stimulates the narrative impulse. It’s pleasant to listen occasionally to birdsong or to the purring of a cat, but birds and cats have no stories to tell us. Storytelling is the main medium through which we make sense of experience, and it doesn’t lend itself to cheerful chirping or merry miaows.

More often than not, I suppose, people tell or read stories in order to equip themselves to look unblinkingly into the shadows – to cope with difficult and dismal feelings, such as loss and grief, guilt and shame, fear and loathing, remorse and rejection.

Or just plain disappointment.  In large part, my novel That Untravelled World is a tale of dreams that don’t come to fruition – though it’s also a tale of consolations. I’ve tried not only to convey an impression of that troubled formative period of Australia’s development – covering the Great War, the Great Depression and the build up to WW2 – but also to get the reader thinking about the things that, during times of adversity, can either pull us apart or bring us together, especially in family relationships of different kinds.

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!

Ask an author – FAQ #1: How do you know when it’s finished?

img_5171That’s a question often put to writers, and there’s no snappy answer.

I’m confident that my fourth novel, now in the hands of my agent, is ready for publication – but what is this confidence in its readiness based on? And am I really sure?

Perhaps ‘finished’ isn’t an absolute state. I can see some truth in the aphorism that ‘a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.’ (That’s W.H. Auden’s paraphrase of a remark by Paul Valéry – though some attribute the same thought to Leonardo da Vinci.) The process of rewriting can seem indefinite, as Eliot’s Prufrock reflects:

       …time yet for a hundred indecisions,

and for a hundred visions and revisions…

Many writers are familiar with the sinking feeling that comes when they reluctantly recognise that a story or poem still needs further work after they thought they had brought it to completion. Sometimes this painful moment of belated insight comes just after the premature baby has been presented to a magazine or competition.

Before submitting something for publication, even the most accomplished author usually sends off a draft manuscript to a few ‘critical friends’ for comment, people equipped and willing to make a discerning assessment and be frank about their opinions. I always do this (tending at the time to persuade myself that the ms is actually in great shape already, so my critical friends will be unable to do much more than applaud) – and then, almost immediately, I see some flaws that must be fixed. It’s as if the act of releasing one’s precious creature brings a sudden surge of anxiety, which opens one’s eyes to things that require urgent revision.

Here’s a specific instance: when I dispatched this latest book-length ms of mine to one of the fellow-writers who had generously agreed to read it, I said in a nonchalant accompanying note that it was coming to him a bit earlier than he’d anticipated because I knew I’d ‘keep fiddling retentively with my draft novel’ if I didn’t put it in his hands without further ado. But did that stop me? A few days later I had a spasm of regret, and had to follow up with a sequel message: ‘I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t stop myself from going back to it after sending the draft to you, and sure enough I can see a few glaring problems already…’

He responded with kindly reassurance: ‘Ha, I always do that too Ian (although where would we be without our obsessiveness?).’

So at once I sent him a revised version. And he liked it! Phew…

 

 

 

Not dead yet

Predictions about the demise of the ‘Book Launch’ ritual may have been unduly pessimistic. Nearly three years ago, in one of my first blog posts, I referred to an article in the ASA magazine Australian Author by Miriam Cosic, who saw book launches as an endangered species, ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing,’ and remarked that publishers and even some writers doubted their value.

But since then this traditional way of celebrating the issue of a new title seems to have had a comeback, at least here in Perth, especially for publications by small presses. Last year’s launch event for my novel The Mind’s Own Place brought together a cheerful crowd and resulted in a good number of sales on the night, thanks in large measure to the efforts of UWA Publishing stalwarts Terri-ann White and Charlotte Guest.

And in the last week I’ve attended two very successful launch events organised by other Perth-based publishers.

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Andrew at his book launch (Centre for Stories, Northbridge)

Margaret River Press has made its first venture into poetry with the release of Andrew Taylor’s 16th selection, Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014. Fellow-poet Dennis Haskell launched the book eloquently at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, and it was a thoroughly pleasant occasion. I’ve known Andrew well and admired his poetry for more than forty years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the still-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978, and so on… It’s been a long association, beginning when we were appointed simultaneously to junior academic positions in Adelaide and continuing when we both moved (separately) to senior academic positions in Perth more than 20 years later. We’ve kept in contact with each other’s writing. So I was delighted to be present for last week’s celebration of his new book. It contains many beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness.

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Dave at his launch (Buffalo Club, Freo). Note the buffalo headgear behind the author.

A couple of evenings ago I went along to another lively launch: David Whish-Wilson’s third crime novel, Old Scores, published by Fremantle Press. My friendship with Dave doesn’t have such a long history. His non-fiction book Perth attracted my respectful attention in 2014, and then we met last year when he accepted my invitation to join a panel of respondents following my public lecture as the 2015 Battye Memorial Fellow. Soon afterwards we were both guests of the Kimberley Writers Festival, and now we’ve become followers of each other’s work. Old Scores, which evokes the notoriously bad mad corrupt days of Perth and Fremantle in the early 1980s, was launched in an amusing speech by tyro parliamentarian Josh Wilson (a writer himself). The venue was a tradition-soaked Freo watering hole, The Buffalo Club. I’m glad to see that this novel features again the private investigator Frank Swann, who was at the centre of Dave’s previous novel Zero at the Bone, a fast-moving, gripping, tough-as-nails story that gave me plenty of enjoyment.

Good luck to these books, and to their authors – and long life to the launching ritual!

What would those convicts have thought?

 

town-hall-1I wonder what would they have thought, those convicts who built Perth’s Town Hall, if they had known that this feat of construction, along with their other work during the city’s early years, would be appreciatively discussed in a heritage forum held in that same venue a century and a half later?

I think they’d have felt some pride in their efforts, tinged perhaps with a sense of irony at the fact that the struggling Swan River Colony as they knew it back then did eventually turn into a prosperous economy – thanks in large measure to the labour they supplied.

This coming Sunday, 16 October at 12.30, as part of the weekend’s ‘Perth Heritage Days’ celebration, I’ll be on stage in the Perth Town Hall for a conversation about ‘Victorian Perth in Fact and Fiction,’ with particular reference to the colonial world represented in my novel The Mind’s Own Place. My interviewer/interlocutor will be the energetic Richard Offen, Executive Director of Heritage Perth.

If you’re in Perth this weekend, I’d be glad to see you at the event! Attendance is free but registration is requested for catering purposes. Copies of my novels will be available there for signing and sale at special cash discount prices.

The theme of this year’s Perth Heritage Days, ‘The Way We Worked’, is perfectly apt as a context for discussing The Mind’s Own Place. My novel traces the interlinked tales of a group of people, based on actual historical figures, who came separately to the coastal rim of Western Australia in the mid-19th century and contributed in different ways to the growth of settlement. Two are what we would now call ‘white-collar convicts’, bringing considerable skills to this corner of the world. One was trained as an architect and engineer; the other had a merchant background. Their experiences in and around Perth after their ticket-of-leave release into the workforce provide an illuminating insight into the world of colonial employment and commercial development.

The English teacher’s task? Yes, but…

What’s the main task of a school English teacher? Is it to ensure that the personal experience and familiar environment of students should be at the centre of their learning? According to a book published half a century ago but still influential, the answer is emphatically yes. While there’s some truth in that principle, the matter – in my view – is not so simple.

The book I’m referring to is John Dixon’s Growth Through English (1967), which has continued to motivate countless teachers since its first appearance. It took shape as a report on a famous trans-Atlantic conference held 50 years ago at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. This Dartmouth symposium brought together leading educators from England and North America to consider a perennially vexed question: What is English?

John Dixon’s book argued that English teaching should focus on ‘culture as the pupil knows it,’ affirming ‘attitudes to experience…[shaped by] family and neighbourhood.’ It’s easy to agree with him – up to a point. Certainly no teacher of English will cut much ice with students unless their classroom welcomes the personal knowledge, tastes and perceptions they bring to it from their own background.

Yes – but… Is that the be-all and end-all of English teaching? I don’t think so. Encouraging students to draw on what they already know and feel and think is part of the task. On the other hand, if their ‘personal growth’ is to be a meaningful goal, it’s just as necessary that a teacher should help them go beyond the familiar, reframing their experience of their own world by introducing them to worlds elsewhere.

Often in the lives of most present-day adolescents there is much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. To recognise this constriction is not, of course, to dismiss their world or the kinds of texts that mirror everyday realities and topical tribulations in which the young students are already immersed – stories that engage directly with their own experience, their own values. No doubt such stories (whether told on the page or on the screen) may contribute to clarifying what they feel, alleviating their worries, freeing their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for a teenager to enter richly imagined worlds elsewhere through the doorway of well-crafted narrative that is not set in their own time and place.

Consider how important this factor was in the early life of Charles Dickens. He grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but literature enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured stories about worlds elsewhere: tales of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he wandered around the house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. His comment about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent: ‘They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.’

For Dickens, personal experience could be stifling and cheerless; but reading literature could be liberating. So too for many school students today – yet this is something that the author and disciples of Growth Through English don’t always acknowledge sufficiently. Dixon was critical of what he labelled a ‘cultural heritage’ attitude to literature, arguing that it tends to be a dead hand on the young learner’s imagination because it gives priority to the written word rather than to speech. Well, doesn’t that depend on how it’s taught and studied?

An earlier blog post of mine provoked lively debate about some of these issues, and you may find the exchange of comments worth reading. Two respected British educators, John Yandell and Monica Brady, both broadly aligned with Dixon’s position, thought that I was attaching undue significance to the study of literature in English classrooms, and failing to recognise the need to engage with popular texts (e.g. films such as The Wire) closer to the students’s current interests. I contended that, while it’s vital to encourage personal responses to diverse texts in different media (as I’ve argued in many publications over a long period), it’s also vital to ensure that literature doesn’t get pushed aside, because it can use language in distinctively valuable ways.

Thanks partly to John Dixon and to others who have reinforced and refined his arguments, most classrooms these days do place much more emphasis on the individual learner’s experience, language and values than was the case before the late 1960s. This is potentially a change for the better – but it can also be for the worse, if it deters teachers from challenging  students with a rich variety of textual experiences that take them outside the comfort zone of their home territory.

 

Help to repel an assault on Australian writing

IMG_4888Since its inception more than half a century ago  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has gained very substantial benefits for this country’s writers, and so for readers of Australian literature as well. Right now its efforts are more crucially important than ever, because Australian writing is under heavy assault.

As its current slogan proclaims, the acronym ASA could just as well stand for the range of services that this organisation offers to literary practitioners: Advocacy/Support/Advice.

Fair copyright licence provisions and public lending right legislation are among its most impressive and tangible achievements.

I’ve written appreciatively about the ASA in a previous post. At this moment it’s in the spotlight as it valiantly fights the good fight against potentially disastrous measures proposed by the Productivity Commission, particularly a recommendation to remove existing restrictions on parallel importation of books. Anyone who cares about the future of Australian writing should take heed – and take action!

(In what follows I’ve abridged a statement sent recently to ASA members by its CEO, Juliet Rogers. I do so with her permission and in my capacity as an ASA Board Director.)

On Friday 23 September the Productivity Commission will deliver to the Commonwealth Government its final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements. It is unlikely to change the recommendations of its draft report, which would have these drastic effects:

The ASA is working with the Australian Publishers Association to submit to the government within the next few weeks a joint petition protesting against these changes . Although it already contains more than 16,000 signatures, there’s an urgent need to add as many signatories as possible so that politicians with the power to influence this decision receive a strong message.

Some loyal readers of Australian books are still not aware of what’s at stake. If you’re in that category, please go to the information links highlighted above – and then consider sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and a State Senator expressing your concerns.

Some Australian writers haven’t yet signed the ASA petition. If you’re in that category, please do so without delay by following this link. And if you’re not a member of the Australian Society of Authors, NOW is a very good time to join this vital organisation.

ASA colour logo

By the way, if you live in or near Perth you may like to attend an event on Thursday 15 September at the State Library of WA Theatre, 6-8 pm: Juliet Rogers, CEO of the ASA, will talk about ‘The Business of Writing.’ This overview of current challenges, hazards and opportunities for writers is sponsored by WritingWA – a great example of the kind of partnership in which both WritingWA and the ASA have excelled. It’s a free event, open to all, but registration is required.