My wife and I are both avid readers. We are also proud Australians. We try to read books by Australian authors. And there have been some fine books published. Anthologies by new authors, self-published books, POD books, classic Australian books – there are some truly strong Australian books.
However, the main publishing houses in this country seem to be stuck in the class divide of a hundred years ago. They obviously feel that amongst adults only the cultural elite bother to read anything that is not a magazine or newspaper, especially if the author is Australian. And so that is what is published – stories that seemed designed to appeal to the artistic elite.
One of the biggest issues is that the works that are published by the major houses for adults seem to be based on theme before story. The themes are more important than anything else. The story needs to have a deep, underlying (or overlying) social message. It seems the stories have to be about hardship and pain and often involve depressing tales with endings that may not be considered happy or even satisfying. And they have to be capital L Literature, written in a prose style that casual readers often find very difficult to get into, ignoring the genre fiction that surrounds us all.
This translates often also into writing competitions, where who you are and what you’ve experienced and how that informs your writing is more important than the story you tell. The ‘who you are’ issue then raises its head when the only new authors who seem to be able to get a book published are those who have achieved a degree of fame in some other field – normally by embarrassing themselves on the national stage, be it in sport or on television – or who have led lives of great hardship and overcome them, often at great personal loss.
Writing is an art. And, yes, some art is there to confront. But what art sells the most? That which is popular. Now, I am the first to agree popular does not always mean good. I consider the Twilight books poorly written, yet they are immensely popular. Many people cannot stand Dan Brown’s works, but they are immensely popular. JK Rowling, Stephen King, Jackie Collins – no one is going to claim these authors are Nobel Laureates in waiting, but there is also no denying that they are read and these books sell. A lot.
I feel that in Australia many involved in publishing, and associated fields (book-selling, agents, reviewers, etc) are more interested in making a statement through the Australian content they choose, in making an ‘impact’ of sorts, than in actually giving the public things that people will want to read. But books and stories are written for people to read. And the majority of people do not want to be preached to – they want to read for entertainment. Example: What are the top seven English language fiction books of all time by sales? A Tale of Two Cities; The Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit; And Then There Were None; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; She; and The Da Vinci Code (source: Wikipedia, sorry). They all were written to entertain. Any preaching or teaching is incidental to the main aim – entertainment. I have a feeling very few of these would have been looked at by a mainstream Australian publisher if they had been offered to them first.
The same can be said for Australian films and plays. Only in television production is the entertainment first mantra adhered to. Australian television programmes do well in Australia and even make an impact overseas in their own way. How many Australian books have made best seller lists in non-Australasian markets? The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough… and that would be it. And that was an epic romance, a piece of genre fiction which entertained readers. Not Literary fiction that sits in book shelves so people can say they own it to look more impressive to their friends at the Club. Even our poetry! Bush poetry and bush ballads can still be enjoyed more than 100 years after they were written. What is published today? Depressing poetry that most people on the street don’t even recognise as poetry. That elitism yet again.
Maybe Australian books and Australian authors would sell more and be more widely read if the publishers took a risk on more populist genres, styles and authors. The authors of these stories may not be the greatest writers technically, but if they connect with a reader and people actually read something, isn’t that a good thing? Or is reading an Australian author only to be encouraged as an elite past time, and so will the majority of Australians continue to get their reading entertainment from overseas authors? Do Australians have that much of a cultural cringe that the merest idea that one of our own could write genre fiction well (see Sean Williams, Garth Nix, et al) means they should go elsewhere to get published?
And who knows? Somewhere out there just might be an Australian Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or Clive Cussler, all ready to take the world by storm. But at the moment, we’ll just never know.