where now for books in Australia?

Two cheers for the decision to reject the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to the publishing industry: one because the reforms would have made life harder for writers and the second because the government’s response suggests that there’s still a deep suspicion amongst the public about free market reforms.

Beyond that, however, it’s hard to get too excited, since in more important respects nothing fundamental has been settled. The world of books faces tremendous turmoil and I rather worry that the brief interest sparked by this debate will now fade, leaving far more far-reaching transformations to take place without scrutiny — indeed, without any conscious decisions being made at all.

As the Spiketeers note, Craig Emerson’s press release justified the decision on the basis that Australian publishing is already struggling to come to terms with the digital revolution. That’s certainly the case. One might go as far as to say that no-one really has a clue as to how books might be produced, distributed or read in twenty years time.

But that’s not the bit that worries me. We’re in a time of transition: uncertainty is inevitable and, to a degree, healthy.

The problem lies more with the timidity with which the situation is being met. With the horizon of political possibility so very, very low, we’re entering into the digital age with most of the pundits seeking merely to find a business model in which the new technology might be effectively utilised without any social reforms whatsoever.

Or, rather, that’s how progressives have approached the question. The Right, on the other hand, knows that such matters are inherently political — and thus proceeds accordingly. Consider, for instance, Murdoch’s ongoing assault on the BBC. The Sun King recognises that a publicly-owned media corporation can use the internet in ways that he can’t, since it’s difficult to monetarise the technology without destroying it (a network with individual nodes firewalled is a contradiction in terms). But rather than adjust his plans to current political realities, Murdoch seeks instead to adjust the world.

By contrast, most of the responses by writers to the phenomenal changes in the way that words can be published and disseminated accept without question the need to find a new model that works within the logic of the market.  But there’s no particular reason to think that’s going to be possible. All kinds of time-hallowed crafts have, in the past, disappeared according to the whims of the invisible hand. Why should, say, novel writing be immune? Market decisions are about price signals, not value judgments. Why should literary forms that have only been around for a few hundred years necessarily persist?

It seems to me that we need to go back to first principles. That is, we should begin by clarifying why literature actually matters. What purpose does it serve? What does it offer humanity that other cultural forms doesn’t?

These are not rhetorical questions. The debate around parallel importation revealed just how bad we are about actually articulating — or, more exactly, communicating — why what we do is of any importance.

Presuming we can do that — that is, formulate a convincing case for the significance of literature — the next step entails a discussion as to the economic and political forms that allow it to flourish. It’s increasingly clear, for instance, that public ownership will be increasingly important for all kinds of cultural products, with journalism the most obvious example. But we need a far-reaching discussion as to the possibilities for literature, a discussion that’s not constrained by crass assumptions as to what’s immediately politically possible.

Only after that can we begin the debate as to how what needs to be done might be achieved.

Such an approach might seem willfully utopian. But it’s not. The real utopians are those who think that, in the midst of this tremendous cultural transformation, it’s going to be possible to build a worthwhile future, simply with a few little tweaks here or there.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. I enjoyed this summary of the weeks events. Until I got to this “crass assumptions as to what’s immediately politically possible.” which is rhetoric. There is no need for the word ‘crass’ and if I was your editor I would return it to you with a note “unscholarly unless supported with a link (or quote or example). Otherwise, a nice, if verbose, summary.

  2. Thanks for that, Paul. Perhaps you could also provide some patronising tips on apostrophes, sentence fragments and the subjunctive. Oh, hang on a minute — perhaps not.

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