Your attention, please: who’s reading Australian books?

In 2016, Overland published a series of articles debating the merits of Australian writers having a grounding in literary theory. ‘If we want to produce truly great novelists like Ferrante’, Emily McAvan argued, ‘a decent understanding of literary theory is imperative’. Responding, Alison Broinowski argued that, ‘The purpose of creative writing is above all to be creative, no matter what theoretical underpinning it has’. And jumping in at the end, Gabrielle Innes, a graduate of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program, wondered if she might have been better off with more practical vocational guidance, to balance the theory she had learned.

These were three considered points of view on an important question: What role should theory play in our literature?

But there’s a bigger and more fundamental question that is usually elided when debates like this pop up. Maybe it’s easier for me, as someone whose current stake in Australian literature is largely limited to that of a reader’s (and, I suspect, as one of the few civilians who has read two of the three shortlisted Miles Franklin novels mentioned by McAvan in her opening paragraph), to put this question into words:

‘Why does no one care about Australian books?’ (Whatever their content – literary theory or no literary theory.)

Alright, some overstatement for effect there – the back and forth about literary theory proves that some people do care. Teachers and students of creative writing clearly do, and they’re probably also aware of the books and writers namechecked in this debate.

But this is a small and reflexive group and it tends to keep its conversations to itself. It can sustain civil discussions in Overland and on Radio National’s Books and Arts show, but it’s not a group that has been able to take these discussions into the kinds of spaces where broader social negotiations are taking place. Spaces like ABC Radio 702 and its interstate equivalents, or The Project on Channel 10, or other mainstream platforms – the kinds of platforms through which some thoughtful people might be nudged towards buying books.

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is one of the Miles Franklin finalists McAvan references – a slowly boiling drama of sexual and racial tensions in late nineteenth-century South Australia. It’s pretty much un-put-downable, except for the bit where a toddler dies in the protagonist’s arms, and you have to stop reading and breathe.

Treloar is a graduate of RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program which, as McAvan told us, does not include literary theory. So the novel has a place in Overland’s debate. It also merits a place in broader debates about gender relations, Australia’s growing lack of ease with its postcolonial heritage, and why so many of us are still reading books by the Brontës and Gaskell in 2017. It is a novel that gives you plenty to talk about.

Another Miles Franklin finalist, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, wasn’t brought into the literary theory debate. It is a seething and furious critique of structural and cultural gender dynamics located in a parallel reality, and it reads like a smart YA dystopian novel for grown-ups. It’s confronting and uncompromising and it compels readers to assess their own relationship to gendered violence and rape culture. I don’t know how literary theory informed its production as a text, and I sort of care. I’m halfway interested. I’d read an article about it. But in the age of pussy-grabbing and #notallmen, The Natural Way of Things has a place in a much larger discourse. It’s the sort of cultural product that Waleed Aly and Steve Price should be arguing about on The Project. It should be read in every book club. It should be on the Year 9 syllabus, making Ray Hadley and Miranda Devine lose their fucking minds.

Should there be more literary theory in creative writing courses? Sure, why not. It can’t hurt, and even if you’re not interested you can more or less ignore it. But it’s a second order argument, because either way, Australian readers still won’t pay any attention.

When she had graduated, Innes had some practical questions for her tutor. ‘Should I start pitching? And if so, how and to which publications?’ Her creative writing course should have covered that ground. I’d add a few more skills to the wish list. ‘How to build a personal brand’ for example. ‘How to identify the people who might be audiences for my writing’. And then, ‘how to get their attention when everyone else is competing for it at the same time’. Those sorts of useful tricks. Anonymity is not what makes Elena Ferrante a great novelist, but it’s part of a compelling story that she tells about herself that adds another layer of interest and intrigue to her novels.

We all know that promotional budgets are tight in the publishing industry. But if Pan MacMillan and Allen & Unwin can’t spark interest in books as good as Salt Creek and The Natural Way of Things, local writers might have to think about what they can do themselves. In which case, maybe it’s marketing theory that creative writing courses should be incorporating – if we want a literary culture that’s outward looking, relevant and sustains itself with sales.

Could we have a debate about that?


Image: venice / Roberto Trombetta

Edward Berridge

Edward Berridge had a book of short stories published by UQP and wrote a book review in Overland over twenty years ago. He’s also a regular buyer of Australian books.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Marketing theory and a bit of business theory would be so helpful for writers. I don’t think we can expect to have a manuscript accepted and just passively wait for the publisher to do all the marketing for us anymore.
    I think also the literati and the intelligentsia in this country are a bit dismissive of common readers, who are frequently portrayed as being too slow to understand what good writing is. Thus Australian writing about who we are and the world we live in now, beyond the literary equivalent of Red Dog or Kenny, is seen as not for them.
    The danger is we end up writing and talking in ever smaller circles earning the tag elitist, from those who feel ignored, while we simultaneously brand them philistines.

    1. The greater unspoken problem with Australia’s increasingly shrinking literary set is that an astonishing percentage of what is published is … well … frankly … boring as batshit.

      The literary voice has become so generic and stagnated and …. well … frankly … boring, that one can hardly blame the masses for choosing to spend their money and time on something else.

  2. I was a bookseller in a very wealthy suburb for over a decade. Australian fiction was very low down the list for 70% of my customers. I think this has to do with the massive combined strength of US and UK publishing and their large stake in the OZ book market. We mostly sell US and UK books in Australia. You would think it was weird if you travelled to America and everyone was reading Canadian books, but here we don’t think much about the dominance of our book market by another culture. Australian publishing has fought the good fight for over 40 years and as such our local publishing industry produces an astounding array of high quality books by Australian writers. It would be great if somehow, readers cared more about Australian content and supported it. Publishers, booksellers, writers are all scratching their heads wondering why OZ books don’t sell to OZ readers like overseas books do. I’m sure someone has done a paper (or two) on this somewhere. I always loved it when customers took the OZ books I suggested. They always loved them (be they commercial or literary books) and they were keen to read more.

  3. They are boring. It is that simple. Same premise, same concepts and same ideas. Around and Around we go. Australian literature is unentertaining and dull for two reasons. Firstly, Australian readers are constantly fed Austrliana drivel. 30 Something Divorce’s finds herself at a cattle ranch or riddled with political agenda that gets promoted because its good click bait and relevant to the political theme at the time aka: racism, sexism, more …sporting …biographies….groan. Secondly new ideas are not welcomed. You go to a lit club or a book launch and its the same faces over and over again. The same group of protectionist artists and their sycophants and the risk averse publishing house reps who want a sure sale with absolutely no interest in new voices or concepts. New ideas, new concepts, creativity and just plain…NEW is needed. And no , I dont mean young writers who have worked out the above formula and are cleverly replicating it to win awards no one cares about. Take a risk, show new ARTISTS and respect them for what they are. Australian Literature both non-fiction and fiction is dull, vanilla, over replicated rubbish.

  4. Currently reading one being advertised on this site – Scott Ludlam’s, Full Circle – no problem there for this reader.

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