I’ve been slow in reacting to the Productivity Committee’s report on opening up the book market, mostly because it’s insanely busy here at the moment but also because I’ve been struggling to articulate a coherent position. I’m not quite sure I’ve reached that point yet but here are some thoughts nonetheless.
The people behind the deregulation of Australian publishers are either free market ideologues or executives in discount book chains or both. The concern-trolling of people like Bob Carr about ‘umble workers and cheap books is risible, and in other context would be laughed out of the public arena. (The free market as a natural friend of the poor? Pull the other one — it sparks a GFC!) The only reason that the argument has the slightest traction is that it surreptitiously revives Howard-era ‘battler versus elites’ tropes: there’s still a certain audience for that tired rhetoric about inner city elites oppressing ordinary salty blokes, particularly in the context of books (which, as we all know, naturally attract the worst kind of tweedy elbowed tyrants).
Quite clearly, the free market will do for books what it does for everything else: homogenise and centralise and concentrate. If you want a vision of the future, think of a discount sale in one of those big remainder warehouses: tables and tables groaning under the weight of a zillion copies of the same crap blockbuster titles.
They all make good points. But there’s still a few things that worry me about the writerly response to the Productivity Committee.
Firstly, there’s an argument about protecting Australian culture, which often becomes the default position of those opposed to the free marketeers. I don’t like this at all, and I don’t think it’s going to win. It implies a knee-jerk nationalism, in which we defend Australian books simply because they’re Australian. Not only does that have unfortunate political consequences (there are plenty of Australian books I have no interest in defending), it won’t resonate with most readers (who, quite legitimately, want to read the best books from around the world, rather than be told that they have an obligation to ‘buy Aussie’).
In any case, it’s not healthy for the culture. There is a real problem in this country, IMO, getting literature out of a white ghetto and making it relevant to a multicultural population — think how Anglo the punters at most of the writers’ festivals are. Rather than defending ‘Australian culture’ (and as the Miles Franklin judges discover each year, defining that is not easy), we need to start looking much more closely at other cultures in the region.
Now, engaging with other cultures is not something the free market has ever encouraged, unless it’s in the form of translating Harry Potter to Indonesian. But that doesn’t mean that an ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ response is very helpful, either.
Which goes to my second concern. Yes, the reforms mandated by the Productivity Committee are bad. But it seems to me we need a response that goes beyond defending the status quo — because it’s not as if the situation now is that great, either. Actually, most writers in Australia have a really hard time. This is the way Malcolm Knox described life as a (critically aclaimed) novelist a few years back:
I am placing strain on my marriage, I am depriving my children of time with their father, I am not providing as well as I could be for their future, I am jeopardising the friendships I have by modelling my characters on people I know, and I am risking my parents’ shame with my explicit and confronting images, not to mention my children’s embarrassment when they are old enough to read my diseased outpourings. And I am doing all of this for a dying form, with ever fewer readers, pouring my energies into an anachronistic black hole. And it’s not even fun anymore, because I know that when I’m published, all I will face is momentary anxiety over reviews and the slowly-ebbing expectation of selling enough books so that my next novel might be published as well. Why the hell would anyone bother?
There’s a few threads in that to be teased out. Firstly, while one hates (or not) to sound like an unreconstructed Marxist, the interests of the various players in the Australian industry are not necessarily the same. According to the Australia Council’s Throsby and Hollister report, in the period 2000-01 writers had a mean arts income of $26,400 and a median arts income of $11,700. Now, this will probably worsen in a deregulated economy — but it’s hardly a figure that’s going to send writers to the barricades to defend the status quo.
Secondly, as we all know, books and writing are in the midst of a massive transformation, of which the digital revolution is merely the most obvious component. The fundamentals are changing and will only change more. Again, that means that it’s simply not good enough to say, in response to the Productivity Commission, that we want things to stay the same. Clearly, they are not going to, and the experience of reading in twenty years will be something quite different from what it is now.
What I’m arguing, then, is that, in order to prevent Adam Smith’s disciples doing to books what they’ve already done to the world economy, we need to go on the offensive. Rather than simply saying, leave us alone, we have to articulate a vision of how we want literature to work. And that vision won’t necessarily look very much like the status quo.
For instance, in a piece I wrote on this for Crikey some months back, I suggested that one concrete demand might be for a massive increase in funding to the public library system. Literature works, it seems to me, when it’s embedded in communities, and libraries do a really good job not only of buying books but of encouraging reading groups, author visits and so on — a whole community based infrastructure, in other words.
Whether that’s the greatest idea in the world, I don’t know. But it does, perhaps, point in the direction we should push the discussion. What new arrangements do e-books make possible? Are there different ways that bodies like the Australia Council could support writers? What alternatives exist to traditional copyright? Can we formulate some imaginative new proposals to capture the attention of the public?
The argument between free trade and protectionism is the oldest and stalest debate in Australian political economy: what we need to do is shift the terms, rather than engaging in the framework that’s been set by the Productivity Committee.
[Update: James Bradley has an interesting take at City of Tongues.]