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New Thoughts on the Cultural Cringe!

People don't read out of obligation, people don't read out of sympathy.

I have had that thought in my head for the last couple of days, but I've been unable to figure if it means anything. The drugs, the fever, the fact that I just couldn't focus. Whatever. But it clicked over, finally, because I was reading a review by Russell Farr (punkrocker1991) of the Outcast anthology put out earlier this year. In his review of the nineteen stories found in the collection, Farr finds that only seven are worth writing about, and out of those seven, he only has fully positive things to say about two of the stories chosen: Lily Chrywenstrom's "The Rubbish Witch" and "Things of Beauty" by Susan Wardle. Everything else, while supposedly 'good', suffers from bad story telling, such as twists that don't work, miraculous coincidence, predictability, lack of detail, and just plainly being not up to standard with the author's other work. However, it is how Farr ends his review that most struck me, for, while only finding under half of the stories in the collection worth a positive mention, and noting that the book's design and layout are not professional, but merely competent, and summing up the anthology as showing some of the CSFG's best fiction to date--which is damning with praise, I guess--it has left him wondering if Australian writers are "selling themselves short in not spending enough time in developing their voices". Then Farr ends his review by saying,

"As always, buy this anthology, support the local scene: this is your chance to own a handful of really good stories at less than three bucks a throw."


Well, no.

Clearly, the tone of the review is that the anthology is rubbish, and that you shouldn't buy it. It's twenty bucks, after all, and you can still use a twenty to buy something you like without reservation; and while you can't expect to like every story in a collection that is released, you should be, at least, able to claim that you aren't buying a collection where the reviewer can only single out two of nineteen stories as being unreservedly good.

I am not trying to single out the CSFG here, or even Farr, for his review. There's nothing wrong with Farr's review, except that it ends with this line, that suggests, somehow, that you ought to buy an Australian collection regardless of its content, just to support the scene. You should buy, that line says to me, not out of interest, or because you plan to read it, but out of obligation, out, even, of a sympathetic desire to help the poor, struggling nation that suffers from countless publishing set backs for locals, which include, of course, being part of the market for other Western countries. Now, it could be that Farr is not saying the last--I'd pay that, but the truth is, I have heard that meaning implied plenty of times when someone says, 'Buy to support the local market.'

Iit's stupid. It's ridiculous. I've even said it--shit, it's the fallback option when someone says, 'Why should I buy this Australian made product?' Buy Vegemite, by things made by Dick Smith, by Australian music, watch Australian film, do it all because it helps the local scene grow.

And you know what?

It doesn't.

Maybe this is where the cultural cringe comes from. It comes from listening to everyone around you say, 'Buy Austrailan because it supports the local scene.' Not, 'Buy Australian because it's good.' No, it's buy to support, buy it because locals want to write and make t-shirts too and because everything Australians made is somehow not worthy of your support on a normal day because it somehow doesn't match the work being produced in the rest of the world.

It's patently untrue, of course. Australia has a huge and excellent live scene for music. You people should be lucky enough to see the bands I do for fifteen bucks. Australian films and literature is not as strong as the music scene (at least to me) but that doesn't change the fact that good things are produced--and those things should be bought, not because it helps the scene, but because they're good and because they're worth your money. But how of course are you going to find those good things when everyone is walking round saying, 'Buy it to support the scene.'

Anyhow, what can I say? I'm tired of hearing people say, 'Do it for the local scene.' The local scene will grow, will die, or will stay stagnant regardless of what I say and do; but perhaps people will actually go and read some of the things produced here because they're good, and because they simply lack distribution, if the line, 'Support the local scene,' is dropped from usage. It only works on those who are overly patriotic and know the local scene anyhow--I mean, who is going to buy something because it helps keep afloat a scene that they have nothing to do with?

----

EDIT: * Please note, since putting up this post, the review has been altered to represent a less negative opinion.

Comments

( 143 Soaking Up Bandwidth — Soak Up Bandwidth )
girliejones
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:09 am (UTC)
I was just in an inide music store buying some music and I went to check out the underground comics and stuff that they also have there. I was flicking through them, and they aren't my thing - I don't think I'm a comic reader. End. But I contemplating buying them to support the market - this is like, I'm not really an animal person but I actively work to protect the environment because I want to know it exists. Even though I'm not into underground and nonmainstream comics, say, I want them to exist.

(I didn't buy any - I have too many reading piles mocking me as it is)
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:19 am (UTC)
that's a really strange kind of feeling, that. an animal and a comic aren't really comparable to me--one is living, and one is, you know, not. i'd support the first because it's alive. the second is a commodity, at the end of the day, and if it's not for me, it's not for me. and what if they're shit? a lot of indie comics are--would you still buy them regardless of quality.
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ironed_orchid
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:14 am (UTC)
So you're advocating a Darwinian approach? By which I mean, if a scene is comprised of members who are producing work worth buying, it will flourish, and otherwise it will become extinct.
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:21 am (UTC)
sure, why not?

though 'it will flourish' is maybe hoping for too much, but i think instead of saying, 'buy this to support a scene,' and saying, 'this is good,' then more people will actually be willing to try it out. i know i'd rather try something because it was good, rather than because it helped someone.
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frogworth
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:30 am (UTC)
Yep, that's right. I get this in music all the time, as I've mentioned before. There is something to be said for affirmative action, in certain circumstances. When women aren't selected for positions because they're women, and when it's a good idea to have more representation from women in positions, it's worth choosing a woman rather than a man if they're both going to do the job just as satisfactorily.

If you've only got 20 bucks to spend this week and this Aussie book's going to be as good as that US book, then go on, buy the Aussie book.
But don't buy it if it's going to suck.

Don't tell me to put Australian artists in my top 10 if the top 10, or 20 of my albums of the year were Australian. This never happens, by the way, because there are plenty of really superior Australian bands and musicians out there. But still, I'm not going to play some second-grade Australian post-industrial electro (or sub-Mogwai boring-as-fuck post-rock) on my show just because it's Australian, if it doesn't fit in or just isn't that good. (Re the parenthetical remark, I'm not going to play Mogwai anyway because they're boring as fuck, mostly).

I think what it comes down to is that an arts scene is going to thrive if there are exciting people doingn exciting shit, whether or not there's money being injected into it. To say "support the good stuff" isn't social Darwinism, it's just sensible. Why waste your money on second-rate shit? Why waste everyone's time with it? What good, really, does financially supporting second-rate shit do? I honestly think it doesn't help anybody, except perhaps the producers of second-rate shit, and why will giving them your money make them produce something first-rate next time? (If it's "promising", then maybe it will - so by all means support it!)

The end. Thanks, Ben, as usual!
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 06:39 am (UTC)
too right, man. sing it!
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ex_benpayne119
Sep. 27th, 2006 07:37 am (UTC)
I don't buy the Darwinian "quality will out" argument because it's based on the myth of the level playing field... all novels/stories/bands/whatever start from the same place, and the good ones will get ahead... which denies the reality that elements like advertising etc play as arbiters of taste, in creating "popularity"...

So I think supporting local small press, and for that matter any small press, is a useful method of counteracting mass market or big business monopolies on taste...

How I choose to support and to what degree is of course, up to me... if you choose not to buy local stuff then that's your call... I choose to buy it because I see the creation of a vibrant creative local community more useful than trying to discourage those pieces I think are of lesser quality... that's where I draw the line, at this stage...

I should point out, too, that the reason (or at least a contributing factor) in why Australia has a strong local music scene is because of the support for local music from JJJ and local stations... stations that have and do promote affirmative action policies regarding local music. Otherwise we'd still all be listening to triple M and local music would mean whichever Kelly-Clarkson wannabe Idol churned out this year.

benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 10:20 am (UTC)
i didn't say that you shouldn't read (or support local things). i just said you shouldn't support them just because it's the thing to do. local music has indeed benifited from local support, but you know, they also have good stuff there, and no one is saying, 'buy this poorly designed album with two, maybe seven, good songs on it to support the local scene.' there's a difference in that, i think.
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punkrocker1991
Sep. 27th, 2006 08:45 am (UTC)
See Ben, you're not reading my words right. In my review I say that there are seven stories worth reading, and that I believe that each story is worth $3 a throw. That's what it says in black and white. I don't say that all 7 are flawless, merely that they are worth reading and buying the antho for. Everything else is putting words into my mouth and taking me clear out of context.
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 10:17 am (UTC)
no, i read that, but five of those stories you write about, you aren't writing about positively. why would i want to read a second rate martin livings story, for example? but even if i was to take it as seven stories worth reading instead of two, that doesn't change the rest of the thrust: the book is not up to professional standard in design, and twelve of the nineteen stories aren't worth buying, and you yourself say it makes you wonder if the writers in it shouldn't spend more time practicing... how is this a positive endorsement?
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punkrocker1991
Sep. 27th, 2006 11:26 am (UTC)
Have rewritten the final paragraph to hopefully clarify things.
speshal_k
Sep. 27th, 2006 11:55 am (UTC)
And just to clarify. I had actually read 'The Outcast' before your review came out and I think (aside for the ending) your review was a really good one. I agree that 'The Outcast' is probably the most consistent CSFG anthol that I've read and so from that resepct it probably deserves more 'buy it becasue it's local' support more than others.

But, realistically most people (including me) are far more self interested than this. I am not prepared to buy books that I won't read. Reading stuff that is sub-par is *hard* *work* and - forget about the money - I haven't got the time to do it.
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(Anonymous)
Sep. 27th, 2006 11:33 am (UTC)
My impression of the small press is not so much ‘buy it because it supports the local scene’. It’s more that everyone with a vested interest (publishers, authors and their friends) keep saying ‘it’s brilliant, buy it!’ When I do buy the book, and discover it’s far from brilliant, I just stop buying. They’re not credible anymore.

When it comes to the number of weak stories in a collection: Is that because there are not enough submissions? Or authors? Or pay?

If people want to support the local scene, they need to write better stories. Shouldn't it work this way?

A passerby
speshal_k
Sep. 27th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
Hello Passerby,

You are reading my thoughts exactly!!

Regards,
K
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cassiphone
Sep. 27th, 2006 12:24 pm (UTC)
I must admit, I also balked at Russell's comment at the end of that review as being contradictory and a little incongruous. But I don't think that 7/19 stories being considered "good" makes a publication unworthy of support.

That's about a third. I'd be hard pressed to find any publication of original stories (except for some single author collections) where I loved or even liked more than a third of the stories. When I buy a magazine, pro or semi-pro, I do that knowing that the chances are that only 1 or 2 stories will really stand out for me as ones that I'm glad I read.

Yeah, I'd rather buy a book (like the recent Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman, or any given Year's Best Fantasy and Horror) where the percentage is more like 80-90% but that's a rare, exciting reading experience for me

The best new short story I've read this year was in The Outcast, so it's hard for me to then resent the stories in that anthology that I didn't enjoy.
punkrocker1991
Sep. 27th, 2006 12:30 pm (UTC)
While I agree with you, I think that by saying

"Yeah, I'd rather buy a book (like the recent Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman, or any given Year's Best Fantasy and Horror) where the percentage is more like 80-90% but that's a rare, exciting reading experience for me"

Is probably apples and pears in this debate. Reprint anthos have a distinct advantage over original anthos, especially ones involving folk who have been writing a lot longer than 90% of the present crop of Aussie writers.
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strangedave
Sep. 27th, 2006 02:24 pm (UTC)
First, this argument has been made before, better, by other people, and rebuffed better, by better people than me. Not all axes need the Ben Peek hand ground touch.

I'm with Ben Payne - the logical flaw in your argument is it assumes that quality is the same as market success inevitably. We all know this not to be true, but we all regard it as more or less desirable.

So, it makes perfect sense to support Australian work preferentially (and to publicly encourage others to do so) if you believe that it is of sufficient quality to deserve wider markets success/recognition that it receives. Which, I would imagine, is what most people make such calls DO believe.

Besides that, there are plenty of other arguments if you assume that Russ is preaching to those within the scene. Because markets aren't everything, and successful scenes don't spring from nowhere but develop with effort and community, and because everyone has individual tastes that they might like to see the market reflect.

And I think you are misinterpreting Russell. You said "he only has positive things to say about two of the stories", which is simply not true. He said positive things about seven of the stories, two very positive. Quoting Russell inaccurately in support of something he doesn't believe in is hardly a good way to make your case.
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 10:43 pm (UTC)
dude, i'm not grinding axes here. i'm not even hassling russ--though i don't think he's positive about five of those stories at all. at best, he manages a kind of, 'these are okay, but the known authors have done better,' kind of thing with them. but if you see through the rest of the post, i do mention he's only unreservedly positive about two, and that he finds seven worth mentioning.

but what i was talking about was the idea that you can promote a bad product to people just because it's local. i don't really care if that kind of product gets less market share and availability to people--but then, you know, i wasn't talking about that kind of stuff anyway. and i do believe that was what russ was saying in the original version of that review--and i wasn't the only one.
bodhichitta0
Sep. 27th, 2006 04:13 pm (UTC)
I only buy stuff when I feel pity for that particular author...

Did I mention I pre-ordered BOTH of your books? :-p
benpeek
Sep. 27th, 2006 10:43 pm (UTC)
...yes, yes you did ;P
(Anonymous)
Sep. 29th, 2006 11:46 am (UTC)
Ben the problem with your arguments, as always, is that you only survive in the markets and the mags etc that you criticise because they are supported by loyal buyers. Supporters of small press in Australia, the US and the UK. I get published in the same markets; it's what short story writers do. Your criticism of the CSFG seems to rely on the fact that you believe your own writing is superior to the the stories which the CSFG puts out in its anthologies. I don't think that everyone would agree with your hubris about that. After all you had one of your own stories published in one of their anthologies. Kaaron Warren's stories have also been published there and she's one of the best short story writers in Australia.

Let's say we have a Ben Peek rule for the way the small press should run and it applies universally. No more CSFG, no more Wheatland Press, no more AGOG, Aurealis, no more Small Beer Press, Prime etc, etc, No more Ben Peek getting stories published. In fact if we'd introduced the Ben Peek (I hate everything I think is crap rule) back in the 1990s, Ben Peek would never have been published and I wouldn't have either.

I admit that I am totally frustrated with Ben's negativity despite the fact that I respect his writing. I don't know why he does what he does, constantly seems to crap on his peers, and new writers who just trying to get a start. I guess I'd ask Ben at this stage of his career, would he be willing to consider some of the lesser known writer in some of the CSFG anthologies and be willing to mentor them, or despite his belief in equality and minority rights -- which are one of the best things Ben has going for him -- does he believe when it comes to writing that it's all social Darwinism, and a dog eat dog world, and Ben will rise to the top.

I don't like Ben's attitude to Australian F&SF because it always seems that Ben's out for himself in making the criticisms he does.

I got my collection published through Prime Books and I worked on that connection to take other writers with me. Bishop, Battersby, Haines, and hopefully Waaron.

Ben, of course, will come back, as always, and say why do you expect me to do anything more than I do. I don't care, I'm busy, I've too much to do anyway, and it's not my my problem. But Ben cares about lots of things, he just needs to get out of his comfy chair and do something about it.

cheers

Geoffrey Maloney


benpeek
Sep. 29th, 2006 12:35 pm (UTC)
Geoff, did you even read this blog entry?

Obviously, you didn't. I shouldn't be surprised. If you had, you would have seen that I wasn't ragging on the CSFG. I repeated the information in Russ' review, and used it as the starting point to talk about the idea that people should (or should not) buy local products regardless of the content. I haven't read THE OUTCAST, so I have no particular opinion about it. If it sounds like I'm negative on it, it's because I thought Russ' review was negative (though he thinks otherwise). In fact, if you had perhaps read the post, and then perhaps the opinions given in the replies here, you'd see that everyone is talking about the Buy Because It's Local Theory, not the CSFG. Tansy brings up Kaaron's story, and a few people talk about it there, and a couple of people who have read the collection give their opinions. None of it's me.

Nor was I, in fact, shitting on my peers. Nor do I do this regularly, though I'm sure there are a couple who think otherwise. Why would I? I barely know my peers on a personal level, and how I do know them is through their work, and I talk about them in relation to that. I talk the good and the bad, but I'm more critical than good, I suppose, but that's just me, and people can just deal with that and do what I do when I come across someone with a critical voice: factor it into my reading of the text.

But you didn't read the blog entry, so, dude, what's the point in arguing that to you?

I guess I'd ask Ben at this stage of his career, would he be willing to consider some of the lesser known writer in some of the CSFG anthologies and be willing to mentor them, or despite his belief in equality and minority rights -- which are one of the best things Ben has going for him -- does he believe when it comes to writing that it's all social Darwinism, and a dog eat dog world, and Ben will rise to the top.

Sure, Geoff, bring them along to be 'mentored'! What are they going to learn from me? How not to sell a novel to a mainstream publisher? How to sell your fiction to respected, but not widely read publications? How to run a blog that pisses off Geoff Maloney? I'm sure they're things that folk are dying to learn.

But, hey, like I said, sure, sign me up. I'll have t-shirts made that say 'I Was Mentored by Ben Peek'.

Finally, Geoff, if you don't like my opinions, and you don't like the way I conduct myself, then don't read the blog, and don't read my shit. It's a free world.
(no subject) - speshal_k - Sep. 29th, 2006 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Sep. 29th, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - markdeniz - Sep. 29th, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - benpeek - Sep. 29th, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Oct. 3rd, 2006 12:45 pm (UTC)
Yes, I did read your blog. It's full of hubris and and I promise not to read it or to post on your blog any more. However, if you are doing as well as you keep saying you are I encourage you to contact some of the new authors in the latest CSFG anthology and provide them guidance on how to approach the US markets that you have been successful in.

They can not approach you because you have set yourself up as BEN PEEK. Soon you will be a god -- it runs counter to all your professed principles-- but that seems to be what you are aiming for.

cheers

Geoffrey Maloney

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