July 3rd, 2006


The Readers Are Dead

In his latest editorial for Ticonderoga Online ticonlivefeed, Russell Farr* (punkrocker1991) writes, "The most important people get the ghetto-side welcome to the cheap seats treatment. The most important people — and I know I'm going to get hate mail for saying this — aren't the editors, artists or even the writers; they're the everyday punters, the readers."

It's an old complaint, but, it might be worth pointing out, it's not one isolated to the Australian Speculative Fiction scene.

The independent Arts, to use a broad term to encompass a bunch of creative forms, has for a long time now had a more active participation by those who want to perform, than those who want to simply enjoy. When I say independent here, I want you to understand that I mean the work that skates under the big corporate publishers and distributors and well known galleries. I'm talking about the places where a lot of artists get their start. The place I am. The place, if you're reading this blog, you might be. A place where we cross that line between creator and consumer regularly, and that, in the eyes of many of the full time creators, we are probably just another part of their audience.

It's a big world this Independent World. Show up to a gig of an independent band, talk to someone in the audience, and you'll find that there's a good chance that they have a band; or were in a band; or are trying to get their band back up and running. Seen those people with the camera equipment who work through the crowd to get good shots of the band playing? Chances are they're going to send their pictures into one of the free street magazines to get some publishing credits, or put them in their portfolio to work up for a paying gig. Maybe there's a mixer in the crowd. Someone who works on one of the community radio stations. Say you walk out of this gig at the end, and you end up in a small gallery, you know the type, the one on the corner where a lot of people pass, but you see one or two in there. How many of them are artists just starting out? How many of them painted once, want to paint again, when they get that time, and so on and so forth. Say you walk out of that gallery. Maybe you're thrown out because you told the gallery manager that her show was boring. You should have used that word bland. Fuck. Anyhow, you end up at a book launch, a small independent book launch where you've never heard the writer of before, and there's maybe twenty people in it... guess how many of them are writers?

And I'm not even going to talk about those people in the film scene.

I don't know if this has always been the case. I've not always been around on a writing scene. I do know that it appears that the readers that Farr refers to are getting older. As a whole, there doesn't seem to be a strong influx of younger readers, but this could be related to the change in speculative fiction. It's not difficult to find a fantasy novel or a science fiction novel nowadays. Walk into a store and there's a whole section. I understand that it wasn't always that way--that to find a lot of the work, you had to be part of circles that existed outside the mainstream book chain, and this, of course, lead you into the independent presses, or at least the short fiction market, which is, in many ways, one huge independent scene.

What Farr misses, however, in his editorial, is that it is common practice for people who are fans of something to participate in it, and that goes a way to explaining this creator vs reader/listener/watcher ratio. How many people watching the World Cup in the last few weeks have gone out and played a game of soccer? Or bought a ball and kicked it round? Sport is one of those really easy things to emulate, because all it takes is a bunch of your friends, a bit of spare time, and suddenly you're realising how painfully unfit you are. During the cricket season you can see families go out in the park round my place and play. It's all good. A bit of fun. No one expects to be professional. In the Arts, however, this sort of participation--you love reading it so much you try to write it--has no space for the backyard participation, the time with your mates, unless it is within the independent scene.

A lot of the Australian independent scene will not like being called hobbiests, but for the majority of them, that is what they are. They lack the basic skills, the basic time, and the basic money, to take it up to a professional level. The independent scene here will always, therefor, be part of the audience for professional authors, and will always have an element of your mates in the backyard kicking the ball round. Which also goes some way to explain why it is that a portion of the publications and music and art produced in any independent scene is absolutely rubbish, and not worth your time and money, because it is produced by amateurs whose intention is to go out, give it a go, have a good time, and that's about it.

There is nothing wrong with this, and I don't want everyone in every independent scene to turn round and say I'm accusing them of being hobbiests, and of not having the skill or dedication to raise beyond that, because it's more than obvious that there are people who do. Some of them will get there. Some will not. Nothing comes with a guarantee. But when Farr asks where all the pure readers have gone, where those who only read for readings sake are, I tend to think that these days, in independent scenes across the world, those people who are there for love, but don't wish to participate... those people are no longer a huge portion of the audience buying the work.

And of course, one point remains to be made, and that is why should more readers come to the independent scene? In the same issue of Ticonderoga, Farr reviews the anthology Robots and Time, edited by Robert Stephenson and Shane J. Cummings. He makes the point, early on, of pointing out how he bought a copy of the book, despite the fact that the "book did suffer problems in the production stage, and the contributors' copy I was shown was a sorry work indeed. This review however is of the fixed edition, which I should also point out that I bought myself, as I think it's important that folk should support Australian indie press and not hang out for freebies." It is true that Farr shows more dedication to the scene that I would to a book that looked dodgy, but in the end his summation of it as a whole, is that "most of the stories come across as half-baked and unpolished. Sparks' time machine story suffers from some simple mathematical errors, McConchie's rambles in a confusing manner to an unsatisfying conclusion, while Catherine Gunson's "The Adelaide Effect" features a remarkable example of research not undertaken (for the record, Perth does have a phenomenon similar to the one described in this story)."

Now I ask you, having read this, why would you buy it? The book is twenty six bucks with postage and handling, so why on earth would you spend that cash on it, when you could go off, and spend your cash elsewhere? Why would a reader who had no dedication to the scene pick this up? But, assuming that they did, why would they come back afterward? Someone like Farr knows enough to navigate the ins and outs of the scene, but if Robots and Time was your first introduction to it, you'd pretty much be going elsewhere at the end of it, or just assume you could do better and make your anthology.

Anyhow, I'm at the end of this post now. Discuss as you will.

* The sign off on the editorial is 'the editors', but Farr has claimed credit for it on his blog.
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