Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

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The Australian Speculative Fiction Talk

In the last week, the local speculative fiction scene has been debating its worth at Deb Biancotti's blog (deborahb). It was inspired by Russell Farr's (punkrocker1991) editorial in the latest Ticonderoga Online, where he notes that when he measures the scene now against what it was ten to fifteen years ago, it's not stronger in quality despite strength in size. Farr's been around for a while, so he's undoubtably entitled to his informed opinion, but many people disagreed with their informed opinions, and the race was on to see who could say what and when and how. It was a good bit of fun and I didn't feel any urge to make a post about it, but I enjoyed seeing the conversation play out. Indeed, I would have continued not saying anything if not for Justine Larbalestier saying that she reckons "us Australians are just a wee bit too insecure about our doings."

It's hard not to disagree, but I think there's more. I think it comes from the small presses desire to be recognised on a global front, but most especially on an American front, and its subsequent shrinking and alienation from the fan base and readers here.

There is a bit of desperation in the small press here and it's not wrong to have that. Its books and magazines don't have large print runs (they're mostly in the hundreds) and what they sell, they sell primarily to authors both aspiring and established. The readership is tiny, and publishers and authors don't appear to be concerned (or are unable) to build a readership from the fan base that exists in the country. In July, Erika Lacey wrote, after being invited to be the Fan Guest of Honour at the Brisbane Convention next year and after finding out that her name had been left off the fliers, that "My opinion that the Brisbane convention will be more a writer's workshop seems to be reinforced by this -- the Brisbane writers group may be excellent at putting together workshops, but for a national science fiction convention they're a far cry from catering to fannish interest. I wonder why they even bothered asking anyone to be fan guest, as their opinion of that establishment is being shown clearly enough this way."

Personally, I reckoned then, and reckon now, that Erika should give the finger to the convention.

Even more, I think most fans should. Local fans/readers would be right to not be interested in the small press scene. Why should they? Neil Gaiman's recent visit proved that there is a huge audience out there, and they all love him, partly, one imagines, because he nurtures them. His blog, his long tours, the destruction of his hands through signing... as his audience has grown, he has shown every intent of being as dedicated to them as they are to him. What do the Australian writers here do? Sit in bars, hang out in private room parties, and converse to each other in a jingoesque language involving ping pong tables, which results in the existing fan base feeling as if we don't care. Are they wrong? Well, if you want to get your books out there and sell them, yeah, they are. If you want to nurture the readership, yeah. To me, it feels like, as a scene, we're much more concerned with what American editors--who get the books for free--think about us, and how it is that we, through them, can establish a world presence and audience.

Australia is often cast as the dead end of Western publishing. Print runs from major publishers can exceed the small press only by hundreds, but most of the books that come into the country are close to being imports from the colony. As I mentioned previously, we have our own little shelves dedicated to 'Australian Writing' while the rest of the world fills up the regular shelves and anything Australian comes with a cringe factor for the young. Without launching in a long and protracted debate about that, my opinion is that the result has been to leave the small press and new writers and readers with the impression that everything worth while and economically viable must go to and come from the States, or at the very least, overseas. So we've got our heads turned that way and authors such as Trudi Canavan, K.J. Bishop, Garth Nix, Sara Douglas, Sean Williams, Shane Dix, and the adopted Australians like Scott Westerfeld, are out there making nice sales and careers and getting reprinted in foreign sales like no tomorrow, and the small press scene sits there and looks at it, and wants a bit, too.

It won't happen.

It's time to wake up to that. The small press isn't going overseas. People overseas are not going to recognise the publications. The boat never got built. It never will. The small press is small, smaller than the British one, smaller than the American one, and we need to turn our focus back inwards to rebuild the aging fan base and readership that we have. Questions over quality can wait (and are a pointless, circular debate at any rate, which is why I ignored it here) and we need to stop putting worth in what Ellen Datlow and others think of our work. Yes, Datlow is a world recognised editor, yes, it's excellent if she wants your work, but it's no way to measure the worth of what is being published in the country. Does it really matter how many Australians are reprinted in Year's Best volumes? How many get nominated for awards overseas? Does that really matter to what the small press is doing?

I'm sure someone will say yes. A few people will, no doubt. I'm probably wrong. It probably does matter. But I do think that worrying about the global presence of a small press industry that can't manage local distribution is ridiculous and, essentially, that's what the debates about local quality get boiled down too. Are we worthy for the world, are we pretty enough, do we say the right things?

Tell me these lies sweetly.
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