Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Say No to Patrick White

It is that time of the year again when journalists, lacking any real desire to go and report on real events, create that stable puff piece of submitting a Great Work of Literature under a different title and pseudonym, and then crying about the fall of literature when it is rejected. This time, it's Nobel Award winning author Patrick White, and his novel, Eye of the Storm who are up for the game.

There's nothing to be gained writing about how a novel published in 1973 isn't in vogue now. To do so is just what is to just indulge in the old cultural elitism card, as Lynda Hawryluk lyndahawryluk wrote. And besides, you know, who here hasn't been told that their work isn't commercially viable in Australia? Plus, part of me reckons that if you submit a novel under the obvious fake name of Wraith Picket, you're not going to be taken very seriously.

What is interesting, however, are some of the little tidbits in the article from publishers:

"Shona Martyn, publishing director at HarperCollins, makes no apologies for blocking the manuscript [White's book] before it was even read. Along with other big publishers such as Penguin, HarperCollins does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Despite the ban, thousands are still received, she says...

A slush pile in publishing is an outdated way of seeking new work and it is expensive to employ people to read it, she says. Instead, HarperCollins runs a mentoring program through which selected new writers are assigned an editor to workshop the writing."

Well. That's interesting.

I've never payed much attention to the mentoring programs that are run round the place, because, well, I don't think much of them. However, I hadn't heard of HarperCollins running a little breeding ground in the back of their offices there, which smacks me of being somewhat like manufacturing pop stars. Get a couple of books out of them, then move on to the next one. Make sure they're shiny and bright. Make sure they're good looking. Make sure they smile and nod and don't smoke and drink and don't use naughty words in their novels. Hey, lets get them all to write young adult books... I don't know. Maybe they're not like this. But it's hard to ignore the factory made author feel that one gets from this statement.

There is no point in publishing a work that is never going to sell more than 1000 copies. For a new literary author to sell more than 3000 books was a thrill.

This statement isn't attributed to anyone in the article. Is it true? Is it made up? Or is it just what you can expect if you're published in Australia?

From everything I've been told, it's the latter.

According to the AusLit database, the multinational publishers and independent Allen & Unwin in 2004 published half the number of Australian literature novels of eight years ago, from 60 down to 32.

Well, it's just one publisher, but you can argue a trend that has developed in the last ten years in publishing, in that more and more overseas authors are being bought into the local bookshops through the British Empire Publishing arm, thus negating the need for publishers to put time and money into local authors. And why not, when, really, so much more is getting written round the world? If you can have your pick, and Australia is just some piss poor little country that's part of your Empire, why would you bother?

Of course, that doesn't mean everything is doom and gloom, I suppose:

As Frank Moorhouse points out in his three-part series "So what the hell happened to Australian writing" in The Weekend Australian in May, in 1973 there were 26 government grants for literature, one for every 500,000 people. In 2004 there were four times that number, 104; one for every 200,000 people. Thirty years ago there were no creative writing courses at universities.

Now 37 universities offer courses and 15,000 people enrolled at tertiary and adult education centres last year.

"Back then, there were no manuscript assessment services either. These are commercially run businesses offering, for a fee, to assess and help prepare a manuscript for publication; the Australian Writer's Marketplace lists 80 editing and manuscript services," Moorhouse says.

Only Adelaide had a writers festival in White's pinnacle year. In May this year 65,000 people attended the Sydney Writers Festival, up 20 per cent on last year. In 2005, 285,000 seats were occupied at writers festivals across the nation.

Then there was one literary agent to spruik work to publishers; now there are 20 and increasingly the bigger publishers won't consider a manuscript without an agent's referral. Where White took his own counsel on editing before submission and there were no editing services, now there are 80. White won the inaugural Miles Franklin Award with Voss in 1957 ahead of 19 entries. Now more than 50 novels are submitted by publishers. The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for writers under 35 received more than 200 submissions last year, double the number of a decade ago.
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