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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A slush pile in publishing is an outdated way of seeking new work and it is expensive to employ people to read it, she says.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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Jul. 17th, 2006 02:46 am (UTC)
There's nothing to be gained writing about how a novel published in 1973 isn't in vogue now.

Agreed... Lyn Tranter made a fair point about commercial viability. If I was an agent or publisher today, looking to pay my bills and turn a profit, I really wonder if I'd be too excited about a wad of Patrick White-style prose landing in my in-tray. Doesn't mean it's not good writing, of course, but as we all know, that's not enough for most publishers to take a chance on.

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

Actually, I don't think Frank Moorhouse was saying the increased number of writing courses/grants/etc was necessarily a good thing. He seemed to be saying that for all these new courses, services and festivals (and the aspiring writers who attend them), the overall quality of published works hasn't improved. Or did I maybe miss his point?
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:37 am (UTC)
no, moorhouse was talking about how the over quality hasn't improved, but i tend to ignore such blanket statements. it's ridiculous and probably shows he hasn't read enough from any time peroid. instead, to me, what it says is not that writing is dying, but that more and more people are interested in it, and that somewhere, someone ought to take a real good look at what is being done here, and get us out of the colony code of publishing.
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:19 am (UTC)
That mentoring thing has already gotten them in plagiarism hot water at least once, if not more. They go get these kids that are well-connected at Harvard/Yale/Princeton sign them up at age 20, write the project with them and are confused as to why the book comes out smelling and tasting like crap.
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC)
pop music and pop books.


i think i am developing a new hate lately.
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:28 am (UTC)
I wonder if the mentoring program mentioned by Ms Martin is the Varuna M/s Development program?
Jul. 17th, 2006 03:38 am (UTC)
yeah, it crossed my mind. who knows?
Jul. 17th, 2006 04:11 am (UTC)
Without being harshly critical ...
Some occupations are more rewarding than others. A complaint about the state of the publishing industry is a complaint about the world at large.

It's because people are willing, and even prefer, to consume what pop-star publishers produce that other types of creators are less successful. It's because business concerns love a model that works that they persist with star-manufacturing in the face of alternatives.

Publishers and marketers dictate what people spend their money on, and what people spend their money on dictates what gets published. The two dynamics support each other until some other force intervenes. For local content to be better represented, people have to actively prefer it to other types of content. I don't think I do, by and large I certainly don't when it comes to music. The vast majority of the music I purchase comes from the US, the UK and other points outside Australia.

Very few people are ever given a chance to do something they love for a living, much less a chance to receive public recognition and considerable riches for doing it. There is no real reason why more authors should be given that chance than model train enthusiasts. Expectations, meet reality.
Jul. 17th, 2006 04:20 am (UTC)
Re: Without being harshly critical ...
It's because people are willing, and even prefer, to consume what pop-star publishers produce that other types of creators are less successful. It's because business concerns love a model that works that they persist with star-manufacturing in the face of alternatives.

sure, but that doesn't mean you can't attack that kind of mentality. it wasn't always that way, and it should be that, especially since star manufactoring is a very inclusive kind of thing, and cuts out a whole range of people. but more than that, if i look back at the books i love, those which mean a lot to me... id oubt they would have come out of such a mentality.

you are right about the local content having to be preferred, but when local content is struggling just to reach people... well, surely you see the problem with that.

myself, i buy heaps of local music. much more than anything else local. just how it is.
Jul. 17th, 2006 04:46 am (UTC)
Re: Without being harshly critical ...
Absolutely. I also tend to prefer less "manufactured pop" in music and literature. I just don't blame publishers for doing what makes them money. I'm usually reading stuff from the "classic" pile anyway, whether it be out of print or even out of copyright. Most of the books I buy are secondhand purchases, and I never lack for great things to read that didn't make the person who wrote them rich.

Artists aren't always fairly compensated for their talent and effort, but then, how often are all other people?

Which matters more to you: that more people read (your stuff|that which you consider "good"), or that (you|the creators of the "good" stuff) make a better living? Because while I can imagine an intervention in the latter case to ensure you are better compensated, I can't see the taste of the public being controlled in that way.

Jul. 17th, 2006 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: Without being harshly critical ...
i don't really worry about the making a better living thing. as you say, artsits all over get shafted in that, and its not like i do this full time...
Jul. 17th, 2006 10:13 am (UTC)
1. Patrick White is ordinary, IMHO.
2. has anyone mentioned GST as a factor affecting publishing in 2006 but not in 1996?
Jul. 17th, 2006 11:43 am (UTC)
i don't think the GST is that big of an influence, but you never know. certainly is it never brought up as an issue for anything relating to business.
Jul. 18th, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC)
A whiter shade...
'For a new literary author to sell more than 3000 books was a thrill.'

No, it's not just the Australian writers - it is literary writers in general in my experience!
Jul. 19th, 2006 03:27 am (UTC)
Re: A whiter shade...
how depressing.

and i see you have a lj account now! well, one to write comments with, at any rate.
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