Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Australian literature vs Australian publishing - what about the writing?

It's not supposed to, but it amazes me when so many blogs converge on the same topic, and almost take the same angles. There's been a flurry of blog interest over The Weekend Australian's stunt to show up Australian publishing.
The paper sent the third chapter from Patrick White's novel
Eye of the Storm to 12 publishing houses and literary agents (with the title changed, characters' names altered, under a false name that was an anagram of 'Patrick White') as a sample chapter for a manuscript to be published. 10 rejected the sample chapter – some rudely – and two hadn't been heard from after over two months.

I found out about it on the ABC's arts blog Articulate, then found
a piece by Tim Stern on one of my recent favourite group blogs on Australian culture, Sarsaparilla, while Sarsaparilla regular and author Kerryn Goldsworthy posted a piece on her blog, and it cropped up on Larvatus Prodeo, and Overland reviews editor Jeff Sparrow wrote on it for a lefty group blog Leftwrites. That's five blogs, and only the tip of the iceberg, I imagine!

What's common amongst these blog writers is their conclusion that the publishers' and agents' rejection decisions were overwhelmingly commercial – they couldn't sell such a manuscript today. For instance, Kerryn Goldsworthy decries:
"the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections."
Whilst most noticed that commercial interest was a major motivation behind this – and most other – publishing decisions in Australia, their responses to this reality differed. They ranged from the 'what do you expect, publishing is a business' to the 'how terrible, this is why Australian literature is in the doldrums' type responses. Jeff Sparrow notes:
"Publishers are not guardians of literary quality. They are businesses – and, in that sense, the White hoax shows what happens if you reduce culture to market forces."
Notwithstanding discussions of changing tastes and styles in literature over 40-odd years, and whether established authors will get their books published despite the condition of their manuscript (JK Rowling's later work in her Harry Potter enterprise is a good case in point), there was also close attention on how some publishing figures rejected the manuscript because they thought it poorly written or needed signficant development.

The 'author' was urged to develop their writing skills. One even suggested the 'author' join a writers' centre to get help with polishing their manuscript before sending it off for publishing. This is about publishers out-sourcing their editorial development, but not paying for it: authors are expected to work with their colleagues or pay their own editors to get their manuscripts to publishable level.

While this reflects the cost-shifting, cost-cutting, commercial nature of multinational and independent publishing in Australia, it is easily forgotten in our responses to current publishing. They will no longer pay for editors to work with authors to get a book idea or manuscript to the publication stage. Unless they are publishing a celebrity of course – where they provide a ghost-writer/editor, but what the publisher is selling here is the name, not the book.

So, the thing I'm learning is, if I were a half-literate Australian cricketer, I would get a book published, but if I were someone who had been working on a novel or work of literary non-fiction for over a year, then I should join a writers' centre and don't call a publisher till I were famous. Or dead. (Oh, hang on. Patrick White is dead. Scratch that.)

No wonder so many authors are now writing for blogs.

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