Hanging On to the Bitter End

So it’s a dark, stormy night and this cruiser capsizes, mid-Pacific. Five Australians in a life-raft survive for weeks on seaweed, until the inevitable day arrives. “We’re starving,” announces the captain. “Time to eat someone. As leader, clearly it can’t be me.” “Nor, just as obviously, me,” says the doctor. The engineer points out that only she can keep their fragile home afloat. “And don’t look at me,” adds the economist. “Who would distribute the body parts efficiently?” Together they turn to the fifth. “You—what good are you, mate?”

“Wait!” cries the Australian writer. “One last request, at least?” “Fair enough,” concedes the skipper. “Get on with it, then.” Our plucky scriv defiantly whips out his notebook. “Comrades! These last weeks I’ve kept a diary of our shared ordeal. ’Tis a bleak and gritty yet ultimately uplifting Australian masterpiece of social transgression, nihilistic misanthropy and bitter struggle against oppression. Before you eat me, I insist upon a full public reading. Followed by a Q&A.”

There’s a long, grim pause. Then the captain leans over and scoops aboard anotherarmful of kelp. “So,” he says brightly, “who’s for a delicious guano garnish?”

Australian writers love comic exaggeration. Presumably. What else can we make of their sustained hyperbole throughout the Productivity Commission inquiry into restrictions on the parallel importation of books (PIR)? To suffer impeccable stylists like Tim Winton and publishers as savvy as Louise Adler hysterically touting this dinosaurian trade barrier as their only cultural defence against populist barbarian invasion has been enough to suspend your belief in suspended disbelief. Drop restrictions as the Commission recommends, Winton warned, and surrender again to stultifying literary occupation!

Forget the technology that’s changing publishing forever, into what nobody quite yet knows. Disregard the globalisation of markets, in books as in everything else. Ignore the digital rights tug-of-war under way between online behemoths such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, rendering this squabble over “territorial copyright” yesterday’s provincial sideshow. Sidestep the fact that to the majority of Australian writers who are not and will never be published overseas—certainly not in the traditional way now—this debate has always been irrelevant. And try not to succumb to the suspicion, increasingly nagging, that what this latest episode in an ongoing saga was really about was what it’s always been about: a railroading of the wider issue of literary subsidy, by a small but charismatic posse of publishing empire-builders and their usefully-domesticated marquee authors, promulgating the at-best debatable assertion that what is in their cultural interests is automatically in the cultural interests of Australia’s wider “literary community”, not to mention those of the whole nation.

All this aside, the awkward historical fact for any brooder-in-our-cultural-citadel is that under Winton’s despised “imperial dispensation”, one Patrick Victor Martindale White secured our sole Nobel Prize for Literature, producing an oeuvre as singularly Australian as it remains thrillingly universal, furthermore doing so from the self-imposed exile of unremarkable suburbia long before the evolution of any such collegiate entity as an Australian “literary community” at all, let alone the highly professionalised, industrialised juggernaut today’s writer can enjoy (or, if you prefer—as I do—must suffer). PIR supporters so quick to lob the petard of “Australian cultural autonomy” in this debate need to answer a simple question (while, I recommend, scrambling for cover): if White was able to write an Australian chapter so seamlessly and sublimely into the ever-unfolding anthology of global literature, on his own parochial terms but (necessarily, at the time) via wholly-foreign publishing mechanisms, just how culturally oppressive can those pre-PIR circumstances really have been? Last time I looked Winton, along with Keneally, Carey, Grenville, Matthew Reilly, Garth Nix, Mem Fox, Shane Maloney and all the many other contemporary writers who so shrilly warned of the pending deracination of Australia’s literary prospects, were yet to win even half a Nobel between them.

Sure, it may be a simplistic reduction (and more than a little tongue-in-cheek), but it’s scarcely the cultural argument in favour of the literary status quo that was so irksomely—yet once again, so successfully—spruiked, is it: pre-PIR, one Nobel Prize; post-PIR, none. In naughtier moments one is tempted to muse that a taste of some new cultural-imperial cat-o’-nine-tails is exactly what a few of our laggardly parochial scrivs need, as a kind of tough-love encouragement from the occupying overlords to stop clapping each other on the back in one endlessly predictable circle-pat, and in thus eschewing vocational groupthink, better themselves as individual writerly voices.

But that’s just me being cheeky.

Triumphant though their scaremongering again proved, to me as revealing as all the doomsday cultural rhetoric that didn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny was the failure in the fundamental requirement of lobbying of our supposedly professional story-tellers: getting your story straight before you try to sell it to anyone else. It wasn’t for want of elegant prose or authorial reach. You couldn’t use a public loo without copping another stylish grizzle about “floods” of cheap imports—tacked beside the You flew here, we grew here graffito, say. And before the Commission wrote its own book on books it studied over 500 submissions supporting restrictions, against a handful advocating reform. There were Productivity Commission round tables, road-shows, open sessions, closed discussions, gazette updates, exhaustive consultation with industry leaders and ad nauseam opportunities for multiple, he-said-she-said counter-submissions. And when the matter did go before the elected politicians, it went with petitions, more op-ed pleas, meetings with parliamentarians, rolling websites, industry counter-lobbies, state government support and even a hefty federal government ginger group.

Now it’s been a very fine thing to see naturally introspective, narcissistic writers out and about in daylight hours, engaging in the cut-and-thrust imperatives of collective political pragmatism. But in broader terms this debate seems to have been going on for several centuries now, and you can’t help but wonder how many unwritten Moby Dicks our more obsessed protectionist pens have sacrificed over the years to their interminable Great Write Wail. With a spooked cabinet opting once more for the safe path of abject acquiescence to “cultural sector” demands—no one knows better than the ALP the importance of cultivating the love and loyalty of the arts crowd—you can only clamber dutifully to your feet, politely applaud the virtuosic efficacy of the chorus of special pleading from the usual suspects, and hope like hell that our literary lobby is all sung out for a while.

Because while its members exalted their own industry under current arrangements as “vibrant” (a remarkable number of pro-PIR submissions used this word, as if regurgitating a single note taken at the same writers’ workshop), the case they actually made against change—carry the day though it did—remained dissonant throughout.

I read most of what was written on this issue (and added quite a bit of my own), but I could not and still cannot distil from it a consistent, cohesive suite of arguments in favour of restrictions. Cheaper imports will undercut local industrial viability in various ways, ran one pro-PIR line. Except that these imports probably won’t be cheaper at all, ran another. Right there, the debate should have taken a five-minute fag break until the PIR lobby decided which it was going to be, because however glib your tongue you just can’t—or shouldn’t be able to—moot both options in tactical concert and expect to be taken seriously. A third try—slightly haughty, by this stage—sniffed that Australian book-buyers don’t care about higher prices, anyway. A fourth, that they do, or they would, except that our prices aren’t high. A fifth, that our prices probably are, yes, maybe a little, but only in the noble cause of nurturing writers.

And so what if—as the Commission set out in painstaking detail—those most “nurtured” by this cultural protection racket turn out to be best-selling foreign squillionaires?

And so it went, a ragged Bob Ellisian fusillade of debating snorts and hiccups and ejaculations, some half-right in isolation (but when lumped together, all wrong); some once valid in certain contexts (but surely no more); others, such as those regarding the printing sector, more defensible (but for how much longer?); still others, now as ever arising mostly from baser cultural resentments and anxieties: anti-Americanism, a distrust of capitalism, a resistance to technological change. The crippling difficulty for anyone seeking to champion PIR (without cynical recourse to cultural and political log-rolling) is that, just as you can’t prosecute a unified case “for books” as if they were a fungible cultural commodity—all good, all the time—neither can you defend an existing industrial framework for their production on those grounds. The inescapable endpoint of trying to do so was the painful spectacle of otherwise-inspiring cultural powerhouses like Winton—like Adler, like Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward—eloquently arguing utter absurdities.

Effective political hustling it may well have proved, but about the most generous intellectual context in which you can try to reconcile the oxymoronic essence of key lobbyist Heyward’s sustained position—that since his industry no longer needed a closed, subsidised marketplace to thrive, the government had better maintain a closed, subsidised marketplace to ensure his industry continued to thrive—is to presume that Text’s ideal reader is Franz Kafka. Perhaps Prime Minister Rudd’s, too.

There was consistency in one element of the PIR lobby’s stance, but alas it was hardly to its members’ credit: unity in their disdain for the inquiry process itself, best expressed in publisher Henry Rosenbloom’s dismissal, of a diligent Commission which in fact made this a rare Australian lit-fest accessible to all, as “sociopaths in suits”. Of all this long debate’s many charmless lines—and those of us who oppose PIR delivered our share—to me this one charmed the least of all.

Grounded in a philistine misreading of modernism rife among our cultural elites—the artist as societal exceptionalist, rather than universalist—it’s the self-ghettoising elitism revealed in this unfortunate bray, rather than the mercantile arguments, that most persuades me that import restrictions must— sooner or later—ultimately be ditched. Rosenbloom’s implicit assertion is not simply, contra-Thatcher (or at least the “verballed” Thatcher of populist infamy), that there is after all such a thing as society (a view with which I—probably like Thatcher—have no quarrel). It is a no less exclusive and excluding polar opposite of the extreme economic reductionism her critics straw-manned into being, call it “cultural-elitist reductionism”, say: that there is such a thing as society—but that society is strictly what (in this case) Henry Rosenbloom and co, rather than Thatcher’s commissars, tell us it is. His publishing industry and our society are as one, or—to use the form relentlessly reprised and largely unchallenged throughout this debate—the stories produced by “his” literary community are, ipso facto and automatically, “our” society’s stories.

Yet as an entity, “Australian publishing” and the stories it produces are arguably anything but representative and reflective of “Australian society”, certainly not as an unexamined article of faith. In the first place—and it is no cheap shot at the best of our writers to point out what is simply an inescapable truth—the books that most obviously resonate culturally with the greatest number of Australians tend to come not from local literary elites but from non-Australians writing in popular genres: Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, and so on. There are many fine Australian writers working successfully in popular genres, of course, but there is at least a serious question mark over the assumption that just because authors are Australian, their stories have some cultural inside lane on Australian identity and society, and can and must be thrust upon us all in that light, whether we like it or not. It may just be my shy, retiring nature, but I’ve always laboured under the assumption that it’s up to the reader to decide for themselves whether or not my words strike a chord within them, and it’s not for me to blithely assure them that of course they do, before going on to explain in laborious detail exactly how and why.

But any claim that Australia’s publishing and literary milieu is automatically representative of a wider Australian society is rendered even more obviously fanciful simply by the fact that we are still having the PIR debate at all (and indeed, now must continue it) long after these matters were settled for the rest of us. In fact Henry Rosenbloom is part of a tiny and highly unrepresentative percentage of the Australian workforce yet to have to square up fully to the realities of a global marketplace, and it’s not for want of governments of all stripes trying to make him do so, for fruitless years now. How an industry can successfully sustain a strategic campaign of self-interested special pleading out of one side of its metaphorical mouth while loudly proclaiming its all-inclusive, cultural and societal flag-bearer credentials out of the other—without at least having the decency to blush occasionally—escapes me.

Ironically, in their strident and unyielding presumption that, as they are cultural producers, different benchmarks should apply to them, our writers and publishers are in fact in danger of writing themselves out of the very Australian stories—their stories, supposedly our stories—they claim are their vocational and cultural raison d’être.

Notwithstanding the outcome of this latest skirmish, this to me is where the PIR debate needs to shift now: to the general nature of the relationship between the “cultural sector” and the rest of us, whether the separatism inherent in a mechanism like PIR is really good for Australian literature in the long run, and indeed, whether it makes any sense to talk about a “cultural sector” at all any more.

The Productivity Commission’s terms of reference meant that the consumer benefit of “downward pressure on book prices” dominated the case for reform, but while I still think that those arguments alone made the case compelling (even if no one was quite sure what effect that pressure would have had), an opportunity has been missed to pre-empt the epistemological shifts already playing havoc with traditional modes of cultural production and consumption. Book publishers counter-attacked the reform lobby—successfully, it turned out—on those unsettled consumer grounds, sceptical of the Commission’s inability and unwillingness to engage in specific retail price number-crunching. But this was not only to misconstrue the creative leverage of industrial competition, which turns not on any specific retail-end price sparring but on the general prospect of exposure to the mercantile facts of life in a properly open market—facts precisely like that non-specific “downward pressure on [consumer] prices” beyond which the Commission was, prudently and quite properly, unwilling to speculate. More obtusely, it was also to collaborate unwittingly in quarantining the debate to exactly that supposedly “sociopathic” consumer-economic context which the PIR lobby itself claimed, and rightly so, to reject as insufficiently broad.

In fact what the PIR lobby refused to see is what the “sociopaths” of the Productivity Commission simply take for granted as barely worth comment: that these economic debates—over competition policy, industrial reform, sector restructuring, all those dull accountancy terms—are never just about economics, never just about things like industrial efficiency, viability and sustainability. They are about societal shaping, which is nothing if not a cultural matter. To disdain the Commission as fundamentally “sociopathic” reveals, to me at least, the untenably compartmentalised worldview that pervades our nominally “cultural and artistic” sectors. Apparently, if you study economics rather than fine art, if you wear a suit rather than jeans, if you work for a statutory bureaucracy instead of a publishing house or a dance company, or even a newspaper or university, then somehow you relinquish at least part of your stake in what those manning the right societal gates alone get to define as “Australian culture”. It’s never been a valid conceit, but in today’s culturally permeable, unstable and riotously autonomous environment, it’s not even merely debatable any more: it’s simply a category error even to talk about “cultural producers” or a “cultural sector”, as if the rest of us were, presumably, something else.

In truth we’re living through an explosively creative, egalitarian boom time in which we’re all anarchic artists of a kind, and erstwhile cultural gatekeepers are dropping like flies, for good and for ill. This has fundamental ramifications not just for any PIR debate but for arts subsidy more generally, if only we could stop nit-picking over the shelf price of The Lost Symbol and Breath. What is arresting—if predictable—is how grimly established “cultural sector” incumbents, like book publishers, are hanging onto their sense of distinction and authority, especially, as Rosen-bloom did, by the age-old tactic of denouncing the nearest handily-expendable “philistines”.

Yet if anyone in the PIR debate has been guilty of philistine illiteracy it’s those writers and publishers who were too quick to dismiss what they saw as the clumsy incongruity of the dry language used by our public servants to discuss the case of Australian Letters. Much mockery was made of a word-bite like “cultural externalities”—but only by those wordsmiths too thick or too arrogant to grasp that its shorthand deployment throughout the Commission’s reporting was both a disciplined observance of the limits of its own terms of reference, and a catch-all acknowledgment of precisely those unquantifiable cultural benefits in whose name those who derided the phrase so gleefully claimed to be doing so. Maybe all the next breathless chapter of the PIR potboiler will need, to avoid outraging such precious ears and egos, is a more obviously poetic and worshipful phrase: say, the inspiring impact on Australians of our genius writers’ deathless prose.

These splenetic but misplaced objections to such banal trivialities have afforded a glimpse of an unpleasant aspect of the “success story” of Australian publishing. It’s this aspect, with its jarring mix of cultural pomposity, fragility and huffy separatism, with its name writers lined up like porcelain busts on lofty pedestals to declare their vocation and their working lives uniquely off-limits to the vagaries of economic reality that the rest of us have endured for three decades, that for me at least has tipped the balance against PIR for good. It’s not really just the vindictiveness or even the bored diffidence of the mostly-failing writer I happen to be myself (although rest assured there’s a good dollop of both, too).

It’s more the simple impatient urge to grab more accomplished wordsmiths than me by the scruffs of their necks, and shout: “Look, chums: This is how we all live now, OK? You’re not special just because you have a talent for words. Deal with it. Live in the same world as everyone else. Who knows, maybe what you write will resonate even more with your readers.”

Or as the Productivity Commission might put it: one external benefit of removing parallel import restrictions—eventually—could well be some long-overdue “downward pressure” on the culturally self-aggrandising exceptionalism of our more narcissistic primary producers.

There have been many times in this debate when no self-respecting writer could have avoided cringing at the sense of literary entitlement others have paraded.

What everyone needs to realise, in this era in which the internet and digitalisation are changing everything we know about how information gets produced and how it gets around, is that no one has a “right” to earn money from something as banal and ubiquitous as written words. No one has ever had such a right, actually, but in an online digital wonderland hard copy books full of words are no more culturally unique, essential or fungible than newspapers full of the same, or blogsites, or tweets, or, for that matter, toilet walls. No writer on the planet, whatever their medium and however grand their reputation, is going to be bypassed by the epistemological tsunami wallowing our way, certainly not simply because their words come packaged in fat, heavy wodges and perch on a display pyramid at Dymocks.

For joy of meritocratic joys, my fellow starving and unloved scrivs: as a literate species we humans are at last and for the first time in our history breaking properly free from the tyranny of the medium. Written words are, finally, able to revel in the unbearable lightness of simply being: being what they are, not what they are written on. Not “print-outs”, not “books”, not “scrolls”, not “papyrus”, not “tablets” or “cave walls”. Just written words. If you do not grasp the immense cultural implications of this, you’re simply not paying attention.

As for the particular tyrannising medium under consideration in this debate—those heavy books full of all those weightless words—well, they’ll go on being published in Australia as they would have been anyway with or without PIR. As always, some will be dazzling. Some, likewise, will be duds. Most will of course remain, as now and in the past, good in parts, that “good” being a matter of pure consumer preference, each book a stand-alone product for sale, just like any other. The brobdingnagian self-regard of the industry that churns them all out has always been bemusing, but now that any writer can blog his written words direct to the literate world, book publishers’ enduring pretensions to some kind of cultural noblesse oblige are absurdly anachronistic. Pulp fiction or high style, textbook or cookbook, their only marketplace imperative now must be that of all written word merchants—and indeed, all merchants: shift units, or shift on.

As for us writers, when next our fellow Australians turn to us in the cultural life-raft, wanting to know: “You—what good are you, mate?”, instead of demanding of big mummy government literary protectionist rule, we should simply obey the most important of our own: show, don’t tell, our story. In the near future the only meaningful answer will lie in how many punters choose—or choose not—to buy it. 

Jack Robertson’s submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry was number DR432; his submission, along with the 562 others, is on the Commission’s website. In recommending the repeal of import restrictions, the Commission also recommended “that the current range of grants and other financial assistance be refined to better target the local writing and publishing that adds cultural value to Australian society”. On November 11 the federal government announced that it had rejected the Commission’s recommendations and had “decided not to change the Australian regulatory regime for books”.

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