Meet the Literature Board — Part I

THE famous thing about sausages is that you should avoid seeing how they are made, but knowing a thing or two about the butchers who stuff them, well, that is another matter. Were their hands clean? How much pork was involved? Is the mix consistent from one batch to the next? That taste of bitterness, is it genuinely present or no more than the trick of a paranoid imagination?

Pardon such questions at this festive time of the year, when turkeys are roasting and tables groan beneath the weight of plenty. But at Quadrant such thoughts have been the order of the day just lately, and not only in regard to sausages. In late November, the Literature Board of the Australia Council halved the $40,000 formerly received to support our magazine and website which, in all modesty, we believe publishes some of the best writing, poetry, commentary and criticism available to Australians.

What had we done wrong? How had we offended? With Christmas just ahead, had the Literature Board’s adjudicators of excellence concluded that we are a bunch of naughty conservatives, not nice sorts like the friends and associates on the left whose publications figured rather prominently in this year’s list of grants?

Surely not! This is, after all, taxpayers’ money, and the obligation to dispense it without fear or favour would never, ever be compromised by naked spite and purse-closing partisanship. Why, that would be a prima facie argument for the next conservative government to take a look, a very hard look, at the who and the why of the way in which the arts are funded. One impression to be drawn from this latest list of grant recipients would be that those in favoured spots near the head of the table get the prime cuts while the less favourably placed are flung a few links of offal, and smallish links at that. If true — if favouritism were be established by the Senate Estimates Committe, for example — that would be Exhibit A in the case for a thorough house-cleaning at the Australia Council, even for tearing down the entire edifice and building a replacement from scratch.

With this in mind, curiosity suggested a look at the panel which decided Quadrant is today only half as worthy of support as was the case just 12 months ago. Editor Keith Windschuttle has already written of Literature Board chairperson Sophie Cunningham’s history as a former editor of Meanjin, one of this year’s blessed recipients, but there are other members as well, and their past, connections and stated sympathies do little to soothe a sausage-fancier’s doubts about the grant-production process.

There is children’s author Dyan Blacklock, for instance, whose views on commerce and marketing – not to mention flatulence — might strike some as, er, unqualified:

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
‘I’d be in advertising – if I didn’t think it’s a corrupt industry run by people who only want to make money at the expense of the universe. ‘…

…What makes you laugh?
Very bad jokes make me laugh. Puns make me laugh. My husband makes me laugh. My youngest son Joe makes me laugh. Farting in public places makes me laugh – I don’t know why.

Perhaps, if Quadrant had a contributor who went by the pun-ish pseudonym of Perry Stalsis and wrote lovingly of gastric gases, we might have fared better.

Then there is playwright Patricia Cornelius, one of whose works is Slut, which she describes thus:

A slut’s a slut. One young woman described it as being like a bag to piss in. Lolita is the queen of sluts. And she puts in an almighty fight to maintain her reign. Eventually she is hauled mercilessly from her throne.

If Quadrant readers are not familiar with that particular work, uplifting and socially relevant as it sounds, those who saw Michael Connor’s review of Do not go gentle in the magazine’s October, 2010, edition are better versed in  Cornelius’ art and the public funding  that brought the production at long last to the stage. The play’s conceit is the link between life in an old folks’ home and Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated march to the South Pole:

Do not go gentle… won the Patrick White Playwright’s Award in 2006 and despite being as splattered with prizes as a Soviet-era general with chest-blooming decorations has not until now been able to find a theatre prepared to put it on. The Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Morning Herald, who administer White’s award, were willing to give his money away but not to do anything practical to get the winning play staged. To give twenty thousand dollars to a playwright and not lock in a performance is cruelty—and it would be interesting for audiences to gauge just how good these professional judges are in selecting watchable plays. It took years for fortyfivedownstairs to get funding to put it on. This “independent” theatre has never heard of the separation of Arts and State.

This play, performed on a bare stage with a wheelbarrow full of polar fleece jackets, sleeping bags and a few camping stools, could only be performed here because the Australia Council put up the money. This fashionable Melbourne CBD theatre, whose Chair is Julian Burnside, could not do what other small groups in the rest of Australia do and put in their own money to fund a production. When interviewed, director Julian Meyrick explained how the theatre obtained the money from the Australia Council. It is a revelation of how the funding system really works.

When the theatre’s 2008 application was unsuccessful, Meyrick said he did some “research” and found that the members of the decision-making committee had not read past the first eleven pages. He applied again and was successful. To an outsider this hints at insider trading, for not all unsuccessful applicants for funding have such access to such confidential “research”.

Cornelius will have understood the dismay and anxiety at Quadrant when this year’s grant was slashed. As she said of her own circumstances upon learning her still-unproduced play had been honoured with the NSW Premier’s Literary Award of $30,000, “It is really good money. It puts the wolves at bay for awhile.”

Given that Do not go gentle has also scored a Victorian Premier’s award and a slather of other prizes and grants, Cornelius’ wolves must by now be off the property entirely, as she hopes will be the case for many other women writers.

Mere literary merit, according to this Literature Board arbiter, should not be the primary determinant of who gets what grants and handouts. Rather, as the red-ragging founder of the Workers Theatre explained, the spoils need to be distributed according to gender:

I think that the quota system is fine. You have to have equal numbers. Some women get nervous about that, as if that means that we only got the work on because we are female. Well, they’re getting the work on mostly because they are male. I think quotas are great … The idea that you have to be fair is very threatening. It is an alien concept to a lot of people.

One gathers that the quota for literary magazines of a conservative bent was rather small this year.

Here’s a thought: if Michael Connor were to withdraw his scathing review, pen a full-grovel apology and promise to write favourably of female writers’ productions – according to a strict quota, of course – might Quadrant’s grant application be re-considered?

The Literature Board boasts a number of other gifted individuals. These will be profiled in a subsequent post.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online



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