Peter Craven is alarmed that when The Australian anonymously sent a number of publishers and literary agents the third chapter of 1973 novel The Eye in the Storm, by Nobel Prize winner Patrick White, they rejected it.
If Craven was surprised that people in the publishing industry didn’t recognise the prose of Patrick White, he’d faint if he visited a tertiary institution. When it comes to Australian novels, many literate, intelligent students have heard of Tim Winton, Helen Garner and David Malouf. Maybe.
After that you’re really pushing it.
But the horror doesn’t stop there. When the publishers and agents were informed that they’d been set up and that first-time novelist Wraith Picket was in fact Patrick White, they tended to defend their ‘shameless’ position, writes Craven, rather than acknowledge that White was ‘a colossus of Shakespearean proportions.’
I personally agree with Craven about White’s standing on our literary scene. Indeed, I wrote my Honors thesis on Patrick White when I was at Monash University some 20 years ago (yes, despite my interest in Cultural Studies, I managed to read literary books, and enjoy them).
I think the real issue in this storm in a publishing house, is that The Australian is getting away with ‘shameless’ journalism.
As Jeff Sparrow pointed out on his blog Left Write, and I mentioned on my blog, there is no doubt that the vaguely insulting nature of some of Wraith’s rejections was downright amusing. Some of them were laugh-out-loud funny.
However, as Mary Cunnane (the agent who suggested Wraith Pickett read David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction) said in an article in Crikey, there are several key questions the journalist at the centre of the prank, Jennifer Sexton, failed to ask:
How many copies of The Eye of the Storm and White’s other novels does Random House Australia sell every year? It is in print as a Vintage paperback here, but I note that his novels carry the ISBN number of the Random House UK editions, meaning that that they are imported, rather than actually published domestically.
In what universities and upper level high school courses is the novel taught?
How many programs in Australian literature are there in the nation’s universities?
Are all of the novels which have won the Miles Franklin Award still in print and available to Australian readers?
I have some other questions I would have liked Sexton to address. Does The Australian cut down on the number of pages it includes in its weekend supplement, Review, if it doesn’t get enough advertising? (That is, does it put commercial considerations before cultural ones?) And, was a synopsis sent with the chapter or was it provided as a random piece of writing without any context or explanation? It seems the latter was the case.
As Scribe Acquisitions Editor Aviva Tuffield wrote (also in Crikey), ‘without a synopsis, it was impossible to consider the chapter in any context and so after a couple of pages, I was not convinced and stopped reading.’
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett.
Sexton should also have considered the fact that White’s style is very particular, and to many readers, seems dated. One commenter on Left Write wrote, ‘Re-issuing an old title in historical context can be admirable. Publishing a new book that reads like the author has been in pajamas for the last three decades is not.’ Wraith Pickett claimed to be a contemporary writer.
So, rather than congratulating themselves on the successful pulling of a recycled stunt (the Sunday Times played a similar trick on British publishers with the work of Nobel Prize winner, VS Naipaul), why didn’t Sexton consider the underlying problem: that it is being left to commercial operations to keep Australia’s culture intact? What is this or any other government going to do to maintain aspects of our culture that don’t have immediate economic rewards?
In a country where, economically speaking, it’s survival of the fittest, Patrick White is not looking too fit. White may be one of the greatest writers of the last century, but he does not sell in commercial quantities. I work at one of Australia’s leading independent bookshops in inner-suburban, chardonnay- and lattÃ©-swilling Melbourne, and we have sold four Patrick White novels in the last year.
White’s books have spent large swathes of time out of print, which is consistent with the publishers’ view that The Eye of the Storm was not a commercial proposition. Indeed, the book is currently out of print, which might be why it was chosen for the hijinks in the first case.
The issue White’s storm raises the commercial viability of literature was the subject of another piece in The Australian a couple of weeks ago. Rosemary Neill interviewed Michael Webster, the creator of Bookscan, a database that details the sales of books in Australia and which publishers pay $100,000 a year to access.
This means that the harsh reality of the low sales figures for literary books is no longer a secret. ‘I don’t think we owe it to writers to publish their work; they’ve got to meet the criteria of the market,’ says Webster.
And what the market is saying is: please teach us to clean spots off carpets, diet, cook and give us novels that have lots of weird religious conspiracy theories. Jeff Sparrow again: ‘That’s the contradiction facing The Oz‘s cultural conservatives. On the one hand, they possess an almost religious belief in the righteousness of the market. On the other hand, they swoon about the importance of the traditional literary canon.’
The bottom line is: being called ‘literary’ these days gets you nowhere in the market-place even though it’s a label that many authors (including me) crave.
The question is, as the author and academic Mark Davis asks at the end of Rosemary Neill’s article, is literature inherently of greater value than other genres? He like many writers, academics and critics thinks that it is. And it’s possible that the general public thinks so too. But that doesn’t mean they have the time to read, or the money to buy, ‘literary’ books in the quantities that are needed to sustain those writers or the publishers who publish them.
So what are we going to do about it?
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