According to Mark Davis’s essay in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing, the ‘decline of the literary paradigm’ – fewer works of literary fiction being published, and reduced public intellectual influence of literary authors –
can be understood in terms of broader social and governmental shifts related to globalisation, such as the decline of the postwar consensus (‘welfare state’) politics and their supplanting by a new consensus based around free-market notions of deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation, and the rise of the global information economy.
He does get a little more specific (an earlier version of his chapter can be downloaded here) pointing to allowing parallel importing – ie, letting booksellers import books that publishers fail to release promptly in the Australian market – and abolition of subsidies for printing Australian books, which he suggests disproportionately affected literary fiction, since most illustrated titles were already printed overseas.
But it seems very unlikely that policy changes have greatly affected the state of Australian literary fiction. In another chapter, by David Carter, he uses the AustLit database to calculate the number of Australian literary novels published each year. The numbers have been trending down over the last few years, and 2006 saw fewer literary novels released than in any year since 1990. But there were still 96 titles put onto the market, meaning that you would have to read nearly two a week to keep up with the publishers. With over 150 titles published in some previous years, it looks like publishers are pulling back supply to something closer to what the market can support. The problem is a lack of readers, and re-flooding the market with more subsidised titles for which there is insufficient demand isn’t going to help.
Nor is cutting the price of literary fiction by subsidising costs likely to make more than a marginal difference (though the authors in Making Books seem divided on the impact of price; a couple think the GST had negative effects, but Richard Flanagan wants resale price maintenance brought back to increase profit margins and allow publishers to support less commercially attractive books – writers presumably, in his view, being more important than readers). If our work-life balance friends are even half right, time is more constrained than money, so the main factor in buying a novel is not the $25-40 it might cost compared to what else that might buy, but the hours it would take to read compared to the other things that could be done with that time.
Earlier government support for book publishing was, as Davis says, driven by ‘cultural nationalism’. But this seems to me to be even more misplaced in literary fiction than in other forms of publishing. Most literary fiction is at its core about personal relationships, which involve far more universal themes than the parochial concerns motivating ‘cultural nationalism’. This is a major reason why Australian literary fiction is in such a tough market, because unlike non-fiction books specifically about Australia, novels set in Australia must compete with fiction from around the world.
Australia’s artists and intellectuals tend to be nationalist where their own incomes are concerned, but consumers of arts and ideas are, as with consumers generally, worse off when protectionism prevails. We should be far more interested in ensuring that the best of British and American publishing reaches us quickly at a reasonable price than we should be in ensuring that more Australian fiction occupies bookshop shelves. At the end of his chapter, Davis concedes that the era of cultural protectionism is over. What’s wrong with his essay is the belief that it was ever a good idea.