The welcome demise of literary protectionism

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.

19 thoughts on “The welcome demise of literary protectionism

  1. I might half agree with you. Readers as old as I can remember when Australia fell within the British publishers’ sphere of influence, and it was practically impossible to get a book from America. To be seen lolling about on the lawn at UWA reading the lastest Kurt Vonnegut in the Bantam edition was guaranteed to attract the right sort of attention.
    So it has been a good thing to get rid of that silliness. However let’s keep promoting Australian literature with our Premier’s Book Awards etc and not allow the study of Australian literature to die out at Australian universities. There is a danger in too much financial assistance to publishers that allows them to put out second rate stuff – that only puts readers off. It’s important though that universities, art galleries etc continue to publish books that add to our cultural life even though they’ll never make a profit. Imagine if the company about to make billions in the North-West, and in the process destroy some of the Burrup rock carvings, commissioned a beautiful anthropological/art book on the carvings, and distributed copies to the public libraries in W.A. Not likely, is it?


  2. Interesting thought to ponder, from Wim Wenders in the latest New Statesman. He says that in America “the individual is the smallest possible economic unit. Here in Europe, the individual is the smallest cultural unit ….. this definition of the “individual” is Europe’s greatest asset. It is why young Europeans are so adamantly against becoming consumers in a globalised world. They are right – they have so much to lose!”


  3. “However let’s keep promoting Australian literature with our Premier’s Book Awards etc and not allow the study of Australian literature to die out at Australian universities.”

    I’m interested in the study of worthwhile literature, whether the authors are Australian or not. Honestly, what’s with this parochalistic nonsense?


  4. Russell – On measures like % of GDP exported and imported, Europeans are more globalised consumers than the Americans. I think Wenders is talking nonsense.


  5. “On measures like % of GDP exported and imported, Europeans are more globalised consumers than the Americans.”

    This is entirely due to geography. If you are sitting in Belgium, of course you are going to buy a lot of French, German and Dutch stuff.

    That doesn’t make them “globalised”.


  6. Sacha, a novel like Robbery Under Arms does have historical and cultural value, even though it is not necessarily up there with Dickens or Balzac. Nobody would rate Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson against Tennyson or Wordsworth, but you need to understand them and where they were coming from in order to understand a key period of Australian history and how we’ve developed from there.

    Consider, as Peter Craven did recently, that Patrick White was a contemporary of Hitchcock and Fellini. Consider, as Craven didn’t, what that says about the differing art forms of film and novels. See: you don’t get that by restricting yourself to the best of the best. If you can sustain yourself with champagne and caviar you’re doing well, but you’re not getting a balanced diet.

    How would you know what’s good anyway? Are you going to wait around for something to win a Nobel or a Booker, or for an author to be dead for fifty years, before you deign to read something? Must your literary tastes be predigested, or will you go to the bookshop/library and take matters into your own hands, daring to lavish time and monies on something that mightn’t be tip-top at every turn?

    This is not an argument for mediocrity. It is an examination of what it means to grapple with notions of Australia and Australianness, and that trying to do so and failing can illustrate how those who have grappled with broad-ranging ideas and succeeded have done it.


  7. Sacha – but there’s a huge amount of worthwhile literature out there. Unless it’s highlighted and introduced to people, they might just miss it. Why is it worth highlighting? Because it’s necessary to reflect on our experience, in this society in this country, as well as universal experiences. Also it’s good to know that life just doesn’t just happen elsewhere – I still find it marvellous to read something that’s good set in Perth.
    Andrew – this could be another myth, but I always thought Europeans were more chauvinistic about their clothes and cars and movies and showed more resistance to Japanese gadgets than the Americans.


  8. “This is entirely due to geography. If you are sitting in Belgium, of course you are going to buy a lot of French, German and Dutch stuff. That doesn’t make them “globalised”.

    The EU is highly integrated into the world trading system, with massive trade with the US and Asia as well as between EU nations. It also has significant internal labour flows. It is the most advanced in the globalisation process, of ending artificial barriers between sovereign nations. Of course geography plays a part in this, but it doesn’t change the reality of it.

    But the trouble with Wenders’s sentence – maybe the article makes more sense – is that he is posing a false either/or distinction.


  9. It is the most advanced in the globalisation process, of ending artificial barriers between sovereign nations.

    The USA ended most of the artificial barriers between it’s formerly sovereign states long, long ago. The people of California can drive all the way to New York without needing a passport of any form. And they can work or shop freely anywhere in between. And they have been doing this for eons.

    However the EU is better than the USA in the sense that the EU still has decentralised defence forces (organised milita), little in the way of centralised taxation or spending, no centrally determined minimum wage, and veto rights for individual sovereign states to help prevent the central governing body ever having the power to implementing any of these things. Mean while they get the benfits of labour mobility, a common currency, free internal trade, and tax competition.


  10. Terje – Yes, though that was nation-building rather than globalisation. Ditto the unification of the six Australian colonies (though they remained part of the global British empire), and past unification of smaller European political units into the modern European nation-states.


  11. I think you are quibbling over semantics. Surely “nation building” is just a slogan used to get the job done. All the US states opening up trade and enacting free movement with eachother was globalisation in my book even if those things can also travel under the banner of nation building. The EU simply chooses different semantics for the same thing because the concept of national identity is already well engrained in the EU. They just use alternate slogans to get the job done. And they have in many ways done a better job because much of the political power over taxation, spending and the military remains away from the centre and that decentralisation is more heavily institutionalised via the single state veto in these areas. Even the fact that there is no common national identity works well for the EU as nobody there complains about the EU minimum wage being zero whilst in the USA loads of commentators get excited about the federal minimum being too low.

    Of course many EU nations are still burdened by the legacy of socialist thinking and it will take time for tax competition and free movement to work their magic.


  12. Terje – These days nation-building is just another excuse to tax us to pay for white elephant projects. But in the past it has been a genuine attempt to create a strong national identity that would replace or at least sit over local identities. Many people in Europe would like that to happen there, but ‘Europe’ is still a geographic area and a bureaucratic entity, rather than something that secures the loyalties nations still secure. That’s why I think it is closer to globalisation, which breaks down trade and other barriers, while maintaining separate national identities, than nation-building.


  13. But in the past it has been a genuine attempt to create a strong national identity that would replace or at least sit over local identities.

    Was this a positive thing or just a different form of white elephant?

    If somebody says that a policy or position is good because it looks after the interest of Queenslanders then they are being parochial. However if somebody says that a policy or position is good because it looks after the interests of Australians then they are being patriotic. We have this whole swag of spin words designed to denograte one form of regionalism in favour of another. We use these words to punish the out of favour regionalism and reward the preferred form of regionalism.

    The deliberate forging of new regional identities is essentially social of cultural engineering. It may be a good outcome in some contexts and sometimes it will emerge spontaneously as an outflow of other events. However it is not really an end that I think governments should pursue merely for the sake of it. I think things probably work better when central governments expect that they will need to work hard to maintain our collective loyalty.

    As it happens I think that the EU is forging it’s own identity much as the USA did in an earlier era. However I hope that they still manage to hold onto some of their parochialism.


  14. Though nationalism has obvious logical tensions with the universalism often found in liberalism, in practice it can have positive effects in people changing their idea of who they think of as ‘foreign’ whose trade should be restricted. Arguably, it is easier to create national identity in immigrant countries like the US or Australia, where strong and distinct local identities have had less time to develop (though obviously there was an important north-south divide in the US). In Australia, the sense of most people that they were all British also helped overcome parochial divisions. Given the long-established identities in Europe, a European identity will take a long time to develop. But 70 years ago what we have now would have been hard to imagine.


  15. Andrew Norton wrote:
    In Australia, the sense of most people that they were all British also helped overcome parochial divisions.
    Eh? At what point in our history did this happen? When did the Irish Catholics turn British instead of Australian? How about the Greek and Italian migrants? The Vietnamese? The Serbs? The Croats?

    The Menzies, moist eyed, newsreel version of Australia might look British to her bootstraps, but the lived experience of the waves of migrants was vastly different – they became Australians in a very identifiable and culturally distinct manner. The phrase “pommy bastard” was invented here, after all.


  16. DR – I didn’t say everyone. Britishness was powerful between European settlement and the 1950s, which of course covers the period in which federation occurred. It co-existed with a developing Australian identity for a long time, with the Australian identity becoming clearly dominant in the post-WW2 period.


  17. David, the political activism surrounding Federation was very strong on the notion that being Australian = British. The most committed opponents of Federation were those who liked their Britishness neat rather than those wittering on about the wearing o’ the green, or those other nationalities so few in number they’d have been represented by asterisks if there were modern polling in 1901. Menzies (born 1894) was a man of his time in the way that Howard is often regarded as a man of the 1950s.

    Terje, parochialism and patriotism are not interchangeable, and to gloss over these different words is to confuse the difference between being simplifying and being simplistic. Its as the possessive of “it” doesn’t require an apostrophe – and no, you can’t deregulate punctuation because there is no state agency which maintains it.


  18. AndrewE – not withstanding the fact that the two words have different meanings, near identical things will be described by either alternative depending on prejudice about which regionalism is superior. If you ran a campaign in NSW saying “buy NSW bananas, don’t let Queenslanders steal our jobs” then it would be called parochial more often than patriotic. However if you inserted “Australia” for “NSW” and “The Phillipines” for Queensland then I’d expect an inversion in the descriptor most often selected.

    Likewise in the EU we see lots of criticism of the common currency as something that violates sovereignty whilst in the USA it is more likely seen as an essence of sovereignty. In my view there are more relevant ways to consider the idea in either domain but if upholding or undermining sovereignty spins an argument a certain way then people happily invoke it.

    Ultimately nationhood is one of several institutional structures that we use to build functional societies. It is not to be trivialised but neither should it be raised up high above every other consideration of what makes for a just society.


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