I’ve been quiet on the blog for a while, finding it hard to pin down any one of the many wonderings I have about the future of fiction in this world that seems to have lost its way in so many ways.
Novelists trade in pretty lies, so you’d think we’d be ahead of the game, but the magic tricks storytellers perform are generally designed to conjure deeper truths that bring strangers closer together. The lies our world leaders are almost uniformly feeding us are by contrast designed to divide and confuse, to keep us fearful, suspicious, worried our neighbours want what we have.
Anti-intellectualism seems to have become so entrenched on the right that things like scientific consensus and political differences of opinion are now called virtue signalling there; and on the left, say the wrong thing or read the wrong book, and a gang of modern-day temperance policewomen will peck you to death with slivers of your own shattered moral conscience.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought the job of storytellers was to provide some nourishing buffer between the screaming existential loneliness of the individual, and all that other shit going on outside your front door. A story at its most basic can be an escape, where we can imagine our best selves winning against the bad guys; at its most powerful, a story causes us to meet and begin to understand people and predicaments we might never have encountered otherwise. At its most shining and zeitgeisty, a story can create vast and unfathomable pools of friendship across the globe.
We need stories of all kinds: to delight and entertain, to provoke thought and compassion, to recognise ourselves out there in the great muddle. To share in stories is a fundamental need in all of us, but one that never ceases to surprise me. At a book-chatting event recently, I read a little of one of my stories to a small crowd, and afterwards, a self-confessed non-reader approached me to say he didn’t want me to stop reading. I laughed with my own delight as I thanked him for the compliment – not least because the thought of having to listen to my nasally Australian accent for more than ten minutes sounds like a version of storytelling hell to me.
Books and the long-form stories inside them aren’t in danger of disappearing. Most readers in my own circle ravenously consume paperbacks, ebooks and audiobooks as the mood takes them; libraries remain hubs for book-borrowing and book clubs abound. I never hear anything but a hunger for more from the reading community. Reader preferences and plain old bad writing aside, the only major complaints seem to be about misleading marketing or, sometimes, the over-flogging of a trendy trope. Readers gonna read.
Book publishing then has a captive audience. Although the mainstream, traditional publishing industry has taken a battering from the digital revolution and the way our reading time and tastes have changed, love of books and reading has remained. But what has this powerful section of the industry done with that loyalty and inherent social need? Ever increasingly it publishes books that fit neatly into marketing boxes as dictated to them by discount department stores. Yes, publishing companies need to make money – freakin’ duh – but like supermarkets ruining dairy farmers by selling milk at a dollar a litre, the corporate relationship between the Australian publishing industry and discount department stores is screwing down the price and, at times, the quality of our books.
It should not be the case that an outlier like me makes more money than a traditionally published author. All of my print and ebooks are now published under my own imprint and this financial year I smashed the average income for Australian writers. Yeeha. All of my books fail the mainstream marketing test for women’s commercial fiction: they are wordy and uncertain explorations of Australia, colourful, playful, questing, each one a chunk of this One Big Thing I’m making from the stories written in my heart.
I’m the vainest of vanity writers: I really do just do it just because I can. And while there remains a terrible distaste among some in the industry for people like me, we’re not going anywhere, either. Storytellers gonna tell stories.
Because the ordinary rules of industry don’t apply to storytelling.
Scratching my head at this a few months ago, a wise veteran of the trade told me: ‘Australian book publishing has been taken over by every kind of corporate bastardry, leaving only cottage-industry incompetence where its heart used to be.’ Ouch. But possibly a little bit true. Publishing books primarily for shareholder gain or under notions of steady profit growth seems laughable. Some things – like music, the visual arts, and great pasta sauce – aren’t meant to be corporatised or commodified.
How does one mark up ‘staring out the window talking to imaginary friends’ or ‘corresponding with readers’ or ‘joy’ or ‘grief’ within productivity spreadsheets? Devoted storytellers don’t do it for the money anyway. Call that middle-class, Euro-centric, white-privileged nonsense if you like, but it’s true – and every publisher knows it. Cross-culturally, storytellers will and do pay to develop and practice their art, in one way or another, and as no Australian government will ever adequately fund the arts, in my whacko-pinko opinion, money should only go to those who cannot fund themselves – which ain’t never gonna happen, either, is it? Not this side of total economic revolution, at least.
So much of my opinion is stating the obvious, and yet, despite the writing all over the wall, there’s been a startling shift towards authors participating in corporate slickery themselves. From posting glamour shots of the latest research trip or exotic workshop location, to outright boasting about deals and sales figures, much of which really is utter nonsense. One author even bragged that they could now afford their kid’s private school fees. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating success – there should be more of it! – but this is vanity. It’s keyed into the very old lie that wealth and celebrity equals superiority, and it makes me cringe – not only because it’s graceless and often smacks of passive-aggressive elitism. By any reasonable person’s terms, I’m stupidly wealthy and outrageously lucky, too. But I’m presently pretzelling myself over making what will possibly be my last trip to Germany because it seems over-indulgent that I should add another streak of pollution to our skies just to go to Ribnitz to stare at the Baltic Sea dreaming up a story about my ancestral grandfather. THIS is vanity.
How do we reel back the bullshit and return heart to the industry? I don’t know. My darkest thoughts have me believing traditional publishing is a dinosaur best left behind. Nothing about it seems sustainable: from the way non-publishing corporations are dictating what we popularly read to the ridiculousness of printing thousands of copies of books at a time, only to have half of them end up in discount bins, and half of them end up in landfill.
It’s not only writers and readers who are affected by all this. Over twenty years in the business I’ve watched wonderful, highly skilled editors and publishers leave the industry, disillusioned and exhausted – remarkably, a few have thought a return to legal practice would bring them a greater sense of fulfilment. Publishers constantly remind authors that publishing is a business, not a charity, but they lean on freelance editors as if it’s the other way around. Those colleagues of mine who remain are almost invariably underpaid and, in-house, have had their decision-making power curtailed within the sales-heavy structure of their companies; they hang on for the handful of books and authors they love, and because they’re dedicated to the fabulous gamble that is and always will be publishing. We’re all in our fifties or older now, though; when the last of us who remembers a pre-corporate industry goes, I don’t know what book publishing will look like.
Except that ratbags will keep finding ways to get under and around the status quo. For now, traditional publishing remains the pinnacle of prestige, but for how long? It’s becoming clear that capitalism is on the slide. Corporate abuses are destroying our democracies and the liveability of our planet. Last gasp capitalism will not destroy storytelling, but it’s having a fair crack at skewing mainstream publishing. What will post-capitalist storytelling look like? Like it’s always looked, I guess: vibrant, alive with questions and intellectual generosity. Human. Hopefully a little more appreciative of stories and their tellers beyond their dollar value. Hopefully an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of diversity, where independent writers are as worthy of respect as all other independent artists.
Personally, I’m heading towards a space where writing for a small audience is respectable enough again, where the natural reach of my work creates no waste and no exploitation of others. I’m getting there: my printed books are made in Australia, in Melbourne, and by other local suppliers around the world; and I collaborate with industry professionals who share my enthusiasm.
Success for me lies in the relationships I build with readers, and there’s no price on any of that. Last week, I met a ninety-two-year-old woman who shocked me with her tale of having fallen in love with one of my wholly independently published titles – and having gotten into trouble from her local librarian for being late with the return. A few weeks before that, I was giving a general talk about Australian storytelling at a function in a country town when a man from Sydney interjected to say that this same book had captivated and cheered a depressed Vietnam vet mate of his. That book is a bushranging comedy that blazes an offbeat trail through Australian racism. Whether it’s a good book or the right book or on trend or not is irrelevant. It’s brought little sparks of thoughtfulness and happiness to readers all over the place, in America, Canada, Europe, the UK, and at home. Beyond my wildest expectations, it’s about to be made into an audiobook by Bolinda. And it wouldn’t be in the world at all if I hadn’t found the guts to put it there.
I have the technical sophistication of my cat and the business acumen of my other cat, so if I can achieve these kinds of things, I’m sure the next generation of storytellers are going to blow my mind with the way they shape the future of book publishing. Like most things my generation has fucked up, the kids will retrieve it, and I suspect that the process has already begun. They’ll return the heart we sold for a few pieces of silver. Well, I hope so. We need stories more than ever, and as many as can be made.