Concerning the Book Council of Australia

George Brandis Botticelli

Things move slowly, and then everything happens in a rush. In December, the newly-formed Book Council of Australia was announced; last Thursday, a group of respected literary organisations published an open letter, concerned to have heard no movement from the BCA since its inception. In the time since, Louise Adler published an op-ed advocating Australian literature; Adler was named as inaugural Chair of the BCA; and the BCA's guidelines were released, a scant two pages long and attached to a list of consulting bodies who would inform the BCA's direction.

To anyone outside the industry, the week's events must have seemed to have unfolded with lightening speed. But to writers, as well as small-to-medium literary organisations, arts administrators, translators, etc., the BCA's rapid self-determination as an advisory body to the government is not just dismaying—although it is incredibly dismaying. It is part of a clear pattern this past year of Literature, as a category, being carefully filleted from any funding opportunity that would allow its long-term survival.

The revelation of the terms of reference for the BCA has come at a time of anxiety and uncertainty for most of our writing bodies, with $110 million this year hijacked from the Australia Council for the Arts, our arms-length, peer-reviewed funding body, to fund George Brandis' new initiative, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. The 28 major performing arts organisations were quarantined from these cuts; Literature was offered no such protection. And there is no compensation to be found in the NPEA; individuals will not be funded, which means no writing grants, and no sustained investment in the creation of new literary work. (Stuart Glover, writing in July, provides an excellent overview of why this reallocation of funds is disastrous for those in the industry.)

I have written a bit recently about some of the hardships in my writing life. They are personal, but there are many issues that are structural. Support for writers used to come in the form of publishing advances, but these have capitulated to downward pressure as the industry struggles to find its feet in a rapidly changing media landscape. A writer would be lucky to earn $10-25k to support themselves throughout the writing of a book; many authors settle for much less, sometimes nothing, in the hope of garnering royalties through sales. More and more, emerging writers are turning to publication in Australia's brilliant literary journals—The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging etc.—as de facto showcases, hoping to be noticed by increasingly constrained major publishers. These literary journals, too, are now out in the funding cold.

I have never been the recipient of a grant for my writing, which I don't attribute to the quality of my grant-writing skills—having successfully secured grants for multiple not-for-profits—or to the quality of my work. Competition for grant funding is extraordinarily fierce in Australia, with virtually all writers struggling to earn a living wage through their work. Reducing the funding available will either cause a feeding frenzy or induce emerging writers to just give up, justified in the assumption that it is only more established, later-career writers—a safe investment, in funding terms—who will be successful in these rounds.

It is also dismaying to see how little outreach has been undertaken by the BCA, evident in its list of consulting partners. The inclusion of SPN is a step in the right direction, but SPN, like so many, is severely under-resourced; it has only two part-time staff members, representing over 100 constituent members. The ASA has been bold in expressing its concerns, and I am heartened by its advocacy; but the ASA is also culpable of publishing a rate sheet that few in the industry have ever complied with, perhaps providing a rose-tinted view of what writers' lives actually look like.

Beyond the fact that writers will not be directly supported by the BCA, the make-up of its consulting panel is also cause for concern. The organisations involved are respected and worthy of inclusion, but they could also have been scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin five minutes after that first meeting in December. Where is the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, or indeed, a representative of any of the approximately 250 Indigenous dialects currently spoken? Where is the representation for disabled or non-neurotypical writers; writers of colour; writers whose first language is other than English, or the young or disadvantaged or experimental? It is a remarkably staid collection of voices, one that does not represent Australian letters in their diverse and exciting entirety.

The word 'Australian' seems to have been part of the selection critieria; so why not, for example, Australian Poetry? I admit that I am partisan—I worked at Australian Poetry for eighteen months until my health took a tumble. In that time I saw the organisation not only publish the excellent Australian Poetry Journal, but send Indigenous and non-Indigenous poets to a remote community near Lake Tyers; sponsor writing workshops in South Australia for the teenage carers of ill parents; and embed two poets in the most multilingual primary school in Victoria for a full semester, working on themes of identity. None of these activity would fall under the purview of a Book Council, but they get at the living, breathing heart of what we use writing and language for, in all its wondrous, expansive, and therapeutic glory.

It is this type of activity that has been gutted by the cuts to the Australia Council, and this kind of writing that will not survive the NPEA. It is hard to imagine Melbourne's UNESCO City of Literature status existing past the desertion of resident organisations from the Wheeler Centre, but I imagine that those resident organisations are nearly all on the back foot at the moment, scrabbling to secure funding as the six-year grant round was suspended, then reintroduced in much-reduced form. These organisations and others in the small-to-medium category hit well above their weight, providing much-needed space for emerging and disadvantaged writers to hone their craft and access to the mentorships and guidance they may need to break into the industry.

Instead, the BCA purports to spend its $6m—and it is still unknown whether this money is already within Brandis' ministry, or if it will be provided from elsewhere to be used at the BCA's discretion—on fostering a reading culture withing Australia. This is wonderful, except this reading culture already exists. In the recent 'Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts' report, Australia Council discovered that 87% of Australians read Literature regularly, with 26% reading poetry and 16% engaging in creative writing pursuits. This is not an issue that needs a task force.

What is most disappointing is that the BCA could have been genuinely exciting, an agent for advocacy and for change. Emmet Stinson, writer and former head of SPN, wrote on Facebook: "As someone who was at the early, informal BCA meetings, my frustration is that this version of the BCA is not what we discussed at all. The BCA was meant to be a whole-of-industry independent body similar in nature to the Children's Book Council of Australia; there was never a discussion of it advising the ministry or taking Australia Council funding, and I suspect very few of those involved would have signed off on that (as David Day and others have already stated). Frankly, I think the whole committee should resign in protest."

Whether that last step is taken up or not, it seems obvious that Louise Adler, respected as she is in the Australian literary community, should not be Chair: MUP's political memoir list is stellar, but compromises her as a disinterested party. At the National Writers Congress yesterday, George Brandis took the floor, holding forth about politicians who wrote. But I feel as though it goes without saying; politicking should be explicitly separate from the creation of publicly-funded art. The results are not only a kind of totalitarianism, but totally sycophantic—and therefore, worthless.

Louise Adler, in her Sydney Morning Herald op-ed, advocated a distinctly Australian writing. I am sympathetic; this is what I most wish to produce. I am lucky, at the age of 28, to finally be in a position to settle down and write a book, lucky because this endeavour is subsidised by a loving husband who is able to support me for the period of my book's creation. Few are in my position, nor should they need to be, which is why I am writing this: as a plea to the BCA to reconsider its stance against individual writer's grants; to broaden its inclusivity, so that those of us having trouble may feel that we're in with a shot; to listen to a much broader range of voices than it currently does, and to take stock of the industry as a whole, devastated as it is, and examine what a 'book' is when so many words are living, spoken, technology-based, etc.

What I would like to see is a BCA that considers the quality of literature first, the form second; a Council that is genuinely engaged in nourishing Australia's writers, so that they don't, as is so tempting, go and live in Berlin for a year where the cost of living is low; so that they don't give up before their first manuscript is complete; so that they don't feel fleeced by possessing an abiding interest in the beauty and variability of existence. I almost want to laugh, because I just wrote about not wanting to be an activist; not wanting to need to advocate. But this is just ridiculous, and I will happily say so because, as a writer, having so little, I have virtually nothing to lose. I hope George Brandis considers the irony next time he buys a $134,200 paperweight.

Image courtesy of the George Brandis Live Art Experience.