The forgotten environmental crisis: how 20th century settler writers foreshadowed the Anthropocene



Shutterstock/Francisco Duarte Mendes

Philip Steer, Massey University

Just as writers and artists today are responding to the Anthropocene through climate fiction and eco art, earlier generations chronicled an environmental crisis that presaged humanity’s global impact.

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that powerfully expresses the planetary scale of the environmental changes wrought by human activity.




Read more:
How the term ‘Anthropocene’ jumped from geoscience to hashtags – before most of us knew what it meant


Yet almost a century ago, New Zealand and Australia were at the forefront of an environmental crisis that was also profoundly geological in nature: erosion. And it, too, left its mark on culture.

A forgotten global problem

Erosion was first brought to the attention of the western world in the 19th century by the American diplomat and polymath George Perkins Marsh. In Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1869), he argued that much of the “Old World” of the Mediterranean had been transformed into desert by deforestation.

Person walking among tress stumps.

Shutterstock/Marc Henauer

He warned that European colonisation threatened a similar fate for other parts of the world. These concerns came back with a vengeance in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl in the United States began to raise alarm about the long-term security of global food supply.

In the 1930s, south-eastern Australia was also plagued by dust storms. The biologist Francis Ratcliffe, in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia (1939), described the situation in South Australia as a fight for survival.

Nothing less than a battlefield, on which man is engaged in a struggle with the remorseless forces of drought, erosion and drift.

In New Zealand’s different climate and topography, another version of the erosion crisis was also becoming evident. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland described the growing desolation of the North Island’s hill-country pasture.

Miles upon miles of the Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay, Wanganui and Taranaki- Whangamomona inlands have slip-scarred slopes […] The recent history of these regions is one of abandonment, of decreasing population, of a succession of serious floods, and of slip-severed communications.

Cumberland argued in 1944 that New Zealand’s soil erosion problems “attain the extreme national significance […] of those of the United States.”

Similarly, in 1946, the geographer J. M. Holmes claimed:

No greater peace-time issue faces Australia than the conquest of soil erosion.

Detail of eroded rock

Shutterstock/photolike

Cultural crisis

Because agriculture is so central to western ideas of civilisation, commentators found that cultural and environmental questions were inextricable. This overlapping of science and ideology is evident in G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte’s The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion (1939), written by two scientists at Oxford’s Imperial Bureau of Soil Science.

The organisation of civilised societies is founded upon the measures taken to wrest control of the soil from wild Nature, and not until complete control has passed into human hands can a stable superstructure of what we call civilisation be erected on the land.

The belief that nature must be subdued and remade was especially potent among the settler populations of Australia and New Zealand. There colonial identity and economic survival were both inextricably bound up with the success of agricultural and pastoral production.

Elyne Mitchell, now best known as the author of the Silver Brumby children’s books, wrote extensively in the 1940s about how cultural norms of white Australians were directly impacting the soil.

To fit Australia into the pattern of Western civilisation, economically and socially, we have upset the natural balance and turned ourselves into destroyers instead of creators.

The cultural commentator Monte Holcroft used even stronger language to express a similar thought in Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).

But we see also the bare hillsides, the remnants of forest, the flooding rivers, and in some districts the impoverished soil. The balance of nature has changed. Are we to assume that a people which possessed the land in this manner — raping it in the name of progress — can remain untroubled and secure in occupation?

As the title says, erosion was now a “creative problem”. Even as they were committed to colonial forms of society, settler writers were increasingly aware that their environmental foundations were not as stable as had previously been assumed.

dead trees

Shutterstock/brackish_nz

Soil mysticism

In New Zealand literature, the landscape wasn’t simply a backdrop: writers often depicted Pākehā identity as being produced through a direct confrontation with geology. The poet and critic Allen Curnow described the sense “that we are interlopers on an indifferent or hostile scene” as a “common problem of the imagination”. As Curnow wrote in his poem, The Scene, in 1941:

Here among the shaggy mountains cast away

Man’s shape must be recast

Settlement was also described as an encounter between “man” and the landscape in an influential poem by Charles Brasch, The Silent Land, in 1945:

Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,

Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh

Of a century of quiet and assiduity.

Critic Francis Pound has described this nationalist preoccupation as a “soil mysticism”. In focusing so closely on the soil, Pākehā writers were also able to overlook its occupancy by Māori and their own deep knowledge of the land.

Awareness of erosion

Yet Brasch’s appeal is to “gaunt hills”: the landscape of literature was more often than not eroded rather than untouched.

Frank Sargeson’s 1943 short story, Gods Live in Woods, drew on the experience of his uncle, who had felled the forest to establish a hill country farm in Te Rohe Pōtae/the King Country.

And places where the grass still held were scarred by slips that showed up the clay and papa. One of these had come down from above the track, and piled up on it before going down into the creek. A chain or so of fence had been in its way and it had gone too. You could see some posts and wires sticking out of the clay.

Erosion also spread into the common stock of literary imagery. In a short poem by Colin Newbury, In My Country (1955), it appears as a metaphor for disappointed love.

He stands close to the earth,

My obdurate countryman,

Drawing from the wind’s breath,

The arid sweetness of flower and mountain;

Knows no green herb for the heart’s erosion.

Such texts demonstrate the ecological concept of “shifting baseline syndrome”, as described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her collaborators, whereby “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”.

eroded coastline

Shutterstock/Filip Fuxa

Alternative possibilities

Although so much of Pākehā writing about geology from this time imagines the relationship between humanity and nature as hostile and irreversibly damaged, some offered glimpses of alternative possibilities. One was Ursula Bethell, whose poem Weathered Rocks (1936) stretched her Christian beliefs to find common ground with geology. Through this she imagined a less antagonistic relationship with nature.

And we are kin, compounded of the same elements,

Alike proceeding to an unknown goal.

Another approach is offered by Herbert Guthrie-Smith in Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921). Through the local histories he gleaned from Ngāti Kurumōkihi elders, Guthrie-Smith came to reject a Pākehā view of the Earth as simply a resource to be exploited.

When a block of land passes, as it may do through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due?

Auē, taukari e, anō te kūware o te Pākehā kāhore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! that the Pākehā should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Māori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool.

This view of the land as a political partner, endowed with independence and rights, appears to offer a new environmental perspective that in fact draws on the long-standing Indigenous legal principles of tikanga Māori.




Read more:
Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction


Anticipating the Anthropocene

Mid-20th century settler writing about erosion holds renewed interest today because it conveys a strikingly literal, visible sense of the Anthropocene: the geological impact of colonisation was plainly evident in sand drift, dust storms and scarred hillsides.

Writers were not blind to environmental damage, but in the main their responses are reminiscent of what critic Greg Garrard has called the present-day “gloomy trio of Anthropocenic futures — business-as-usual, mitigation and geo-engineering”.

But writers such as Bethell and Guthrie-Smith demonstrate the ongoing importance of creative work for questioning the values that created and sustain the Anthropocene we now all inhabit.The Conversation

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In our own voices: 5 Australian books about living with disability



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Jessica White, The University of Queensland

Fiction and non-fiction works about disability and Deafness are often hampered by stereotypical representations. A disability is frequently presented as something to “overcome”, or used to characterise someone (ever notice all those evil characters portrayed as disfigured?).

These representations obscure the joys, frustrations and creativity of living with disability and Deafness.

Dutch author Corinne Duyvis started the #OwnVoices movement on Twitter because she was frustrated that calls for diversity within the publishing industry did not extend to diverse authors. Originating in discussions of young adult fiction, #OwnVoices aims to highlight books written by authors who share a marginalised identity with the protagonist.

Life writing also provides firsthand accounts of disability and Deafness, showing what it is like to navigate a world designed for able-bodied people. In addition, these books help people with disability and Deafness learn more about their condition, and create community.

Australia has an established literary tradition of writing about disability. Here are five books by Australian disabled writers that reveal insights into their lives and conditions.




Read more:
Creating and being seen: new projects focus on the rights of artists with disabilities


1. Alan Marshall’s Hammers Over the Anvil (1975)

Hammers Over the Anvil book cover

Many readers will be familiar with Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles (1955), the first book in his series about growing up and living with polio in rural Australia.

Where that book is a cheerful and somewhat sanitised account of living with a disability, Hammers Over the Anvil (1975), the fourth and final book in Marshall’s series, is more realistic.

Marshall’s publisher refused to publish the book, thinking it would tarnish his image. Despite — or perhaps because of — his brutal treatment, Marshall shows a keen sympathy for disenfranchised people and also for animals.

2. Donna Williams’ Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic Girl (1991)

Nobody Nowhere book cover

Donna Williams was not diagnosed with autism until she was an adult; prior to that she was thought to be deaf and psychotic.

Her story begins at age three and is thick with sensory details, which both delight and overwhelm Williams. She recounts interactions with hostile people — including her own mother, who wanted to admit Williams to an institution.

This book was the first full-length, published account by a person with autism in Australia. It became an international bestseller, spending 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was translated into 20 languages.

3. Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman & Fleabag (2007)

Me, Antman & Fleabag book cover

In this book, Gayle Kennedy, of the Wongaibon people of south west New South Wales, uses a series of engaging vignettes to describe her life as a First Nations woman who had polio.

Kennedy was sent away for treatment. When she returned, her parents seemed like strangers; it took a while to readjust. Though the subject matter sounds heavy, this humorous and accessible work is rich with stories about the importance of family (including dogs!) and the impact of racism.

It is also an important book because it chronicles some of the experiences of First Nations people with disability. It won the David Unaipon award in 2006.

4. Andy Jackson’s Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold (2017)

Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold book cover

Poet Andy Jackson, who has a condition called Marfan Syndrome that affects the body’s connective tissue, began performing poetry to give himself more control over representations of his body.

His collection consists of biographical poems of people with Marfan Syndrome, some of whom he interviewed, and historical figures who are thought to have had the condition, including Abraham Lincoln, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, Mary Queen of Scots, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and blues guitarist Robert Johnson.

Poetry, with its focus on voice, is strongly connected to the way that bodies express themselves, often in unique ways. As Jackson writes at the end of his poem Jess:

now look at this photo and tell me

you still want sameness.

5. Carly Findlay (ed), Growing Up Disabled in Australia (2021)

Growing up Disabled book cover

The final book on my list is one I haven’t read yet — but I cannot wait until I can. Edited by Carly Findley, who has ichthyosis, this collection to be released early next year, will highlight the range of childhoods experienced by people with disability in Australia.

We will be able to read about how young people manage ableism and the (sometimes) soreness of not fitting in, and interviews with prominent Australians such as Senator Jordon Steele-John and Paralympian Isis Holt.

I lost most of my hearing when I was four, and when I was growing up I didn’t read a single book that featured a character who was Deaf. Books like Growing Up Disabled will help young Deaf and disabled people recognise themselves in Australian literature.




Read more:
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes review: Back to Back Theatre’s exciting reframing of disability


In my own hybrid memoir, Hearing Maud, I weave together my experiences of Deafness with those of Maud Praed, the Deaf daughter of 19th century expatriate Australian novelist Rosa Praed.

Maud and I were born 100 years apart, and although our lives went in radically different directions many of our circumstances are the same — especially the expectation that we conform to a hearing world. My disability is often invisible, and I wanted to explain the relentless and exhausting attention that is needed for me to function. Deafness is far more complex than simply not hearing.

There are thousands more examples of the ways authors can write about living with disability. The International Day of People with Disability is a great time to start reading.




Read more:
On screen and on stage, disability continues to be depicted in outdated, cliched ways


The Conversation


Jessica White, UQ Amplify Associate Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Rona’, ‘iso’, ‘quazza’ — words of the year speak to our Australian take on COVID



Unsplash/United Nations, CC BY

Roland Sussex, The University of Queensland

Language is like archaeology. It lays down evidence for following generations to excavate and write PhD theses about. Layers of the stuff. And such has been the language of the year of COVID.

Not surprisingly, COVID has spawned an efflorescence of words and expressions. And these will certainly be dug up for analysis by our descendants.

In Australia we have a characteristic way of repurposing words, and we have applied it to COVID. Isolation became “iso”, which was crowned (joke: corona is Latin for crown) Word of the Year, or WOTY, by the Australian National Dictionary.

And coronavirus became “rona”, the Macquarie Dictionary’s COVID WOTY for 2020, announced today.

The Macquarie has departed from its usual practice (as has the Oxford English Dictionary) and anointed not one but two WOTYs (should that be WOTIES?): one to honour the way COVID has dominated our world, thinking and language this year; and another across-the-board WOTY as well. Their latter choice was “doomscrolling”, the practice of continuing to read news online or on social media when you know there’s nothing new in the news, and it’s all miserable.




Read more:
‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our language


Short, not necessarily sweet

Iso and rona are diminutives or hypocoristics. I have a database of over 6,000 of these in Australian English. These are derived forms of words that express an emotional overtone, usually amiable and solidaristic (“barbie” for barbecue; “servo” for service station), sometimes pejorative (“commo” for communist, “drongo” for well, an idiot).

But my personal nomination for the 2020 WOTY is “quazza” for quarantine. I predicted its birth and was fulfilled when it duly appeared.

Quazza follows a pattern in Australian English where R becomes Z: Terry gives “Tezza”, Barry gives “Bazza”, and quarantine yields “quazza”. Which is a long way from the Italian word quarantina, a reference to the 40-day period ships had to anchor off Italy in days gone by to prove there was no plague on board.

These diminutives serve an important purpose. They de-demonise threatening words. Without reducing the level of the words’ threat, the diminutives imply: this is something we can get our minds around and manage.

And gradually, with some temporary reversals, that is what we have done, and much more effectively than most other countries. Though whether the diminutives have medical force is not yet proven.

Person in mask looks at laptop in darkened room
‘Doomscrolling’ captures the intersection of this year’s unfolding catastrophes and social media.
Unsplash, CC BY

Getting the message

Of course, there’s more to the influence of language under COVID than diminutives. In terms of public health and communication, three key agencies have driven our handling of the pandemic: scientists, policymakers and the public.

In Australia, the passage of information and action between these three entities has worked rather well. Science has transmitted reliable and helpful analyses of coronavirus and COVID-19 to policymakers. They informed our understanding of specific pandemic terms like “incubation” and “reinfection”.

State and federal governments have issued action guidelines with terms like “COVID safe”. And the public has created their own shorthand like the diminutives described above to make it all a bit friendlier.




Read more:
We’re not all in this together. Messages about social distancing need the right cultural fit


Australians have accessed the science through the media and the internet, and have generally acted responsibly.

Using words consistently and specifically is vital when it comes to health messages.
Unsplash/United Nations, CC BY

The key mechanism for communicating along the three axes between science, policymakers and the public involves messaging. Words matter in this context. What is needed is simple, direct, transparent and plausible language. Translations for multilingual communities are also vital.

Australian authorities have used words effectively and fairly consistently (though not always). The words and terms have fallen within four broad lexical categories:

1. isolation — lockdown, isolation, quarantine

2. distance — social distancing, venue capacity

3. hygiene — handwashing, sanitiser (or “hand sanny” in Australian slang), masks

3. social — COVID safe, flatten the curve, stop the spread, WFH (work from home).

The British messaging was much less effective, moving from “Protect the NHS” (National Health Service) to “Stay alert” without specifying what people should be alert to.




Read more:
Coronavirus anti-vaxxers: one in six British people would refuse a vaccine – here’s how to change their minds


Going the distance

Unfortunately, many countries took up the phrase “social distancing”, when what was needed was “physical distancing”, continuing social interaction as an important part of maintaining well being. The World Health Organisation agrees.

Next time — and there certainly will be a next time — we need to be better prepared.

There will be new vocabulary to describe, and perhaps to help tame, potential new threats. The messaging may be very similar, and we will know, from our experience with COVID-19 in 2020, how best to stop “covidiots” from acting “coronacrazy”.




Read more:
How COVID-19 is changing the English language


The Conversation


Roland Sussex, Professor Emeritus, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Victorian Premier’s History Award Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2020 Victorian Premier’s History Award, ‘Printed on Stone – The lithographs of Charles Troedel,’ by Amanda Scardamaglia.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/11/02/158903/printed-on-stone-wins-victorian-premiers-history-award/

10 ‘lost’ Australian literary treasures you should read – and can soon borrow from any library



Perfecto Capucine/Unsplash

Rebecca Giblin, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, University of Melbourne

Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.

To ensure these works can be read, a team of authors, librarians and researchers are working together on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project.

By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.

Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.

Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.

Working Bullocks (1926) by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Book cover

Before Coonardoo (1929), Prichard’s best known work, there was Working Bullocks.

The novel describes the trials of Red Burke, a bullock driver in Western Australia, trying to make a living in a post-war Australia.

Just after the novel’s original publication, it was described by John Sleeman of The Bookman in the UK as “the high-water mark of Australian literary achievement in the novel so far”.

Metal Fatigue (1996) by Sean Williams

Sean Williams has written over 50 books, including co-authored titles with authors such as Shane Dix and Garth Nix which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Metal Fatigue was Williams’ debut. Set in a small American city 40 years after the end of a nuclear war, the residents must decide if they want to join the newly forming Re-United States of America.

Depicting a dystopic future of violence, shortages and a divided USA, it still feels remarkably current today.

I’m Not Racist, But… (2007) by Anita Heiss

Book cover

This poetry collection from activist, writer and member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Professor Anita Heiss, skewers Australia’s racist underbelly.

I’m Not Racist, But… explores identity, pride and political correctness; proposes alternative words to the national anthem; and reveals how it is to grow up as an Indigenous woman in Australia.

This is a landmark work along Australia’s slow road to racial reckoning.

Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein

The multi-award winning Space Demons was Gillian Rubinstein’s first book and began the much-loved trilogy of the same name.

It follows four ordinary kids drawn into a dangerous new computer game – instead of simply watching the game on the screen, they become part of it. And there is no way to know if they will escape.

With its gripping plot and local setting, Space Demons introduced many children to Australian science fiction – and led to many Australians first discovering their love of reading.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do adults think video games are bad?


Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989) by Steve Hawke, with photographs by Michael Gallagher

Book cover

In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.

This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.

Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.

This is an essential work of Australian history.

The Unlucky Australians (1968) by Frank Hardy

Frank Hardy was known for his political activism around labour rights, and as the author of 16 books. Almost his entire backlist is out of print, with the notable exception of Power Without Glory (1950).

In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.

Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.

The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.




Read more:
An historic handful of dirt: Whitlam and the legacy of the Wave Hill Walk-Off


The Mandala trilogy (1993-2004) by Carmel Bird

Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.

The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks (2003) by Brett D’Arcy

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.

Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.


Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor; Director, Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, Postdoctoral Fellow, ‘Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project’, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Six Australians in the Running for the 2021 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award


The link below is to an article reporting on six Australian authors, illustrators and organisations as having been announced as candidates for the 2021 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s richest prize for children’s literature.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/30/158875/six-australian-nominees-for-2021-astrid-lindgren-memorial-award/

2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on The Historical Novel Society Australasia’s (HNSA) shortlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/29/158795/inaugural-50k-historical-novel-prize-shortlist-announced/

2020 Danger Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the 2020 Danger Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/26/158481/the-danger-prize-2020-shortlist-announced/

2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/16/158101/cbca-book-of-the-year-2020-winners-announced/

Gail Jones: Australian literature is chronically underfunded — here’s how to help it flourish



Kate Winslet in the 2015 film The Dressmaker. The film was based on the novel by Australian writer Rosalie Ham.
Screen Australia, Film Art Media, White Hot Productions

Gail Jones, Western Sydney University

This is an edited version of author Gail Jones’ submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the creative industries.

Literary culture carries profound social value. In general terms it is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community, as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth. It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.

I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.

The economic benefits

Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17. Creative arts employ 645,000 Australians and those numbers were increasing before the pandemic. Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are “primary producers” of creative content.

Books form an often invisible bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the educational sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.

Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black, a 2018 film based on the novel by Australian author Madeleine St John.
Lumila Films, Ladies in Black SPV, Screen Australia

The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing.

Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature. Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.

Cross-cultural exchange and understanding are crucial to the literary industries and of inestimable benefit in “recommending” Australia and its stories.

However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and COVID-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income. It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most of us have “day jobs”) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.




Read more:
Five ways to boost Australian writers’ earnings


Total literature funding at the Australia Council has decreased by 44% over the past six years from $9 million in 2013-14 to $5.1 million in 2018-19. The abolition of specific literature programs such as Get Reading, Books Alive and the Book Council has been responsible for much of this decrease.

We need additional government-directed support such as the funding delivered to visual arts through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy ($6.6 million in 2018-19), regional touring delivered through Playing Australia ($7.4 million 2018-19) and the Major Festivals Initiative ($1.5 million 2018-19).

Melbourne’s State Library.
Valeriu Campan/AAP

Shaping national identity

The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. “Social well-being” requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.

The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?




Read more:
Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot


As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.

Brothers Douglas and Dare Strout read a school book together while home schooling in Brisbane in April.
Darren England/AAP

“National identity” also requires reflexive literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing. Local reading and writing initiatives have had remarkable success in areas like Aboriginal literacy and aged care mental support.

More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.

Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.

Australian literature at universities

The formulation of a Creative Economy Taskforce by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is a positive step in establishing better understanding of this crucial economy. I would draw attention, however, to the lack of literary expertise on the taskforce. The appointment of a publisher or a high-profile Indigenous writer, for example, would give more diversity to the collective voice of our literary community.

The additional appointment of an academic concerned with Australian literature, such as the current director of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, would further enhance the claims of literature.

The education sector will have a role in implementing creative arts initiatives. There has been a deplorable lack of support for Australian literature within the academy.

Under the current wish to renovate the jobs sector through the creative arts there is an opportunity to direct dedicated funds within the education budget to establishing a Chair of Australian Literature in each university (or at least in the Group of Eight).

There is currently one Chair at the University of Western Australia and a privately endowed one at the University of Melbourne. Postgraduate scholarships could also be offered specifically in the area of Australian literary studies.

Alexis Wright, pictured here in 2007 after winning the Miles Franklin award, is the Boisbouvier Chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University.
Dean Lewins/AAP

For a comparatively small outlay in budget terms, such a move would signal direct support for Australian reading, writing and research and would be widely celebrated in the education and library sectors.

‘Embarrassing’

It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities (in my experience Belgium, Germany and Italy, in particular) study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.

The case for increased Australia Council funding in the neglected area of literature has already been made. Writers’ incomes are, as attested, direly low and I worry in particular about diminishing funding for new and emerging writers.

An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is another efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.

Cuts to publishing, festivals, journals, individual writers’ grants and programs generally, have had a disastrous effect on the incomes and opportunities for writers in this nation. Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The “trickle down effects” — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.




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Most writers’ work is not recognised as a “job”; if it were, if there were a definition of “writer” as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits.

This may be blue-sky thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.

Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program. (I’ve seen one installed on the campus of the University of New Delhi.)

What about gifting libraries of Australian books as part of our aid program?
Hamilton Churton/PR Handout

This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult. It also encourages study of the host culture’s writings and has benevolent “soft power” effects of inestimable worth.

‘Literature houses’

The government has indicated physical infrastructure (buildings and so on) will be necessary to the renovation of the domestic economy post-COVID. This is a wonderful opportunity to consider funding “literature houses”, purpose-built sites for readings, writer accommodation for local and overseas residencies, places for book-launches, discussion and the general support of literature.

The Literaturhaus system in Germany, in which all major cities have funded buildings for writer events, and in which, crucially, writers are paid for readings and appearances, is a wonderful success and helps writers’ incomes enormously.

The Frankfurt Literaturhaus.
shutterstock

The inclusion of Indigenous, regional, rural and community organisations in proposals for “literature houses” would stimulate local building economies and generate community recognition of Australian literature.

The Regional Australia Institute considers creative arts as a potentially productive area of regional economies. However its 2016 map of Australia has a tiny space allocated to creative industries (situated around Alice Springs and linked to the Indigenous art industry). This strikes me as a radical imbalance and a missed opportunity.

A priority for this inquiry could be support for initiatives in literature, perhaps through existing library or schools infrastructure, to address creatively matters of both rural innovation and disadvantage.

Encouraging workshops in writing, including visiting writers, addressing reading and writing as a creative enterprise for the community as a whole: these could form the basis for an enlivening cultural participation and skills. Dedicated funds in literature for regional, remote and rural communities are urgently required.

Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.The Conversation

Gail Jones, Professor, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.