ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS:
On Australian Writing (Jo Case)

Posted on August 1, 2011 by in Being Sure

At last year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, during a session on The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, an impassioned argument broke out on the subject of Australian writing. Robert Dessaix declared that, in our current age of globalisation, where national identities and national cultures are harder to define, there is no longer any such thing as Australian writing. ‘Do any of us write as Australian writers?’ he asked his fellow panellists Chloe Hooper, Michelle de Kretser and Malcolm Knox. ‘I know I don’t. I write as moi. I don’t write about Aborigines and sharks.’

Hooper (who could be crudely said to have written ‘about Aborigines’ in her 2009 smash-hit The Tall Man) argued that the diversity Dessaix saw as signalling the demise of Australian literature is in fact at the core of its identity. She demonstrated this by citing the Macquarie anthology, which encompasses de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, and Dessaix’s engagement with the world beyond our shores. ‘I feel proud to be in an anthology of Australian literature,’ said Sri-Lankan born de Kretser. ‘It does give pleasure to some people and make them feel like they’re finally accepted as being Australian.’

But Dessaix’s interpretation of Australian writing as being about ‘Aborigines and sharks’ – or, as it’s more commonly summarised, bush and beach – is alive and well, as shown by this year’s deeply (and variously) controversial Miles Franklin shortlist. From the setting of a sheep station, Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran explores the loss of optimism and confidence in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance tells the story of the post-colonial destruction of the indigenous Noongar people and their traditions, and the possibility of a new world created by the encounters of very different peoples. (It should be noted that contrary to some post-Miles commentaries, Scott is not yet another example of an Anglo male writer being favoured. He is an indigenous writer, one of only two ever to win the Miles Franklin: Benang was joint winner, in 2000, with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) And finally Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a Gothic novel set in the aftermath of World War I during the Spanish flu epidemic, as an Australian soldier returns to the scene of a terrible crime in his country hometown, hoping to somehow reconcile the past.

The three novels were described by judges as sharing ‘a distinctive, indelible Australian voice’. That those three books were all written by men, and all shared a historical rural setting, sparked immediate and furious discussion about just what Australian writing is – and about the definition of Australian writing recognised and rewarded by the literary establishment. ‘Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice,’ wrote Angela Meyer on Crikey’s LiteraryMinded, barely an hour after the shortlist announcement. ‘Sheep stations, war, colonisation … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define “Australian life”.’

Meyer’s observation was echoed the next day by Wheeler Centre programming director Michael Williams. ‘The definition of “Australian life in any of its phases” that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo,’ he wrote on the Wheeler Centre website. ‘If our notion of a “sufficiently Australian” novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories.’

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Six months earlier, driven by the Adelaide Writers’ Week argument, I’d begun to research the question of what we mean by ‘Australian writing’, driven by my own belief that a national literature – telling and reading our own stories – is vitally important to our sense of self. How can a generation of storytellers grow up believing that their voices are worth listening to, that a life lived in Melbourne is as culturally valid as a life lived in New York or London, if the only stories we celebrate come from elsewhere? And if Australian literature is narrowly defined as something alien to the way most of us live now, how many writers will feel inspired and emboldened to embark on a writing career?

‘I think it’s more like having an Australian accent than being an Australian writer,’ responded novelist Charlotte Wood when I posed Dessaix’s question – Do you identify as an Australian writer? ‘I guess I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.’

That idea, of writing with an Australian accent, comes through in Wood’s most recent novel, The Children, about a family reunited by a serious accident, which brings the scattered adult children back to the rural NSW town where they grew up to visit their ailing father. There are no lush descriptions of landscape, little Australian vernacular (except for a couple of stray bloodys), no surfing or sea – but it’s deeply and instantly recognisable as the kind of country town you might have driven through, or indeed have lived in; a place where most of the children grow up and gratefully leave in order to broaden their choices. ‘I wrote about what I see of country towns rather than a kind of lost romantic idea about what a country town is,’ said Wood, pointing out that in our film and television, more so than books, we see a cliché of ‘a dusty, weather-beaten, corrugated iron kind of place’, or the patronising quirkiness of shows like Seachange or the film Mullet, that doesn’t reflect what a contemporary Australian country town is, so much as a national myth.

In Wood’s fictional town of Rundle, there’s a Liquorland, a Best & Less, kids dressed in surf gear far from the sea. A climactic family dinner takes place in a pub dining room with plastic-coated menus and exotic-sounding dishes like Tuscan Lamb, the culinary labels wistfully signalling elsewhere. Town residents are proud of the recently revamped pub though city visitors disdain it as embarrassingly pretentious. On one level, it’s generic – it could happen anywhere – but on another this geographical inferiority is deeply Australian. Eldest daughter Mandy works as a war correspondent, reporting back from far-away places, and even her mother Margaret reflects nostalgically on her teenage dream of being an air hostess.

‘The things that make me Australian are more psychological,’ says novelist and former publisher Sophie Cunningham. That much of her writing is set overseas makes the definition of ‘Australian’ particularly tricky in her case. Her first novel, Geography (which included canny descriptions of the Sydney–Melbourne dichotomy and rich evocations of swimming at Bondi) was set between California, Melbourne and Sydney. Her second, Bird, is set entirely overseas. ‘You could argue that just the mere fact of being a long way from everywhere else drives the plot a lot. Australians are some of the biggest travelers in the world. And you do travel more and longer; it forms the character of the novel. But it’s a subtle point.’

It’s a point fellow novelist Patrick Allington agrees with – and he offers that while Bird is ‘not an Australian book in any sense or form, to me it feels like it is somehow. I can’t say why in any tangible sense.’

Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead – set mostly in Cambodia, following the twinned stories of Pol Pot’s right-hand man and a Wilfred Burchett-like Australian foreign correspondent – was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009. ‘In my own writing, what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the role of Australia in the world and the tyranny of distance that doesn’t exist as a geographical thing elsewhere in quite the same way. It seems to me it carries on in our heads quite powerfully.’

It’s interesting that both Allington’s novel and Wood’s The Children – two very different books – feature the key character of an Australian correspondent (Allington’s Ted and Wood’s Mandy) who, on their return, experience ‘home’ as alien and shockingly removed from the rest of the world.

When asked if he identified as an Australian writer, Allington replied: ‘I do, but that makes it sound as if I’m sitting around doing random surveys to make sure I’ve mentioned gum trees often enough per page, or weaved a platypus into the plot somehow. Which is what I think people think about when they think of Australian writing.’

In my conversations – with booksellers, publishers, writers, critics – the same names cropped up again and again when it came to contemporary Australian writing: Tim Winton and Peter Carey. There was a sense of weariness in these references, even while most praised the skill and in no way disparaged their success. When other writers considered the question of being Australian, they compared themselves against these elements: Australian vernacular; bush and beach, explicit explorations of colonisation or national history.

‘I get very frustrated by the sense that rural culture is where all the authenticity is happening,’ said Cunningham, who was one of the key publishers responsible for the ‘grunge’ wave of young Australian writers in the 1990s – which was really, in hindsight, urban fiction. Her alumni include Fiona McGregor (Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes), and Luke Davies (Candy).

Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield is an enthusiastic champion of Australian fiction; she started Scribe’s fledgling list nearly six years ago, in 2006, after a long stint as deputy editor of Australian Book Review. Describing her thought process when it comes to commissioning writers, she said, ‘I’m thinking – maybe wrongly – that audiences are looking for good writing, by writers who live here, that has an Australian accent, or really talks about what they know – the things that are most relevant to them. But it’s not narrowly defined at all. I think the definitions of bush and beach have been outdated for quite a long time.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of the editors of The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature agreed, saying that we’ve moved ‘well past’ the city–bush split once looming large in our literature, and that contemporary Australian literature is a broad field, with ‘many, many things that can fit under this umbrella’.

Goldsworthy reflected on the recent history of this evolution, drawing on the expertise and hands-on experience of her decades of work in the field (including as an editor of Australian Book Review, a Miles Franklin judge and an Australian Literature academic). ‘English departments in universities in the 1960s were run by English people,’ she said. ‘It was a British view. No such thing as Australian literature.’ The resistance to Australian literature in universities lingered as late as the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by fights to get migrant literature, indigenous literature and writing by women taught and read. ‘There was a great swathe of short story anthologies that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s really heavily dominated by male writers and nobody even noticed let alone remarked on it,’ Goldsworthy recalled. ‘Then there was this kind of flowering of women’s writing in the 1980s with Helen Garner and Beverly Farmer and Kate Grenville; older women like Olga Masters who had begun to write in their middle age; and people like Thea Astley, who had been there all along.’

Viewed in this context, it seems that there has always been a war to recognise Australian writing that reflects the broader Australian experience – and we’re in the midst, it seems, of the next battle.

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On the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel, novelist and former Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Malcolm Knox talked about The Slap’s journey to publication overseas. He said it came up against all kinds of difficulties because it was about suburban life in the Western world, rather than the exotic settings of the outback or a coastal surfing town. ‘In The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas is in Melbourne writing about his world in Melbourne with the confidence of Philip Roth writing about his world in New York,’ he said. He suggested that the reception of the book – then yet to be published outside Australia – would challenge international definitions of Australian writing, and would be a kind of test case for whether suburban Australian writing can travel. Of course, it went on to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker.

Did The Slap mark an expansion of what we define as Australian writing? Not really, said most of those I spoke to. It’s simply a terrific work of storytelling. ‘If I asked friends in the UK if they would read a book set in suburban Australia, I think they’d say, “It depends entirely on who’s writing about it”,’ said Kerryn Goldsworthy. ‘Alice Munro writes about small towns in Canada, and she has millions and millions of people hanging on her every word. And it’s not because she’s writing about small towns in Canada. It’s because she’s really, really good at what she does.’

Goldsworthy did think, though, that The Slap was a perfectly timed novel that ‘hit the Zeitgeist smack in the middle’ and delivered a kind of story about contemporary Australia that readers were hungry for. ‘It was a novel whose time had come in the same way that Monkey Grip was. It was exactly the right time for someone to say what had been happening in these places and to these people for the past few years.’

Aviva Tuffield sees another salutary lesson for Australian writing in the success of The Slap. It’s an excellent example of the importance of supporting a writer through their early work, and nurturing them as they develop their career – something that is becoming rarer these days, with the advent of BookScan, which shows exactly how many copies an author has sold, making it tougher for them to be signed up for that notoriously difficult second novel.

Tuffield used the example of her author Chris Womersely, whose second novel Bereft they’d worked on intensively in the editorial process. ‘I think his third book will be something really ground-breaking,’ she said when we spoke in November 2010 – months before Bereft was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. ‘You don’t know what you would have had by supporting local writers if you don’t do it,’ she reflected. ‘You don’t know when you’ll see the next Tim Winton or whoever – the next great writer who’ll come out of the fact that someone took a punt on their first book, and again on their second book and their third book.’

Sophie Cunningham also emphasised the significance of The Slap being Tsiolkas’s fourth novel, coming after his debut Loaded (one of the ‘grunge’ novels), his difficult second novel The Jesus Man, and the critically acclaimed Dead Europe, winner of The Age Book of the Year (2006). Both Tuffield and Cunningham made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen, whose third novel was The Corrections.

I asked Cunningham if she thought maybe there’s been a generational shift in the idea of what an ‘Australian’ writer can be. (And, reflecting now, perhaps that shift hasn’t yet made its way to the Miles Franklin judging panel.) She agreed that people like Tsiolkas – and Nam Le, whose worldwide phenomenon The Boat was published simultaneously in New York and was set all over the world – are opening up that definition.

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Back to the time of writing, and the all-male, rural, historically set Miles shortlist. It’s been heartening to see the widespread public reaction against the lack of diversity, from writers, critics, and passionate readers alike. ‘I think the “Australian Voice” is a multi-cultural one and an urbanised one,’ wrote Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages and Pages, president of the Australian Booksellers’ Association. ‘While Australia is a large land mass, the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns.’ A commenter on his blog replied, ‘One of the reasons I read less and less Australian “literary” fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not.’ Bookseller Martin Shaw of Readings Carlton believes that most enthusiastic readers ‘want to read something quite regularly that’s set in their own time and place … they’re looking for something that’s sort of explaining their world to them’.

That’s why Australian writing is still important. It reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions. Not all Australian writing speaks to all Australians – that would be an absurd notion. But the diversity of our writing represents the diversity of Australia itself. And that’s a good thing – something that, it seems, Australian readers are increasingly keen to see reflected in the kind of Australian writing we value.

The Miles Franklin debate is not simply about one prize, albeit our leading national literary prize. It’s an argument about who we are. ‘I like to see my world represented in art,’ said Charlotte Wood. I think the same is true of most of us. It doesn’t have to be about the bush or the beach. It can be as varied and universal as an Australian accent.

Thanks to all the talented writing, publishing and bookselling people who took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts on this subject. Not all were able to be directly quoted in the article, but all made valuable contributions to the conversation. Thanks to: Patrick Allington, Jon Bauer, Sophie Cunningham, Lisa Dempster, Chris Flynn, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Martin Shaw, Louise Swinn, Charlotte Wood and Chris Womersley.

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ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND  AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS  On Australian Writing first appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 6, July 2011.

 

REVEALING BRILLIANCE:
an interview with Jo Case

Posted on July 30, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

If we love a film we want to know more about it. We stay for the credits if we’re struck by the way it was shot, the locations or music, perhaps even how well it was edited. A novel we love in a similar way bears just one name. The publishing house is a stamp that gives us little more than the relevant years of publication. We don’t worry about the credits yet a book is a major production, involving experts with different specialties, all contributing talent and commitment. You’ve emerged as a prominent editor and I was wondering why you think so much of the work you do goes uncredited? Even when an editor is mentioned, there’s no real appreciation for how significant editors are as curators and creators of anthologies, collections, magazines, etc, as well as vital collaborators in the production of the works we love. How do you see the role of an editor and why do they rarely get a mention?

JO CASE

Thank you – I’ve never thought of myself as a prominent editor! To tell the truth, I think there are two kinds of editing, and one attracts far less recognition than the other. Book editors remain invisible and unacknowledged – apart from in the author’s acknowledgement pages, if they’re lucky. And their contribution is often enormous, in some cases transforming the work beyond all recognition; in others building on the authors’ strengths while helping them work on their weaknesses and eliminate them from the final work. In my publishing days, I’ve worked with editors who basically wrote the authors’ books for them – taking them from a very rough first draft to a polished final product. Not only did the reading public never know this, but in some cases, the author themselves managed not to realise. The more the author is hired for their profile or expertise rather than their writing, the more likely this is to happen. The more serious the writer, the more they tend to recognise, appreciate and – yes – acknowledge the work their editor puts in. Then again, it’s the job of a book editor to be invisible, as Text editor Mandy Brett wrote in her recent Meanjin essay. It’s the craft of the writing that’s on display – its seams should remain hidden. There are a handful of famous editors – Beatrice Davis, Maxwell Perkins, Gordon Lish, Hillary McPhee – but they’re rare.

I do think that the other, more visible, kind of editor – editors of anthologies, magazines, etc. – are quite well recognised. Think Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner, co-editors of the Sleepers Almanacs. Or Ronnie Scott, editor of The Lifted Brow. If you look beyond our cosy little publishing world, at commercial publications, their editors can have huge profiles. Look at Ita Buttrose, and the huge success of the recent ABC mini-series Paper Giants, on the birth of Cleo magazine, starring Ita as its girl-power heroine. (Or, on a smaller scale, Mia Freedman, who gained visibility as editor of Cosmopolitan and can now be seen everywhere.) Of course, that recognition comes from the glamorous (say, thirty per cent) part of the work they do: the commissioning. The hard slog that makes up the other seventy per cent – working with writers to improve on the structure, then the detail of their work; negotiating with them; proofreading; sourcing images; and often dealing with production elements – is less acknowledged. Then again, why should it be? There are plenty of integral but decidedly unglamorous jobs that go unacknowledged. (Like the role of deputy editor at most publications!)

Recently, someone asked me for advice on how to become an editor. This person admitted she didn’t have a wonderful command of English, so couldn’t see herself being much good at proofreading or working with structure. But she had decided that she really, really wanted to be an editor. After some minutes of (for me) quite confusing conversation, I asked why she wanted to be an editor. After all, if she wasn’t much good at manipulating words and language, and this held little interest for her, what was the appeal? ‘I read magazines and newspapers, and there’s often a “from the editor” column,’ my would-be editor explained. ‘I want to write that column!’

Visibility aside, I think people are attracted to the glamour and excitement of finding new talent, or convincing established talent to appear in their pages. That element of discovery. And I’d be lying if I said those things don’t appeal to me, as part of the job. (Though I quite relish the task of working with an author on a piece that needs structural work – it’s so satisfying to see the end result.) I also enjoy deciding on the shape a publication will take, and assembling the elements that will bring it together. For example, in editing The Big Issue’s fiction edition, we don’t just look at individual stories and writers when we put it together; we also select the pieces with the overall feel of the collection in mind – for example, we want a variety of styles and subjects, and at least a sprinkling of humour.

ALEC PATRIC

Raymond Carver stumbled around his home for a week after he got Gordan Lish’s version of his first collection of stories — clutching his head and muttering that he was going to go insane. A month later, Carver said he was pleased with the version his editor had sent him. Raymond Carver’s stories have recently been published as they were before Lish brought his judgment to them. Some readers prefer them over the classic Carver style that had such a colossal impact on the short form. Worth noting is that Carver didn’t stick to the minimalist game plan later in his career that Lish had set out for him at the beginning.

I’m interested in the relationships between editor and writer. You’ve mentioned the roles an editor can play but can you talk about the different kinds of responses you’ve seen from writers. Some writers must be almost impossible to work with and others might accede to all suggestions too easily. What’s the ideal balance in a good relationship between editor and writer? I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the experiences you’ve had with writers. Have you driven any of them insane?

JO CASE

Absolutely. I have worked with writers who are very attached to their prose and resist any editing or suggestions almost by instinct. Rarely, but it’s happened. And I’ve worked with others who accept all suggestions. (To be perfectly honest, I don’t experience this as a problem!) In between are those writers who accept some suggestions, argue the toss with others to keep the words as they originally wrote them, and compromise by offering alternatives for other suggested changes. It’s generally a pleasure to work with these writers – they’re attached to their words, offer sound reasons for the changes they want to keep (even if I don’t always agree with those reasons and don’t always accede) and in offering compromises for suggested changes, they’re agreeing with the need for editing, but putting those changes into their own words and style. That’s really your ideal author to work with. The first kind of author I mentioned – the ones who fight every change almost by instinct – are the worst to work with. (Unsurprisingly.) They’re also rarely the best writers – the best writers can usually spot changes that make their work better when they see them, and will either accept those changes or offer their own versions as alternatives. Or they will argue their case convincingly for why the work was better the way they wrote it in the first place. And sometimes they’re right. But usually this kind of conversation will then lead onto ‘yes, I see this now, how about if you change that bit earlier to make that clearer’, or similar. It’s a conversation; a collaboration. And that’s the ideal balance, I think.

On the other hand, while there are writers who’ll resist change as a defensive or possessive measure, there are also editors who’ll make changes not to make the work better, but to make it read as they would’ve written it. Which is quite a different thing. And that’s why writers who look critically at edits and can intelligently argue against any changes they see as changing their work in a way that changes what they’re trying to say, or changes their tone or style, are – in my view – the best and smartest writers. I see the main overall editing approaches as enabling editing (the best kind) and interventionist editing (the kind I mentioned earlier – where the editor makes the work read as they would’ve written it), with of course a huge grey area in the middle.

An enabling editor works with the writer to make their work the best it can be, aiming to help the writer achieve what they set out to do, and keeping to their writing style as much as possible. Gordon Lish was not, of course, an enabling editor. Those early Carver stories are almost co-authored by Lish! While I prefer to be an enabling editor, the kind of editing that’s appropriate depends on the work itself, the genre, the writer and the amount of time available. For me, I think fiction requires the most care in terms of keeping to the writer’s own style and aims. And if I’ve commissioned a piece – particularly if it’s a piece that’s part of a series – I’m a tougher (and more interventionist) editor. But then, I think if you’ve commissioned something specific, then you are, if not co-authoring, at least co-shaping and conceptualising it, from the start, and part of your job is to ensure that the writer meets your aims, or the aims and style of your publication.

I’ve done brutally intense edits on pieces with writers who’ve then thanked me for them – rare, but occasional. Then again, I’ve done quite minor edits with writers who have then argued with almost every tweak (also rare). I guess I drove them insane. There was one incident with a writer – also a friend – who wanted to use the phrase ‘pant-wettingly funny’ in his article, which I changed to ‘pants-wettingly’. He was really very attached to the use of ‘pant’ and we did go back and forth a few times on it. I refused to back down because you can’t spontaneously wet one ‘pant’ (it would require remarkable precision and planning, I’d think); he refused to back down because he really liked the sound of ‘pant’ rather than ‘pants’. I hand-balled it up to the editor above me to make the final decision. She backed me up and the author backed down. It was all done with grace and humour, but I think we both drove each other a little nuts during the process.

ALEC PATRIC

The New Yorker has been refining an American attitude from the 20s to the present day. We can applaud consistent contributors like Updike, Cheever and Beattie, but their careers were cultivated and their perspectives given focus through the editorship of The New Yorker. When The Paris Review emerged it introduced a European sensibility into American literature, but it was a development of what was still a clearly defined aesthetic. The consistent factor is people whose names are overlooked.

Our country lacks an Australian aesthetic and what constitutes a home grown attitude is becoming harder to define. You wrote about the different degree of involvement that comes when an editor commissions work and has an ‘aim and style’ for a publication. Have you seen any journals attempting to focus on the Australian voice and cultivate experiences unique to our people?

JO CASE

Definitely. I think that (almost by default), most Australian-based journals focus on developing new Australian literary talent, not so much in terms of trying to cultivate a particular style of writing that can be seen as ‘Australian’, but in terms of supporting and nurturing new Australian writers, both emerging and established. Publishing good local writing is the aim of most journals, I’d think, though some do have a particular focus on publishing international writers alongside local ones. (For instance, Ronnie Scott’s The Lifted Brow.)

I suspect that most journals are shaped more by the taste of its editors than by a mission to pursue and publish particular styles or aesthetics. They publish what they see as interesting, involving and exciting. What does happen is that influential journals – like The New Yorker and The Paris Review (and, I would argue McSweeneys) in the US, and Meanjin and Overland (and the Sleepers Almanacs, though they’re not technically journals) here in Australia – tend to influence the shape and aesthetic of the wider literary culture they’re part of. And this is, more than anything, because they provide a platform for new and emerging writers to be read and noticed, which enables them to hone their skills and build a career – and, sometimes, to be spotted and signed by publishers.

This means the aesthetics of the editors and journals who support local writers with publication early in their careers almost subconsciously start to influence what an ‘Australian’ aesthetic is – they become part of the Australian aesthetic. Sleepers, for instance, were instrumental in supporting writers like Karen Hitchcock, Kalinda Ashton, Patrick Cullen, Jon Bauer and Daniel Ducrou – all of whom have moved on to release novels or collections. That’s the thing – most writers don’t start off with a full-length book; they find their way and are noticed through shorter publications first.

I’m not, of course, saying that journal editors are the tastemakers of Australian publishing. But they do play a role.

Black Inc is one local publisher that seems to draw on its magazine and anthology arm – The Monthly and the Best Australian Stories/Essays – to great effect, and vice versa. There’s definitely an Australian aesthetic developing there: Black Inc. senior editor Chris Feik has commissioned a series of memoirs by talented writers who aren’t famous, but have terrific stories to tell and wonderfully distinctive voices. Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons, Craig Sherborne’s Hoi Polloi and Muck, Benjamin Law’s The Family Law. Arguably, Anna Krien’s book of reportage on the Tasmanian forest wars, Into the Woods, also fits into that series-of-sorts. That’s just one example – I see a similar curatorial thread running through Aviva Tuffield’s fiction list at Scribe (which includes some terrific domestic literary fiction with an edge as a consistent recurring theme within a varied list) or Sleepers’ fledgling fiction list, which consistently takes risks, from their first full-length book, Steven Amsterdam’s interlinked short-story collection set in an apocalyptic future, Things We Didn’t See Coming, to David Musgrave’s Glissando, an absurdist satire with a bush setting. I could go on.

To get back to your question, I think there are several attempts to cultivate distinctive Australian voices and capture unique Australian experiences in print, all happening separately and simultaneously, with plenty of crossover – by passionate local journals and publishers. The ‘Australian voice’ is incredibly varied, and that’s a good thing. Despite all the doom and gloom, and the very real and daunting challenges, I think the Australian book industry is a really exciting place to be right now.