THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT:
an interview with Laurie Steed
There used to be just one or two record stores you could go to find the good shit. This was before the Internet made everything instantly and eternally available. Guys like us got onto trains and walked the alleys of the city to find those good record stores and sometimes stood for hours, wearing dodgy headphones, listening to bands almost no-one had heard of outside of a mention in a music magazine that practically no-one had read. Music had already become an art form measured in millions and these obscure bands were looking for ways to make music that reminded a listener that it was, in fact, an art. Not an infinitely reproducible product marketed wholesale. From this independent scene rose bands like Nirvana, REM, The Smashing Pumpkins etc.
At which point we began looking again among obscure stacks and trawling through mags only a few hundred people in the world would ever read. Not because of a perversity that denied music when it became popular, but because there’s still the kind of music that reminds us that it can be something more than a catchy jingle between commercial breaks on the radio or an emotional cue in a film.
There’s an idea that you have to seek out the stuff that really makes you realise what music is. This is the spirit of independent art and it applies as much to independent publishing as it does to music. Perhaps you could share your thoughts on the subject and why you’ve been involved with organisations like SPUNC and continue to be a prime mover in small press promotion and publishing.
I couldn’t have put it better myself, Alec. We used to roam the streets, searching racks for something, anything to take us away from everyday domesticity and suburban streets near comatose at night. In Perth, there were two stores, Dada Records and 78 Records. Both would delight in stocking things that surprised you, excited you, and stretched your musical boundaries.
These days I still seek music, and when I find something truly special, I’m high for days. It’s as if I am connected to pure creative energy, something bigger than the crass commercialism that so often permeates contemporary society. Recent favourites are Josh Pyke’s Chimneys Afire and Eluvium’s 2007 album Copia; I lie down, close my eyes, and it feels like I’m listening to the world waking up.
Independent publishing, at its best, harnesses that spirit, and Black Inc.’s recent Best Australian Stories ten-year collection shows just how far we have come in that regard. Among the more traditional stories (some established authors are pretty much guaranteed their place in a collection such as this) are some of the most exciting stories I have read in years…and all of them started off in independent presses run by passionate, brilliant people. That’s something I never would have predicted even five years ago.
Working in independent publishing means I’m closer to the coalface. Having now worked on two literary journals, it’s been really exciting to see the talent emerge. Some authors (like Ryan O’Neill, Leah Swann and indeed yourself) have already gone on to greater success. Others, such as Bel Woods and Samantha Van Zweden are well on the way. Every time I work on a journal, I find new authors, new stories, and the rush is indescribable. Not all submitted stories are at a publishable level, but that’s part of the job. You get to choose the best, and sometimes you can work with the writer to make their story even better.
We can glorify that independent spirit but there seems to be difficulty in sustaining it for any length of time. Perhaps the problem is independent memory, which seems distressingly short term. There are writers like Molly Guy, Wayne Macauley and Gillian Mears that achieve a fair degree of success on the independent scene only to be almost entirely forgotten a few years later. That Best Australian Stories ten-year anthology for instance, is not selling anywhere near as well as the yearly anthology. Rather than reverence for this country’s Best of the Best collection, it’s more of a yesterday’s newspaper reaction. You’ve made it a personal mission on your blog to develop some long term memory but I’m wondering whether you can see a time when that independent spirit becomes widespread and we see the a literary equivalent to Grunge?
I think the possibility of such a culture is closer than we think. The biggest challenge, I feel, is to publish what’s great, as opposed to what’s important. Australian literature has produced some great writers but often the ones most heavily promoted are those that sell, rather than those that excel. Wayne Macauley is an excellent example. To my mind, Macauley is criminally underrated in Australia. He deserves to be featured on podcasts, his thoughts on writing dissected and passed down to the next generation. What happens instead is this strange indifference; it’s almost as if publishers are saying “but how do we sell this?” when sometimes the selling comes after a long period of promotion at the ground level.
The four largest publishing houses in Australia are based overseas, so have no interest in creating a literary culture. In Melbourne, we have a city of literature; other cities and regional centres are not so vibrant. Why is this so? It’s my personal opinion that at some point, the commercial side of publishing and the literary aspirations of Australia’s intellectual society dampened what really sells books, ideas, and indeed authors: compelling, engaging and entertaining stories, be they traditional narratives or those authors keen to experiment with the form.
The distinction here is vital; it’s all very well to celebrate that independent spirit in publishing, but it’s far more important to create a culture that promotes that independent spirit in its reading, buying and leisurely pursuits.
A varied literary culture is a vibrant one, and while devotion to literature is one thing, it’s an entirely different thing to be devoted to all aspects of a literary culture. This means performances, large-scale events like Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival, literary discussion, and most importantly, accessible, inclusive events (both virtual and real) that bridge the space between the writer and the reader.
A few states have already created some form of literary grunge movement, although they are by no means perfect. I’ve noted a divide between prose, poetry, and journalism, which, although natural, means good writing is harder to find once classified into its own particular subject, genre, or type of bookstore.
More dangerous than any funding cuts or government policies are public preconceptions that literature is somehow dull, indulgent, and irrelevant. In the US, there’s a far more reverent approach to writing; shows such as Def Jam Poetry challenge such stereotypical views, while the New Yorker and Selected Shorts podcasts mix prose and performance, creating a dynamite hybrid in the process.
Australian websites such as Literary Minded, Spineless Wonders, and Verity La do great things for this country’s literary culture. They create a virtual space that remembers and indeed reveres those writers taking risks with form and structure. They remind writers and readers that stories, first and foremost, should be an adventure. Somewhere between Peter Carey’s American Dreams and Ryan O’Neill, Australian literature lost its sense of humour. It started telling the same stories over and over again. In doing so, it lost a great deal of its relevance to an international readership.
I’d love to create a literary country, in the physical sense as well as the spiritual. Places that once inspired stories or poems could have quotes etched into their brickwork. Governments could buy ad space and post seven beautiful quotes about Australia, taking in both the past and its multicultural, increasingly gender inclusive present, seeing both the good and the bad and addressing what, as Australians, we would like to become.
It starts with an idea, that literature is worth fighting for and the belief that it’s possible to change our society. From there it grows, and people who’d previously felt segregated can form their own community, regardless of background or geography.
I recently lectured at RMIT and I looked out across the twenty or so creative writing students who had one fundamental question: How? They are often told that they need to publish in literary journals, win competitions, stay true and keep writing quality work, and eventually the publishers will notice.
It brought to my mind however an interview I did with Wayne Macauley for Verity La, because I was struck by how outstanding he has been in fulfilling and excelling on all these recommended paths—for well over a decade now. His answer to the question of why he hasn’t achieved recognition and success was to suggest that publishers were well beyond seeing or caring about any of the literary journals or the competitions. And it seems that commitment of concentrated time and profound talent are also negligible factors.
The only answer to that question of How, is to suggest that first there needs to be an understanding that the machine is broken. Publishers behave, not as cultural agents looking to develop and promote the resource that is their reason for being, but small business managers, desperately searching for ways to eke out profits from a product they have lost faith in. So if the machine is broken, is there a need to find new methods for producing and distributing cultural work beyond that industrial age paradigm? I’m wondering whether you’d agree with this perspective and how you see Australian literature developing for those hopeful students, asking our generation, how?
That’s another excellent question but one that’s difficult to answer. I certainly do not think the Australian publishing industry, broken or otherwise, can make or break a literary career.
I do think there’s a great divide between journals that truly help a writer’s journey and those that are seen as important steps towards publication, at least according to the tastemakers. I think there’s a similar divide between competitions that boost your ego and those that are actually considered important in the Australian literary landscape.
The history of Australian literature is a strangely global one. Take someone like Nam Le: he’s our biggest literary export and yet it’s with some irony that we track his history. He won the Truman Capote Fellowship to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2004, and from then onwards, for much of the time was writing on US fellowships and being published in Zoetrope. His first published story in Australia wasn’t until 2007 in Overland, and he subsequently appeared in Best Australian Stories in that year. The Boat was published the year after that, and the Australian lit community suddenly said “here’s our man! What a fine example he is of our esteemed literary culture!”
Steve Toltz is another example. His novel A Fraction of the Whole was rejected by a bunch of Australian literary agents before finally getting an American editor, Random House’s Mike Mezzo to read it. And Penguin Australia picked that book up after it was published in the US.
That same book, the one rejected by countless Australian literary agents, won the people’s choice at the NSW Premier’s prize and was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize.
Closer to home, I know of at least three writers who have been published in the “right” journals but had no luck securing a book contract. I also know others who have known people that edit the “right” journals, and through their literary contacts have met with far more success.
In these cases, Australian publishing has seemingly let quality writers down, and in Nam Le’s case, illustrated the ability to circumvent narrow interpretations of Australian literature. That said, there are many other Australian publishers and agents who have an equally broad, multi-faceted view of good Australian writing. Sleepers Publishing supported Australian writers Paddy O’Reilly, Emmett Stinson, Patrick Cullen, and Jon Bauer long before it was fashionable to do so. Agent Donica Bettanin guided Kate Cole Adam’s excellent Walking to the Moon to publication, and Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management was vital in securing Karen Hitchcock’s book contract with Picador.
In my mind, there has never been a better time to be a writer. When it comes to the how, there are certain things that seem to stand out in any successful writer’s biography: 1) regular writing over a prolonged period of time and regular reading in a variety of styles of genres, and 2) an obsession with people; their dreams, their fears, their beliefs, and their realities.
For publication, I would advise writers to think both locally and globally. Sure, it’s great to be published in Meanjin, Southerly or Overland if your style fits their general editorial style. If it doesn’t, then sending your work to them is tantamount to self-sabotage, unless you enjoy getting rejection letters.
There’s a world of literary journals, newspapers and magazines out there; if I can get articles on YouTube, bingo nights, and introducing yourself to a roomful of strangers published, then someone, somewhere wants your article. If my friend can get a story about Woody Allen and Tommy Lee Jones saving New York from pterodactyls not only published, but also praised by Arnold Zable, then someone, somewhere wants your story.
The key here is good writing and quality research prior to submission, and that is the responsibility of the writer. It is not up to Overland to tell you they don’t publish right-wing diatribes on the benefits of neo-liberalism, nor is it up to Island to tell you they rarely, if ever publish science fiction.
When it comes to producing and distributing your work outside of traditional channels, I say go for it, but with a couple of caveats: If you plan to self-publish digitally, know that it’s a crowded market, and it’s also filled with books that are badly written and poorly edited, and those that disregard cumbersome elements such as plot, theme and character development. Make sure your book isn’t one of them. Know also that there are reader preconceptions citing most of what I’ve written above as true of ALL self-published books.
It is possible to generate a groundswell of support for your title despite these preconceptions, and Matthew Reilly’s Contest, Euan Mitchell’s Feral Tracks and the Four Ingredients Cookbook are all examples of self-published titles able to generate such solid support. This method often requires a serious amount of self-promotion however, so it’s inadvisable if you’re at all averse to spruiking yourself.
Finally (and I realise this is a ridiculously long answer), I agree with you that we need to think outside of the industrial age paradigm. At the 2011 Emerging Writers Festival, Max Barry said that as writers, we’re competing not with other books, but with every other type of media. More to the point, he said that to dispute this fact was to potentially lose the next generation of readers, who are not reading anywhere near as much as generation X, who did not grow up with so many competing media vying for their attention.
I also read an excellent essay by Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, that literary journals took a long time to appreciate the ideological shift encouraged by online publishing. As publishers, they were thinking how to take a print product online, when they should have focused on the transformative potential when working with code, images, animation and such.
Writers need to be similarly open to reaching audiences in new and exciting ways or risk alienating potential readers. One of my favourite iPad apps of 2011 is Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain, which takes a traditional short story into the multimedia age. By using your fingers, you can “play” the story. As an avid reader and gamer, such a combination of both forms was both intellectually engaging and a whole lot of fun to play.
I’m not yet at Loyer’s stage of multimedia literacy. I still like being published in books, magazines, and print journals… but I’m aware this is my cultural baggage. I know that to remain relevant in the future, I will have to be willing to mix print publication with online opportunities.
Recent music/multimedia projects such as Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown and Danger Mouse’s Rome hint at the potential of new media storytelling. The New Yorker Fiction and Selected Shorts podcasts bring quality writing onto our iPods, but in time they will be eclipsed by even more audacious ways of reaching a digitally literate demographic no longer devoted to print, as we are.
As a writer, I am greatly excited by the thought of a culturally literate, multi-platform readership. For me, it’s all about honest, articulate voices surfacing in a sea of corporate propaganda. And yet, I also believe there’s the potential for these voices, our voices, to be both engaging and financially viable, if we only foster a society that maintains our own individual truths in the face of a dominant ideology, that works within capitalism as opposed to being solely about the selling of a product, person, or ideal.
It rarely falls to me to break news but I just discovered from reliable sources that Wayne Macauley is about to be published by Text Publishing. Moreover, that Text is going make a major deal about this hero of the literary underworld. Is this the exception that proves the rule or, to return to our original analogy, that independent spirit finally breaking through into the mainstream?
Well first and foremost, it’s great news for Wayne: while Black Pepper have long supported him, the deal with Text means he’ll be distributed and promoted nationally, and perhaps internationally thanks to Text’s relationship with Canongate in the UK.
If nothing else, it should give writers hope. Most writers of any consequence have had alarmingly long gestation periods, or if they had books published early, took a long time to master their craft. Tim Winton won the Vogel in 1981 when he was 21 years old, but to my mind, The Turning is his best work and was written much, much later. Other writers such as Patrick Cullen and Amy Espeseth took a long time to perfect their first books so as to be suitably proud of their work at the time of publication.
I think now’s a particularly good time for the independent spirit but also think it’s unwise for writers to leave their careers up to mainstream publishers. While they’re showing a lot more interest in independent writers, they are still larger publishing houses, with their own deadlines and sales targets.
The irony is that when pressed on how to get published, most local publishers say it’s best just to write a really good book. Here, notions of profile are unhelpful; many would be published in all manner of smaller literary journals and not be noticed; some would only be published in the best Australian journals and perhaps be noticed after a long gestation period; and some would bypass the system altogether and find luck overseas.
More important is that real love of writing, be it fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. It’s a love of making something the best you can make it, as Cate Kennedy did with her story Black Ice and Nathan Curnow did with his Ulrick Award winning poem Endtime. Wayne MacAuley has excelled at his craft for a long time now. Any recognition of such dedication and craftsmanship has got to be a good thing for literary Australia.