Vox: Nigel Featherstone
I need to be honest: I’m struggling. To be enthusiastic, that is. Enthusiastic with the Forum’s assumptions about the survivability of the novel, about the opportunities – or otherwise – presented by digital publishing. It just sounds tiresome, so it’s hard to care. I know, I know, I should care, because I write, I read, through Verity La I publish other people’s work, and I’m also a blogger, though saying it like that makes it sound just a little bit dirty. I should care because digital publishing is a cold, harsh reality, perhaps even the reality – to ignore the situation would be creative suicide. What’s also a cold, harsh reality is that we’re surrounded by so many entertainments – film, gaming, social networking, just to name a few – and reading is being pushed aside. But is this situation really new? Eminent Australian novelist Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) wrote early in her career that the average person was clearly more interested in going shopping for a new pair of stockings than sitting down with a good novel.
So perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we think.
Novels are still being written, they’re still being published, they’re still being reviewed, they’re still being read. Will an Australian novelist earn a fortune from their writing? No. Will they be able to support themselves from their writing? Highly unlikely, at least not in the financial sense. Will they need a job, one that may ultimately put pressure on their ability to create? You can bet your mortgage on it. But there isn’t anything new in this either. Down through the ages, writers – even those in the canon (a phrase that always makes me laugh) – have had day-jobs. Trollope infamously wrote between 5.30am and 8.30am before heading off to manage a post office. Larkin looked after a library during the day and worked on poems for two hours in the evening, before spending the rest of the night out on the town getting rat-arsed with his friends.
But I digress. Though perhaps I don’t digress at all.
What’s paramount to writers is the telling of stories, be they fiction, non-fiction, journalism, some crazy hybrid of all three. It doesn’t matter where these stories end up: in books, journals, newspapers; in e-books, blogs, or, dare I say it, on social media sites, the schoolyard of our modern lives. Perhaps there are more opportunities than ever for very good stories to find readers. Not long ago I read that a mega-star’s album, one by Madonna, say, can now be released on 120 different platforms. Perhaps good stories will have similar luck?
Recently, for the Canberra Times, I interviewed (via email) Mandy Brett from Text Publishing in Melbourne about the power and problems of writing and publishing novellas. Mandy, who agreed that novellas are inherently difficult, because the cost of creating them is the same as for novels but the demand is low, made an excellent point: ‘As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form. I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.’
I agree with Mandy, especially in terms of poetry. I can imagine publishers of poetry distributing work through websites: for a small price, readers can subscribe to a ‘feed’ of poems, perhaps one or two poems each week; every Sunday they can participate in an on-line forum about the poems that they’ve read, potentially along with the poet; at the end of the month they have the option of buying the book in the traditional format or in the electronic format, or both, or not at all. This is exciting! (I have to say that this idea is inspired by comments I’ve received from Verity La readers, who love how poetry pops up on their computers or laptops or smart phones – the poetry is coming to them, they don’t have to seek it out.) This model may also work for short-story collections, although I’m not so sure it’s appropriate for novellas and novels, as they’re probably best suited to the physical book or e-reader.
None of this matters, however, if the actual work is, as we say in Goulburn, fucked. If a story is worth writing and, by extension, worth reading, and is relevant to our lives, because it’s thought-provoking or entertaining or, sheesh, both, we will go out of our way to find them and read them. Writers, in other words, need to put their energies – every fibre of their being – into the creation of stories that matter, that might even be dangerous. The rest will sort itself out, as it always has.
To finish where I started: being honest.
Today I woke at 6am and, after showering and getting into an old T-shirt, a jumper with holes in it, tracksuit pants, and ugg-boots that make me walk as if I’ve shat myself, I fed the Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper and three chooks. Over a bowl of cereal, muesli, yoghurt and milk, I powered up the laptop and skimmed the headlines of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, and the Goulburn Post (the lead article: INSIDE THE NEW TARGET STORE).
With the newspapers done, I checked Facebook, saw that someone had posted a lovely comment on my meretricious link to the novella article republished on my blog, and took the trouble to drop information about Pan Macmillan’s new e-publishing venture, Momentum, so I thanked her for that. I checked out Verity La to see the latest magic publishing trick from my co-conspirator Alec Patric. Via Amazon I ordered a box-set of The Paris Review Interviews and reminded myself to go into Landspeed Records when I’m in Canberra later in the week to buy Patrick Wolf’s new album on CD.
I shut-down the laptop, put it back where it belongs – in the hallway linen cupboard – and made myself a coffee. With caffeine in hand, I went down to the writing room where I’ll spend the rest of the day.
I’ve written this rant using a Bic four-way biro and a sketch pad. On a steam-driven PC I’ll type it up, edit it, polish it, then transfer it to the laptop, then email it off. When I’m done I’ll write a piece on artist-in-residency programs for the ACT Writers Centre newsletter. With the brain and body sufficiently worded up, I’ll edit a short story that I’ve had brewing and consider where to submit it – sandstone journal or literary website?
At the end of the day, I’ll power up the laptop again, check my emails, see if I’ve got any paying writing gigs coming up. With the laptop back in the linen cupboard, I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to a record, yes, one of them vinyl things. I’ll enjoy the pop and crackle in the room, the wine in my head, and, above all, the stillness.
When the record is finished, and I’ve eaten a can of soup, and I’m sober again, I’ll see the day out with a book, a physical book, Francesca Rendle-Short’s magnificently loving Bite Your Tongue (to be published next month by Spinifex Press) and I’ll think about my own parents and siblings.
When in bed and eyes finally shut, all will be right with the world.
Because good things won’t stop happening.