What is the future for literary review in Australia?

Posted on July 14, 2012

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The Fairfax media group has been in the press quite a bit lately. This coverage has primarily been about the attempt by mining-heiress Gina Reinhardt to basically force the Fairfax Board to give she and her allies three seats on the Board and editorial hiring-and-firing control, in defiance of the Board’s existing stance of editorial independence. To the Board’s credit, they have to date refused to bow down to that pressure of someone who rather obviously has ulterior motives behind her move. Anyone who thinks it is merely an investment decision by Hancock Prospecting is kidding themselves but that has already been extensively covered elsewhere.

In other circumstances, the real Fairfax story would have been its financial difficulties but these do not make nearly as dramatic reading as that of the Reinhardt push. Fairfax announced not long ago that 1,900 jobs were to be lost across the group. One of the impacts has now been announced. At the Canberra Times, the literary editor’s job has been canned and all book reviews in the daily newspaper for Australia’s capital, are to be simply taken from existing reviewers in Fairfax publications in Melbourne and Sydney.

Now I can hardly blame the Fairfax group for needing to rationalise things on a purely economic basis. But there are some other quite noticeable flow-on effects, externalities to use a term from my old economics background.

In global terms, Australia is still a relatively small fish with a population of a bit over 20 million. There are a limited number of large metropolitan papers with literary reviewing. By reducing the reviewing to merely that of Melbourne and Sydney, the review of literary matters has been significantly reduced. The critical pool of information being made available to the public is therefore also reduced ie the opinion of an even more reduced pool. This also means in practical terms that with fewer books being reviewed, details of fewer books will be going out there to the public. This is bad news for all authors and literary consumers.

There is yet another aspect – what type of literature is now going to be reviewed? Perusal of the literary pages of either Sydney Morning Herald or The Age, the two main mastheads of Fairfax, sees a distinct preference for what I like to call Serious Literature. This Serious Literature is not necessarily the popular literature that actually sells. The concept most definitely does not include genre fiction – crime, sci fi, fantasy, horror, and romance. While the odd one may be reviewed, that is an exception rather than the rule. The Canberra Times, in part due to the efforts of reviewer Colin Steele, did see genre fiction being reviewed to an extent – perhaps not enough to keep the genre authors and fans as happy as we would like, but it was occurring. With this cutting of Canberra-based reviewing, a source of genre-review is gone. Please do not think I am entirely opposed to Serious Literature. For example, Tim Winton’s literary ability as a wordsmith puts me in awe. But, rightly or wrongly, it isn’t necessarily the style that I wish to read for pleasure. And I am sufficiently self-aware to realise that I sure as heck don’t have his stylistic abilities in my own writing.

Now I am sure that there will be those out there who are already saying “well all you need to do is get your reviews into the Melbourne and Sydney press.” However Fairfax are in a cost-cutting mode. There is no way that they are going to expand literary pages to increase the amount of reviewing, for the simple reason that this means more expenditure.

There are one heck of a lot of books being published every year across the world. Australian authors are competing in a pretty tight market. Having your work reviewed is a way of generating sales. By reducing the total amount of significant reviewing, Australian authors therefore have even fewer opportunities for review. And the statistics reveal just how poor a return the overwhelming majority of fiction authors in particular actually make from their writing. The JK Rowling’s etc with the headline-sized advances and royalties are very much the exception. So this move by Fairfax reduces the amount of local content being covered and Australian authors will find themselves in increased competition to try and get their product covered.

Yet another externality rears its nasty little head – gender representation. The disparity between coverage of female and male authors respectively has been a real issue. Reducing the amount of reviewing merely reduces the opportunities to ensure this gender disparity – intended or not – can cease to become a matter of concern. Perhaps even more concerning was that in response to a quite reasoned and sensible blog post by author Tara Moss which discussed this issue, one Cameron Woodhead responded with ” this is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me” – and Mr Woodhead’s claim to fame – a book and theatre reviewer for The Age. When I politely asked Woodhead a question by a responding comment to that blog, he was quite rude and disparaging.

Uh oh.

The primary reason for Fairfax’s financial difficulties was the Board’s failure about ten years ago to realise the impact of increased online news reporting and advertising. The ‘golden stream’ of classified adverts became increasingly lost to companies on the Internet. It is hard to see how that lost ground can ever be recovered. Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd were similarly caught out but have had the greater size and disparity to cover that loss by other means. Not so Fairfax even though it is the second largest media operative of this type in Australia. Yet finger-pointing about whose fault it was does not address the simple economic reality in face of falling revenues to cut costs otherwise we could all wave bye bye to Fairfax.

So just how do we go about addressing the damaging impact arising from Fairfax’s self-preservation tactics? Unfortunately I do not have an immediate answer. But it does strike me that perhaps there is a role for government here in funding or subsidising increased literary reviewing and coverage? How about the ACT government subsidising this sort of coverage in the Canberra Times? Or a federal scheme for the press in general seeking to retain, replace or even increase these opportunities for literary reviewing and coverage.

Before closing, I would like to give a shout out to the literary editor at the Canberra Times, Gia Metherell. Gia has been a strong supporter of the arts in Canberra, particularly in coverage of not just national literature but also the strong Canberran literary scene. Gia’s position has been declared surplus to requirements under the cost-cutting. So it’s goodbye to Gia and thank you for your efforts. Similarly, Colin Steele, a long-time reviewer who was indeed prepared to cover genre fiction, shall similarly be lost to reviewing, along with the rest of the reviewers producing content from Canberra – a perfect example of the resulting loss of critical reviewing coverage. Frankly speaking, it’s a major bummer.

It is a sad day for authors and readers as well as those who are losing their livelihoods.

Now if you have an opinion on what I’m blathering about or even just feel like saying hi, then don’t be afraid to leave a comment or post something to me via Twitter or Facebook. I don’t bite – at least not always.

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Posted in: Other, Review