Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me


Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

A small and very polite rant about the importance of writers to the world

Saturday, September 12, 2015

It is 4am, and I cannot sleep.

After lying awake for hours, I have decided to get up, sit down and write out what is troubling me. That is, after all, what I do best. Write.

Although I have been perturbed and disturbed by much that I see happening in our homeland – and, indeed, the world – for a long time, things came to a head for me yesterday at the National Writers’ Congress, held by the Australian Society of Authors at Sydney’s iconic Luna Park yesterday (and continuing on today). 

The audience and panels were composed of novelists, poets, academics, biographers, illustrators, literary critics, publishers, agents, editors, literary festival organisers, directors of writers’ centres, booksellers … and politicians. 

It was the address by one of these politicians – the Minister for the Arts, the Hon George Brandis – which has provoked me to rise in the darkness, long before the first weird cackle of the kookaburras, and write down some of what is bothering me.

From the moment the minister walked into the room, there was a marked increase of nervous tension in the room at the #NatWritCon.

The reason for this is quite simply that the Abbott government in which Mr Brandis serves announced quite a few months ago that it planned to remove $104.8 million from the Australia Council for the Arts, and redirect it into the newly created ‘National Centre for Excellence in the Arts’. A sizeable chunk of that money was lost by the Literature Board, the arm that helps support writers and literary organisatons. 

Hence the tension in the room.

It seems that the money will be spent at the discretion of the minister and his advisors. But we don’t really know. Months of anxiety and uncertainty have seen no clear direction from the government, and little engagement with those most affected by the cuts – the artists themselves.


(The Minister for the Arts, the Hon George Brandis - I put one photo of him looking mean and one photo of him looking dreamy and artistic and approachable, in the interests of being fair. He looked neither of these things on the day, but the photo I took on the day was too blurry to use, perhaps because my hands were shaking with the force of my emotions.) 

If only the Australian Minister of the Arts had stepped up on to the podium, faced his audience, and said, ‘I know you are all upset by these sudden changes to the arts funding systems in Australia. I know you are all anxious for the future. I want to reassure you that I understand your concerns and will do all in my power to address them. I am here today to open a dialogue with you … to hear your fears and your ideas … to listen …’ 

But he did not. He got up, pontificated for a long while about all the politicians who had also written books (all were male, most were white, middle-aged and middle-class, and nearly all of them were dead), and then gave a predictable rant about the dumbing down of our culture in the age of twitter (I have to say that the subterranean and subversive twitter commentary on his speech was the only thing that stopped me weeping in rage and despair – every now and again an inappropriate snort of muffled laughter came from somewhere in the room, which must have puzzled the minister).

For some reason, strings of words beginning with ‘p’ went through my mind as I tried to listen through the waves of boredom and disappointment. 

Pompous … patronising … pretentious … and other words that I am too polite to repeat.

We were all polite. We listened respectfully. No one hissed or heckled, booed or berated him. When he had at last – thankfully! – finished, we all clapped courteously.  He allowed no questions, and did not stay to chat.

Like many writers, I spend a lot of time alone, listening to the voices of imaginary people, trying to create a fictional world, trying to make people I will never meet laugh and cry and catch their breath. I do not want to preach, or pontificate, or patronise. I want my art to do the speaking for me. 

However, I have decided that I have been polite for too long. It is time to step up and speak out. 

Storytelling is absolutely crucial to human culture. Speaking up, writing it down – this is how humans connect and communicate and learn and grow and share. It is how we make sense of this mysterious universe we live in. 

Ezra Pound wrote, ‘Man reading is Man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in his hands.’ Let us give Ezra the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he meant humans … (though perhaps he, like Brandis, was simply not aware that women read, write and, yes, vote these days. At least, in Australia, we do.)

So - humans reading are humans intensely alive. Humans reading – whether it be poetry or prose, biographies or blogs, tabloids or twitter – are humans learning, thinking, feeling, empathising. 

And this is true too of writing. When we write, we give shape to our thoughts, we find words to express our feelings, we give voice to our unique human story. Writers say what others cannot. 

The kookaburras are beginning to disturb the darkness with their loud insistent laugh. Soon the sun will rise on a new day. So let me say now what I would have liked to have said to the minister yesterday, if he had hung around to chat:

Hello, Mr Brandis. Thank you for coming & talking to us today. I do wish that you had shown us that you knew who we were and the work that we do. So many amazing Australian artists in that audience, and I suspect you have not read any of our work. But that's OK. We all know there are too many books and not enough time to read them all. (Perhaps you could have pretended, though. Just a little. To make us feel you know who we are).  But the Australian National Writing Congress is not about making us poor jobbing writers feel good about ourselves. It's about finding a way forward for the literary industry in a world that is changing faster than we can chronicle. And as our Arts Minister, you have a vital role to play. 

A vibrant, diverse and independent arts community is the single greatest contribution you can make to our society. You have a chance now to try and change the world for the better. Please don’t make a mess of it.

The world needs writers, whatever form they speak in (yes, even in gibes of 140 characters or less). 

And writers need your support.

Here are a few ideas to ponder: 

Literary grants to writers give them the most precious commodity of all. Time. Time to dream, to think, to play, to plan, to learn their craft and grow in the joy of creating their art. Many writers cannot make a living from their writing, and so many voices are stifled or even silenced. Please, support the writers themselves by having a wide variety of different types of grants, for artists at all stages of their careers. 

Grants are not the only way to help writers, however. 

Here are some of the possible strategies put forward at the congress:

  • allow aspiring authors to write while on the dole. Allow them to play, experiment, break rules, mash together genres, and find new ways of reaching an audience. Pay an established writer to mentor and advise them at regular intervals. I know there will need to be rules and regulations. Try and not allow them to shackle creative freedom. 
  • remove taxes on literary prizes. It seems strange that you can bet on a race at Randwick and pocket your winnings, but not do so after labouring for years to create a work of art that inspires and enriches our culture. 

  • Get rid of tax on income from writing, an initiative of the Irish government that I would love to see implemented here. This is actually my favourite of all the ideas put forward at the congress, because it would help so many writers at so many stages of their careers. I have never been given a literary grant and I have never won a literary prize that pays money. Most writers I know are in a similar position. To secure literary grants and remove tax on prize money would help only a very small portion of Australian writers. Releasing us from the burden of paying tax on our income from our creative work would make a huge difference to us all. Don’t worry. Most writers also earn income from a multitude of other sources, such as teaching, mentoring, reviewing, if not from day jobs. The government will still be able to wring some blood from our stones. And writers all do hours and hours of unpaid work, from talking to children at public libraries to reading and reviewing the work of other writers. We blog, we turn up at literary events and buy books, we write poems and post them on twitter, we create and nurture that culture of reading you say you desire. Being free of income tax on our writing would be a wonderful compensation for all the unpaid work we do (I know, I know, but a girl’s allowed to dream, isn’t she?)

  • Protect our copyright. Show the world that Australians care about our intellectual property rights. Fight piracy.
  • Protect our Educational Lending Rights (ELR) and Public Lending Rights (PLR), and implement Digital Lending Rights (DLR). Please. 
  • Help and support all those who work tirelessly and selflessly to promote writers and sell their work. Festivals, big and small. Writers’ centres. Bookshops. Literary critics. I don’t just mean by handing out money here and there, to whomever you happen to like that week. I mean, bring in real constitutional change to protect the Australian literary industry. You could, for example, remove GST on Australian books. Neither the US or the UK charge a federal tax on books (though some US states do charge a state tax.) You could charge GST on imported books. You could do something!

I do understand that every industry in Australia would love its products to be exempt from GST. I understand that the government feels it needs to stand firm, else the income stream from GST will slowly be eroded by all the people clamouring for their products to be free of it. But you must admit that books in Australia are very expensive. For many people, they are a luxury item. I feel passionately that books should be a necessity (and not just because I write them. I believe reading and writing are the very best way of changing the world for the better. Books can be a circuit-breaker for the cycle of poverty, famine, violence and crime that are among the worst of human ills. Books make us think better and feel more. They open our eyes, our minds and our hearts.)  

If you cannot remove GST on books, Mr Brandis, is there some other government initiative that will help make books easier and cheaper to buy? Without eroding the creators’ livelihoods? Please?

Perhaps you are already planning to do some of these things. If so, it’d be really nice to know.  

Because what you may not realise, Mr Brandis, is that many writers in Australia right now are angry and afraid. One woman at the congress yesterday said that all she felt was despair. I do wish that you had taken the opportunity to share with us some of your plans and strategies. I wish you had taken the time to stop and converse with us and listen patiently to some of our fears and fancies. There was no need to be afraid of us. Most of us are very polite.

Thank you for listening to me. I hope you have a great day!

Yours sincerely

Kate Forsyth 

PS: To all the other writers out there, I’d love to throw around other ideas of ways we can help and support Australian writers. Please feel free to make some (polite) comments and suggestions. 

Sean Williams commented on 12-Sep-2015 08:15 AM
Beautiful, Kate. Well said and heartfelt. Bravo!

Hopefully some on the government is listening.
Karen commented on 12-Sep-2015 08:42 AM
Brava, Kate! Thanks for this. Will most certainly share. YOu have given a voice to so many of our collective doubts, fears, hopes and realistic aspirations. Thank you.
Kim Wilkins commented on 12-Sep-2015 08:59 AM
A lovely thoughtful piece that is far too polite! You need to include, at the very least, an "Idiothole".

But seriously, this is a fabulous essay, Kate. X
MariA commented on 12-Sep-2015 09:14 AM
Bravo, Kate. Wonderfully said.
Wendy commented on 12-Sep-2015 09:59 AM
Thank you for your powerful words, Kate. Sigh, Wish my health hadn't thrown a spanner into my plans to go to the ASA conference. I would have absolutely loved being part of the twitter commentary. Your post reminded me of a quote of Le Guin's “The size of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are not are not permanent, and not universal, not necessary” (Le Guin 2004,(p. 230). I believe in the power of books to transform lives; in our divisive world, I believe books are more important than ever. Years ago I wrote: Books take us on unexpected and life-changing journeys. Writer, reader – the energy between text and mind continually exchanges the power of creativity – the possibility of connection, reverberation, of no longer hearing babbling from another human-being but the song they really sing" (2010). I will never stop believing this!

Le Guin, U. K. 2004. The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination. Boston New York, Shambhala ; Distributed in the United States by Random House.

Lucy Treloar commented on 12-Sep-2015 10:12 AM
Thank you so much for giving voice to so many. Sensational writing.
Glenda Larke commented on 12-Sep-2015 10:12 AM
Superbly said. And oh, how I wish I could be certain Mr Brandis would read it.
Satima Flavell commented on 12-Sep-2015 10:28 AM
Onya,Kate. These things need to be said, both in speech and in print, over and over again,until people (and especially politicians) get the gist of what writers and writing are all about.
Tony Shillitoe commented on 12-Sep-2015 10:54 AM
You have expressed the soul of writers and readers, Kate. Thank you. This deserves a public forum.
Rowena commented on 12-Sep-2015 12:13 PM
Well said, Kate. Do you watch Utopia, the political satire? I get the feeling that it is not far from the truth. The Gov makes a big announcement about cutting arts funding and handing the money over to the minister, but no one has written the policy of how this money is going to be handed out. Months later, Brandis gives a speech to the stakeholders which still has no policy details.
Stephen Dedman commented on 12-Sep-2015 12:13 PM
Brilliantly said, and congratulations on managing to remain so polite! This should be read not only by every Australian writer, but by every Australian voter.
Craig Cormick commented on 12-Sep-2015 01:06 PM
Kate - you can't let something that good not be sent to Brandis. Print it out in a letter and send it to his office. As official Ministerial correspondence it will then need to be responded to and even if it is passed to an official to reply to, the Minister generally signs the letters and asks for an overview of what they say.
Di commented on 12-Sep-2015 02:58 PM
Well said, you reflect what most of us think but few of us have time to write. I was at the Society of Women Writers 90th anniversary on Wednesday and it was a good reminder how hard women in particular have worked to earn the right to write. Seems for a supposedly progressive community we are heading in the wrong direction
Felicity Banks commented on 12-Sep-2015 08:24 PM
Yes. Time.

I have two kids, bad health, and a part-time job. My "free" time is divided into sleep, writing, and relaxing... but usually the relaxing is only happening because I'm having a panic attack and/or a migraine. Right now I'm making my migraine better-worse by forcing myself to finish a draft chapter of the book I'm currently working on... Worse because of the migraine, and better because if I wake up tomorrow knowing the chapter is done, that will make me a little braver when it comes to facing another relentless day.

And, of course, another draft chapter :)

Felicity Banks
Robyn Bavati commented on 13-Sep-2015 10:16 AM
Well done, Kate! You've just said exactly what I was thinking while listening to George Brandis. I'm pretty sure everyone there was thinking the same.
Nicole Murphy commented on 13-Sep-2015 05:18 PM
Fabulous work Kate. Having seen politicians speak at several conferences now I'm not surprised Brandis didn't actually speak to any of you either in the speech or individually. It sounds like some interesting things were discussed at the congress. Here's hoping Brandis sees this and thinks on it.
Elizabeth Ellen Carter commented on 13-Sep-2015 05:32 PM
I agree with some of your points and not others Kate and I hope you don't hate me for having a contrary opinion.

First of all I'm a big believer in keeping government out of my life as much as possible.

Once you start putting your hand out for taxpayer money, then government owns you.

I think the idea of making literary prize money (in fact all prize money) tax free is a fabulous idea. I can certainly endorse that.

Protecting copyright is another extremely valid way government can make a positive difference.

In fact, I rather like the idea of going back to 1914 when we didn't have personal income tax in this country, but that's another story altogether.

But... I disagree about letting people 'write for the dole'.

The majority of us have jobs we do to bring the money coming in (some lucky authors have supportive spouses who have agreed to be the primary breadwinner, so the writer can pursue their dream).

I know other people who have other businesses on the side (selling on eBay, making craft items for markets, tutoring, inventing things etc). They have to pay tax on their earnings, why should authors, musicians, actors, painters be any different?

Next is: by what criteria do we judge artistic merit?

How do we determine whether the butcher, the mechanic, the nurse, the farmer who have been 'forced to pay' (through compulsory taxation) get their money's worth out of their contribution to paying for (a hyperbolic and fictitious example) "Trendy McBeardy's avante garde reimagining of Black Beauty with post modern twist that breaks the bounds of cis-gendered het-normative patriarchal constructs".

As taxpayers, they're stakeholders in that work and therefore have the right to demand a return on their investment.

What form should that ROI take?

Heck, My grandmother is still miffed that her hard earned tax money went on 'that piece of rubbish Blue Poles' by Jackson Pollock that Whitlam bought in the 1970s!

Authors write for a number of reasons - personal enjoyment, because we have something to say, we believe we can make a sustainable career from it (or at least enough money to continue making it worth our while).

We bring our work to the marketplace, where people **of their own free will** can be patron of the arts by purchasing our books. There is no coersion as there is when you start demanding taxpayers subsidise your writing. People can buy and enjoy what interests them.

Thanks to the internet, we have a worldwide audience for our work -- people who take a chance on a new author and then fans who happily buy our next book. It is easier than ever for authors to keep government out of their business by, to paraphrase Shakespeare: 'neither a borrower (of taxpayer dollars), nor a lender (funding things through taxes that don't benefit the majority [the Common-Wealth] of Australians).

Thank you for reading to the end of this and seeing another side to the great arts funding debate.
Carol-Anne Croker commented on 13-Sep-2015 11:27 PM
great response Kate. Finally pleased to have missed attending the Nat Con and that my injured foot prevented me from flying to Sydney. I would not have been able to sit in that room and listen to hollow political rhetoric.

I have a radical idea. Maybe writers, editors, illustrators and all creative artists stopped sitting quietly and politely without boos, hisses or heckling. It seems our manners gets us nowhere with politicians. Why bother even inviting them to events such as these. They refuse to engage meaningfully. We need to stop fearing political backlash and speak out loud and proud, as you have done.

Thank you Kate
Julie Mattinson commented on 14-Sep-2015 07:52 AM
Excellently written article. As an aspiring author it was of great interest and benefit to read and understand the concerns we all face for the future. Well done Kate. Thank you for your voice.
Helene Young commented on 14-Sep-2015 01:30 PM
A wonderful piece, Kate.

Sadly a politician like Mr Brandis is unlikely to take anyone else's opinion to heart. It must have been excruciating to sit through his no doubt lengthy lecture...
Jacque Duffy commented on 14-Sep-2015 05:12 PM
Beautifully said Kate. I plan to share your words with all of the politicians I know in hopes your words will find many a way to reach the ears of Brandis.
Honey Brown commented on 14-Sep-2015 06:30 PM
Wonderful. Thank you Kate, reading this lifts my spirits.
Christine Johnson commented on 15-Sep-2015 10:57 AM
Brilliant Kate! The question now is - will anything change under Malcolm Turnbull as the new Liberal PM?
John Sorensen commented on 15-Sep-2015 08:31 PM
A fine article Kate, but mainly I just wanted to say I love the sound of Kookaburras in the morning. We get them on big trees behind the house here, and sometimes on the power lines looking right in my window as a I tappity-type at the PC early in the morning.

Post a Comment

Captcha Image

Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts



Blogs I Follow