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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. 

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