Not Without Honour

The most notable thing about the Australian book industry is just how small and isolated it is. There are only a handful of major publishers (mostly Australian operations of larger UK and US houses) and the smaller publishers are very, very small.

With only 20 million inhabitants and a serious reading population much smaller than that, there simply isn’t the critical mass that would allow independent and new talents to find a foothold. And “making it” in Australia doesn’t equal “making it” in practical terms — things like reaching a large audience and earning a living from writing. The number of local authors with any substantial profile can be counted on a couple of fingers.

Australia does not have as well-developed systems for nurturing young authors as North America or Europe. Our literary journals are small and generally conservative. Our creative writing schools do not have high profiles, nor are their links with the global publishing industry very strong.

Even to achieve success and recognition from local critics, writers are often expected to gain overseas validation. Our biggest cultural and literary icons are usually those who have found success in the wider world. To be simply a local taste is to be perceived as a B-lister: maybe good for a trashy read, but not enough for real critical acclaim. It’s probably unfair, but it’s hard not to see it as the difference between an Olympian and the winner of the Upper Bradfield Little Athletics U14 long-jump.

An interesting case study is young Australian writer Max Barry. American readers are actually more likely to have heard of Barry or read one of his books than his fellow Australians. Even though Barry is Australian born-and-bred and even lives in Melbourne, he is only belatedly receiving some attention in his homeland.

I came across Barry with his 2006 novel Company, an offbeat corporate satire inspired by Barry’s time with Hewlett Packard. It was a funny, if imperfect, novel and it pointed to an exciting new talent.

by Max Barry
Scribe Publications
March 2008, 304 pages

Except that it wasn’t so new — because Barry had already published two novels in the US, Syrup and Jennifer Government, both mostly unnoticed in Australia. In fact, Scribe Publications has just re-issued Syrup for the Australian market, a mere 9 years after its first publication, in response to the success of Company.

Barry didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. As an aspiring writer with a populist bent, why would you bother “paying your dues” in Australia, where the most you could expect would be a short run with a niche publisher with your book stocked in three shops?

Yet he had an option that many local writers do not have — the advantage of writing American-themed books, rather than idiosyncratically Australian work. Sadly, a lot of writers telling Australian stories are going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Australia is not exotic enough for publishers to see escapist potential, but is too foreign to be an easy sell.

In that sense the Australian industry serves its purpose by keeping alive our national tales and experiences. But there will always be the suspicion that those who don’t sell well offshore don’t quite have what it takes.