‘A national scandal’: Australian authors take on ‘woefully underfunded’ literary sector | Arts Funding

The position of Australian literature as the country’s most underfunded art form is “a national scandal”, according to one of Australia’s leading writers.

Successive governments’ treatment of Australian writers is among the worst in the developed democratic world, according to Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan. The literary sector, he said, should separate from the Australia Council, which is the federal government’s main funding and advisory body for the arts.

“The Australian Council is a disaster for writers and for literature,” Flanagan said in his submission to the government’s national cultural policy, which is currently being drafted.

“Funding and funding policy within the Australia Council is dominated by the performing arts, the lion’s share of funding goes to performing arts bodies and it is essentially an arts granting body a spectacle. It is time for it to be recognized as such, and for literature to part with it.

Helen Garner, Kate Grenville and Charlotte Wood weigh in

The book industry’s undervaluation of $1.7billion is a common thread running through many of the more than 1,000 submissions the Labor government has received, as it prepares to release its new National Cultural Policy by the end of the year.

It’s a concern expressed by fellow writers Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Charlotte Wood and Stephen Sewell, who wrote in their memoir: “The Australian Council has overseen the closure of the Australian mind, as it has been reduced to a empty office with an answering machine. The last government encouraged us to be pigs at the trough. I hope this government can help us remember our humanity.

A submission from Macquarie University’s Department of Economics – authored by Professor David Throsby, Dr Paul Crosby and Dr Jan Zwar – identified the reduction in government support for the promotion of books and reading as the biggest problem. most urgent to which the national cultural policy had to respond. The Arts Law Center of Australia has described the literary sector as “woefully underfunded”, with Australian Council funding declining by 40% over the past decade.

In monetary value, literature is the least funded art form through the Australian Council, having received just $5 million in support in the financial year before the Covid-19 pandemic plunged the entire cultural sector in turmoil.

That same year, music received $10.6 million, theater $14.1 million, and visual arts $12.7 million.

“Yet books inspire stories through all of these art forms,” noted Stella Award winner Charlotte Wood, whose latest book The Weekend was selected for film in July, with a stage adaptation in the works for the Belvoir St. Theatre. In his memoir, Wood pointed to the “vast inequity” in literature funding, which had reduced even Australia’s most respected writers to living on or near the poverty line in recent years.

Writers are crucial primary producers of Australian culture, be it film, film, theatre, opera or journalism, she said.

“Without writers, there is no publishing industry, no bookstore industry, no literary agents, no book reviewers or printers, no book and arts festivals mixed races attracting tourism in off-season regions.

“Primary producers in agriculture and mining are being offered subsidies, incentives and business development opportunities, but none of that is available to us; instead, we are offered the smallest possible – and decreasing – proportion of federal arts funding.

Both Garner and Grenville’s submissions acknowledged the government grants and scholarships they received early in their careers in the 1970s and 1980s, which helped cement their status as successful writers.

“Without the help I received, my work would have been hasty and superficial, and my professional life more difficult and more painfully fragmented,” Garner wrote.

“The funding I received from the Literature Board [of the Australia Council] when I started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it gave me weeks and months of free time for the broad and deep reading that every writer must do.

Grenville said the sharp decline in support for writers over the past two decades meant a corresponding decline in job growth, economic activity and national identity.

“This decline means everyone is worse off,” she wrote.

“It’s easy to take for granted that we can walk into a bookstore and choose from a huge range of books that reflect our own lives and our own sense of ourselves as Australians. But it is a fragile privilege. This didn’t happen before there was government support, and it will wither on the vine unless governments provide adequate, reliable, long-term support.

“The writing community needs a cutting edge body”

Flanagan told Guardian Australia that the Australian Council’s past failure to lobby on behalf of writers and publishers was reason enough for Australian literature to be taken out of the council’s purview.

Finding that Australians paid up to 35% more for books than American readers, the Productivity Commission in 2015 recommended that the Turnbull government lift parallel import regulations on foreign books. At the time, writers such as Flanagan and Christos Tsiolkas – along with the majority of publishers and the Australian Society of Authors – argued that lifting the restrictions would destroy territorial copyright for Australian authors and their publishers. , and would force the local industry to compete with a deluge of books from overseas, via online behemoths like Amazon.

The restrictions were ultimately not lifted, but the debate, Flanagan told the Guardian, exposed the Australian Council’s ineffectiveness in stepping in and defending writers. He said Australia’s literary sector needed to form its own peak national body to lobby governments directly – in the same way Screen Australia lobbies for the country’s entire film and television industry, independently of the Council. Australian.

“The writing community needs a body that is separate from the Australian Council and that represents their interests to government,” he said.

In a statement provided to The Guardian, Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette said:

“The Australia Council understands the vital importance of Australian literature… [which] underpins creative activity in multiple art forms. We continue to advocate tirelessly for increased investment in Australian literature.

Flanagan also called for a fixed book price system, which works successfully in more than a dozen countries in Europe and prevents big operators such as Amazon from offering deep discounts on new titles in a market where small independent sellers are not able to compete.

“A fixed book price would be the most effective method of ensuring the growth of Australian publishing,” he said.

Re-prioritizing the humanities

Another recurring suggestion in many submissions was to reverse the previous government’s increase in the cost of humanities degrees, which became more expensive under the guise of a ‘job ready’ banner.

According to a memoir from the Australian National University’s Research School of Humanities and the Arts, the Morrison government’s prioritization of STEM degrees over humanities has devalued the importance of arts and culture in Australia.

Author Richard Flanagan: “The writing community needs a separate body from the Australian Council.” Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The ANU also argued that tying government research grants to efficiency dividends was an inherently flawed system.

Under the federal government’s Australian Research Council (ARC) scheme, proposed research projects must demonstrate their potential to engage with industry to meet efficiency requirements.

But under the previous government, the definition of ‘industry’ explicitly excluded arts and culture, corroding the value of public perception of the arts and culture sector by relegating it to the status of a ‘hobby’. as opposed to “real work” done in the “real world”.

The leveling of the field for access to research fellowships was also highlighted by University of Western Sydney literature and creative writing professor Anthony Uhlmann, who noted that under the current ARC scheme, only 70 % of recommended scholarships in literary studies were approved for 2022, compared to 98.9% of projects overall.

On average, there was nearly 30 times more chance of a scholarship in literary studies being turned down than in other fields of research, he said.

Submissions to the national cultural policy closed at the end of August. A collection of review panels and an expert advisory group, which counts Australia Council Chief Executive Adrian Collette among its members, sift through the more than 1,200 submissions, Arts Minister Tony Burke, promising a new cultural roadmap by the end of 2022. .

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