Imagining a Nation of Readers

Written by Siana Einfeld, visual arts teacher and Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing student at The University of Melbourne. Her favourite isolation activity is dancing when no-one is watching.  

It is said that imaginative and boundary-pushing literature usually does not fare well from a commercial perspective. Mark Davis outlined this phenomenon thirteen years ago in his article The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing, where he states ‘publishers say there is no harder sell in the world of books these days than literary fiction’.

During the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, I attended the Boisbouvier Oration where this topic was explored. The oration was delivered by Ivor Indyk, Giramondo publisher and Whitlam Professor at Western Sydney University. Indyk was then joined by award-winning author Alexis Wright, to discuss the current state of Australia’s literary landscape. While it was a wonderful and enlightening event, it was disheartening to hear just how few copies are sold – even when titles have prominent awards attached to their name.

Despite the depressing monetary outcomes for a majority of literary titles, Melbourne is known as a City of Literature. The city hosts north of fifty writers festivals, with new ones cropping up every year. Melbourne is home to a plethora of literary journals and Indie bookstores. Writing competitions have become a sport for those who would rather flex a biro than a bicep. These opportunities provide a springboard for locals to expose their work ­– a tapestry of tales that enrich the nation.

And yet with competing modes of entertainment including Netflix, social media and even colouring books, we end up in a situation where reading revolutionary writing is being relinquished for screen time and the like. As Ivor Indyk stated, many enormously talented authors sell less than 300 copies. I can only hope other publishers taking risks on powerful literature are selling more.  

The average salary for a full time writer is $13,000 a year; hardly enough to keep the lights on. Selling 3000 copies of a novel is seen as respectable – yet when factoring in the retailer, publisher and (possibly) agent cut, that doesn’t leave much for the author. It is deeply concerning that our society is in a position where only the best selling writers can support themselves.

In April 2019, on the podcast The Minefield, hosts Waleed Ally and Scott Stevens were joined by award-winning author Christos Tsiolkas to examine the question, is literary fiction indispensible to the moral life? A fascinating discussion ensued. Stevens also noted the precipitous decline in the buying of literary fiction, with sales dominated by memoir, current affairs, self-help and the kind of fiction that contains goodies and baddies – where things are ‘tied up in a neat bow by the end’. The three also discussed what it is that only literary fiction can bring to a moral life, that can’t be brought in by any other means – and unravelled the idea that it is through the hard work of reading into another’s interiority. Tsiolkas explained that for him powerful fiction reveals that ‘these great historical or personal tragedies – you could find yourself on the wrong side – or conflicted.’ Stevens cited the beautiful middle-grade novel RJ Palatio’s Wonder, an astounding book that shows us the humanity behind characters that ‘in a lesser novel we would see as moral monsters’.

If literary fiction is not being widely engaged with, and at the same time is indispensible to a moral life, that could go far in explaining how we have ended up in a society where domestic abuse is rife; where our treatment of close to 1000 refugees found to have a legitimate claim for asylum, demonstrably inflicts mental and physical pain; where disrespect for our environment is evident in our climate change policy, where Australia is ranked the worst-performing of 57 countries according to the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index. The list goes on. If literary fiction is the only way we can gain a comprehensive, powerful and complex understanding of the human experience, the question now is how to get more people engaging with it? Ideally, a love of literature starts in utero and is nurtured all the way to adulthood. Knowing that this is currently unrealistic on a wide scale, it must be up to the education system to ensure we are a nation of readers.

An aspect (on a long list) of our current education system that erodes at the fabric of our society is that those qualities that cannot be easily measured, such as compassion, are inherently not valued. While a student’s reading comprehension level can be assessed and measured, the value gained from a book that changes their outlook on their own humanity might not be immediately visible. In his 2016 article, Thriving societies produce great books – can Australia keep up?, Nathan Hollier also drew this connection between the strength of book sales and social equality:

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most enlightened nations in the world, with the highest literacy rates; the best outcomes on a range of social measures – from equality to social cohesion to education and health – and populations who work relatively shorter hours for relatively more money, also have the strongest book publishing and selling businesses.

So while teachers are blamed for the decline in NAPLAN results, perhaps it is actually how society-at-large views literature that is causing the fall in literacy outcomes. The pressure on teachers to demonstrate their value increases (ultimately negatively impacting the quality of their teaching), while the federal government simultaneously makes it harder for humanities scholars to prove their worth financially, sending the message that  “the government does not regard cultural matters – questions of historic, literary, philosophic, artistic or social value – as of public significance”.

In May 2019, on the podcast The Garrett, host Astrid Edwards spoke with Maxine McKew and Larissa McLean Davies professors from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. The three spoke at length about the importance of exposing students of all ages to Australian literature in schools. Larissa explained it simply:

The stories we tell ourselves are the stories we imagine for ourselves. So if we are not exposing our students and our young people to a range of Australian literature, then the way that they can imagine themselves as Australians is going to be limited by that. So we want both the rich heritage of Australian literature; we want to expose students to the ways in which Indigenous texts and migrant texts all impact on every single person’s individual story.

Maxine also talks of the paradox between the lively publishing scene, fuelled by independent bookstores and the public celebration of Australian writing through awards and festivals, while in our schools we see an ‘impoverishment in this area’. They go on to explain the painful reality that students are leaving school without being exposed to the best of Australian writers.

Texts are selected by a group of experts who base their decisions on specific criteria. But within that list, schools choose the texts they will study. So despite knowing how crucial it is to read diverse texts with diverse identities, schools keep returning to the ‘tried and true’ titles. In this high stakes assessment system, the resources for tried and true texts are well established, and there are countless examples of top mark essays available to regurgitate in an exam. According to Larissa and Maxine, there is the perception that taking up an Australian text is risky. The mind despairs.

When young people choose to read for pleasure, another tragedy is unveiled. Despite a vast collection of critically acclaimed Australian Young Adult literature, Australian publishers still struggle to compete with the international behemoths that dominate the market. In 2015, when the Australian Library Information Association (ALIA) released its list of ‘most-borrowed’ books, it was found that of the ten YA titles, only two were written by Australian writers. As YA author Ellie Marney points out, this ‘means that local teenagers are passing over quality YA literature because the sheer volume of publicity for overseas fiction, with movie tie-ins and posters on buses, makes less well-publicised local voices hard to hear’. This insight prompted the grass-roots campaign #LoveOzYA that champions local stories.

This hashtag has gained traction by making the issue prominent in the minds of gatekeepers including teachers, librarians and booksellers, but the fact remains that ‘for every Australian title on book shelves, it is estimated nine others are buy-ins from the United States and Britain’. In fact, in 2019 the ALIA ‘most-borrowed’ list for the category YA did not include any local authors.

The issue for high school English educators is that the titles on the text list are aimed at an adult audience: ‘Many teachers have come to acknowledge that the reality of teaching the classics is similar to the reality of trying to teach a pig to sing: It does not work and annoys the pig’. As YA titles would have a higher chance of engaging students, mandating their place on the year 11 and 12 list would possibly see students valuing literary fiction long after they graduate.

And while the truth remains that teachers struggle to get their students to read, the future of literary fiction remains bleak – and along with it a depth of empathy that should underpin our society. Literature has to compete with forms of entertainment that are passive and demand far less of our patience. If diverse, quality, young adult literature is mandated curriculum for all high school students, combined with the creation and implementation of engaging – even thrilling – classroom resources, more young people will be convinced that reading is a worthwhile recreational activity, and indeed necessary to gain understanding of the human experience through slipping into another person’s skin. In order for literature to play its part in affecting social change, it is imperative that curriculums deliver an appealing segue way into a lifelong relationship with storytelling. I imagine that if Ivor Indyk stepped onto the stage at MWF celebrating astronomical sales of Australian books, we would be living in very different times.

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