Friday, October 10, 2008

Australian literature's contribution to creative industries economy much more than performing arts or opera

In August, figures from Nielsen Bookscan (as reported by Melissa Kent in the Sun Herald) revealed that trade sales for books in Australia was worth $1, 250 million for the previous year. This represented sales of 63 million books, and an increase of 7.5 per cent on the previous year.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported trade sales of $819.6 million for 2003-04, the last period for which it collected information, with total book sales (including educational books) of $1,353.2 million. Since educational books are mostly excluded from the Nielsen Bookscan figures because the system doesn't pick up sales from educational suppliers, the two data sources appear to corroborate that there has been an increase in sales of books in the trade sector. It is impossible to see what is happening in the educational sector, though.
Nielsen Bookscan data doesn't break out data for Australian books, but the ABS data shows that Australian fiction, non-fiction and children's books (excluding educational titles) had average sales of $438.5 million each year over the four year period 2000-04. This is a major contribution to the Australian creative industries economy and of course a significant proportion of the sales of books in Australia.
Five of the top 10 Bookscan bestsellers in the 2007-08 period were Australian. One, 4 Ingredients, sold over 600,000 copies (this is a self-published title). Another was Underbelly (John Silvester and Andrew Rule, Floradale Press) which had an appeal to the difficult 18-30 year old male demographic.
Unhappily, only one Australian film, Happy Feet, was in the to 50 films for the same period.
My point? Well, funding for Australian literature is pretty paltry. In 2003-05, the Australian Government allocated only $27.6 million to Literature and print media. This included funding for lending rights of around $17 million and amounts offered in grants by the Australia Council. This amount is dwarfed by the enormous sums that flow to major performing arts and opera, arts forms that often fail at a cost recovery basis and offer none of the economic returns that can be seen with literature.
Australian literature is making an enormous contribution to our creative industries economy and this is largely unrecognised. This should not be so.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Protocols for the depiction of children in art

Frank Moorhouse has entered the debate about protocols for the depiction of children in art, which the Australia Council has been asked to prepare for the Rudd Government. Frank stoutly defends artistic freedom, and he is right to do so.
The creation of artistic works should not be subject to dictates from above. Otherwise, we go down the path of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany where artists were able to exist only because they abided by the script given to them by their governments. Artists in countries with totalitarian governments (even Singapore I am reliably informed) still face opprobrium if they risk breaking the official political line.
But at the same time we have to recognise that artists do not exist in a cosy universe where they are, or even should be, totally free to do as they wish. Artists live in the real world. Their art reflects that world. That's how they connect with their audiences. If artists are to make a living from their art, they must make that connection. When they alienate their audiences, not only do they lose the opportunity to live from their art they also lose the ability to communicate the artistic concepts about which they feel so strongly that they must create art.
Successful artists, and by that term I mean artists who not only live from their art but are respected by their peers, balance this well. They may well be confrontational with some of their themes and messages, but they bring their audiences with them in a dialogue. At the same time, they may also offer solace, comfort or something as simple as pleasure. It is not, after all, the artist's duty to challenge everything.
So what does all this have to do with protocols governing artists dealing with children? Do these represent some growing puritan approach to the creation of art? In many respects, I believe they do, but I do not hold with the view that only artists can decide what is appropriate for art.
Art as I have said reflects the real world and the real world offers many impediments not only to artists but also to all the rest of the people who live in it.
We accept the constraints of the law. We might argue that these constraints should be changed, and at times it is necessary to stand up to the law and force it to be changed, but overall most of us, even artists, abide by the conventions we have decided work in our community. For example, we need to abide by the rules of the road in order to move around successfully. When we don't, we crash, artists as much as anybody else.
So do we need special rules for artists dealing with childen? I argue that if we are going to have protocols for dealing with chidren, let's make sure these protocols do a real job and really protect our children. If we are going to have them, they should be much more extensive than proposed.
They shouldn't be aimed only at artists. They should be community standards we embrace to save our children from all forms of exploitation.
For example, they should ban the use of children in advertising. They should ensure tobacco products and drugs of any description (including alcohol) should never be advertised in a manner that means children might be exposed to such advertising.

But that's not enough -- obesity is a bigger problem in school playgrounds than artists on the prowl for models. Children should be prevented from exposure to food products that are nutritionally unsound. Even better, let's ban McDonalds, KFC, Coca-Cola, Dominos, Burger King, and all the rest. All of these companies target children with unhealthy products. If we ban these companies, our children won't eat themselves fat.

And it is equally important that no sport be reported or broadcast -- too many children injure themselves on the sporting field. Sport also encourages unhealthy, aggressive behaviour. We don't want that.

That's just for starters.
There are many, many more things we can do to protect our children from bad influences like food, sport, advertising and, oh yes, art.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Teaching Australian Literature in Australian Schools

There's been a good deal of discussion about this in the Australian newspaper and on the ASA website, and I have discussed the issue here before.
Let's face the fact that, as a post-colonial country, Australia is still strongly influenced by the central points of English-language culture. From about 1850, those points have been the United Kingdom and the United States, though Australia remained relatively immune from "American" English-language culture until World War II and after.
Remember, Hollywood didn't even have such a massive impact before then. Much of our earliest cinema was home grown. Oh for such simpler times.
It is sensible that our schools teach using cultural materials emanating from the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also sensible for them to use cultural materials from Australia's Indigneous cultures as well as the many other cultures from which the children in our schools come. This is all representative of where we have come from and what we are, a bit of a mongrel mix.
However, the most unifying and central themes for educating young Australians come directly from Australian culture, that unholy mess that has evolved here since this timeless land has been named "Australia". Our literature exemplifies and demonstrates those themes best because there is more of it than other forms of narrative. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough Australian films and television programs to fill out a curriculum. That's not so for poetry, novels, non-fiction, biography and so on. There's plenty there.
A book like Narrelle M. Harris' The Opposite of Life (Pulp Fiction Press), which I mention in a post below, would be a popular choice for girls in Year 10. The fact that Harris, like Stephanie Meyer, writes about vampires, wouldn't worry me as a teacher. I might also introduce them to the distinguished history of this genre. If my class could devour this book, enjoy it, write their own vampire stories and maybe even consider how Harris has used Melbourne as a setting for a vampire story, I'd be a satisfied teacher.
And I reckon most of the girls would be satisfied readers, too. And some of the boys, but as for the rest, maybe I'd need Garth Nix. Or John Marsden. There's no shortage of choices.
And I could even have my students considering a range of media and narrative options without ever using an American or British resource.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Power to the people: Legacies of 1968 and ASIO

On 2 October, I spoke at the conference "Power to the People: Legacies of 1968". It was held at the University of Wollongong and I was privileged to be able to drive down Jack Mundey and Mick Tubbs, who are elder statesmen of the Left of Australian politics.
Jack Mundey and I go back a long way. I proudly regard him as a mentor. Thanks to Jack and the Builders Labourers Federation, my expulsion from Robert Menzies College in 1973 became the first instance where a trade union acted industrially in defence of gay rights. Both Jack and I spoke about this matter, and, if you are interested in more details, there's a link to an article I wrote about it to the right of this item. There's also an article in Overland 191 (2008) by me called "Into the light". Jack has also spoken frequently on this matter and the Australian Biography project has published the transcript of one interview here although Jack states that I was 20 at the time, but in fact I was 18.
Mick Tubbs was a worker who studied to become a lawyer in the 1970s. He was admitted to the bar and acted for many clients against the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). His own ASIO file goes back to 1963. I have obtained my NSW Special Branch file, but have yet to apply to the National Archives of Australia for my ASIO file. I shall do do soon. I'll be very interested to see what is there. The Special Branch file is scary enough for the minute details it contains.
Mick Tubbs has put his expertise to good use and produced a n important book, ASIO: The enemy within (ISBN 978 0 9805399 0 5) which he launched at the Wollongong conference. In the book he draws on the knowledge he gained in his work as a barrister as well as information from his own ASIO files. The book is compelling reading. It documents the extent of ASIO's surveillance of Australian citizens and the use of its surveillance by various governments.
ASIO still operates. Mick Tubbs argues it should be put out of business. The book costs $35. Mick published it himself. It should be available at all good bookshops, but I know distribution is an issue. It can be obtained from Mick Tubbs, PO Box 445, Croydon Park NSW 2133.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Twenty wonderful years: Who'd a thought?

We met twenty years ago today. And what a great twenty years it has been. We've been to so many different places together, have so many great friends and we have managed to create a home that we are very happy with, garden and all. It mightn't seem like much to most people, but we're both conscious that if we'd been been born a generation before none of it would have been possible. Life changes, and can be wonderful. I'm so lucky to have this relationship and this time.