Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The problem with the literary ecosystem in Australia is bigger than Bob Ellis

Fairfax reporter Jacqueline Maley published a story on Friday about the renowned late progressive author Bob Ellis, informing us that he indulged “grubby impulses” when he sexually assaulted minors in the 1970s. Kate and Rozanna Lilley, daughters of the late poet Dorothy Hewett, say their mother knew about the abuse they experienced. “Kate says she had consensual sex with Ellis four times when she was 15 and 16. Rozanna said Ellis ‘shoved my hands down the front of his trousers’ when she was 14.”

Meanjin editor Jonathan Green now says he regrets publishing what he now considers to have been misogynistic productions submitted by Ellis to publications Green controlled. Ellis died two years ago and his reputation has been comprehensively trashed as a result of recent revelations. But in Australia the problem is that success depends so much on your name value, and so little on your actual talent or the inherent quality of your writing.

In the literary magazines, which struggle, God knows, to survive, even the oldest and most prestigious of them, you see the same names appearing in issue after issue as editors rely on writers with a proven track-record of pulling readers to fill their pages with appetising content.

A dull readership, the product of uninformed literary taste in the community more generally, reduces editors’ appetite to experiment and try something new and out-of-the-ordinary. The reviewing that could help to improve the community’s judgement fails to do its job. It is far less than robust because everyone knows everyone else in this small pond: relations between people who review and those who write are too close for the kind of complete honesty that you need to inspire the public to reward true quality. This point can never be repeated too many times in Australia.

The slender margins with which literary journals operate ensure only sure bets get the nod. This results in an impoverished literary ecosystem, a place where the strength of your name value is more important than the quality of your writing.

It has to be remembered, too, that not every new book by a writer, even one who has had success in the past, is necessarily as good as the previous production. But it doesn’t matter to the great unwashed or to the editors who supply them with material. A high-profile name gets them interested and they respond predictably when offered the same as last time, regardless of the inherent quality of the work itself. It’s a popularity contest and the loser is the Australian public itself, because we have to consume the same bland pabulum that functioned last time to get the volumes out the door and into people’s hands.

The same laziness that supported Ellis in his later years keeps people ignorant of the splendours that lie buried in the culture surrounding them, in places where they never look. Instead of enjoying the soul food in a book written by Gerald Murnane, Melanie Cheng, Maria Tumarkin, or Anthony Macris, we gobble up a tired Tim Winton’s most recent rheumy eructation or the latest brain-dump from Richard Flanagan, like a sty full of pigs intent on filling our guts as fast as possible.

People need to be challenged and stimulated with fresh perspectives. We need to follow an original artistic vision, not bribed with celebrity to buy a stale product just because jaded gatekeepers believe it will do the trick. Australians arise! Awake!

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