On Good Stories

‘What’s the point of living if I can’t write anymore?’ I said to H recently in a small moment of melodrama. I’d been thinking about video piracy and the increasing instances where artists aren’t paid for their work, which means that they can’t afford to create good art or good stories, which means that people’s expectations of quality work diminishes, thereby shrinking the demand and market for such art/stories, and so the cycle continues.

Yes, sometimes I don’t like being in my head either.

However, it’s impossible to be an author these days and not engage in at least some sort of contemplation of e-publishing and its effect on the literary marketplace.  I read and collect things from time to time.  An edition of Australian Author on self-publishing has been floating in the piles of paper surrounding my desk since December last year.  In it, an article by Brian Lawrenson charts his steady success on Amazon after persistent research and marketing of his books.  Both businessman and writer, he worked out how the game worked and played it successfully.  Many writers, however, can’t be bothered with the business side of things (yours truly included) or with the demands on their time taken up when they become wildly successful (I haven’t reached this point yet; hence my handbag collection remains limited), which is why I have an agent with Curtis Brown.

On that note, the managing director of this agency, Fiona Inglis, gave an address in late 2011 on the advent of e-publishing over the last five years.  She opened with stats on the proliferation of books (a conservative estimate of 26,500 per month) and noted the difficulty of those books finding readers.  It was through marketing by the traditional publishers, she maintained, that this was likely to happen; something that was reiterated through a Digital Rights seminar panel I attended a few weeks ago at the State Library.  It was organised by the Australian Society of Authors, who go into battle for authors to make sure they are paid something more than peanuts for their work. For example, the ASA requested a meeting with Campbell Newman after he axed the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards, but he was too busy (no doubt potholing with the $240k he saved) to dust off his hands and have a conversation for ten minutes.

I went to the seminar my own, as is my wont, which meant I met new people, including the prolific Marianne de Pierres and, briefly, Simon Groth, Manager of if:book, both of whom were on the panel.  From my notes scratched onto the back of a bill floating around in my handbag, it appears that, while publishers are not being nimble enough to respond to what is going on, they do have established networks of booksellers and reviewers that make them a more desirable avenue for publication than self-publishing via the likes of Amazon.  De Pierres also noted that publishers produce quality control through the provision of editors and copyeditors, and that each of her books was made better through this professional input (something I can testify to myself, especially at the end of this process when you’re so close to your work that you can’t see how to fix it).

This concern of quality over quantity is one that often manifests.  According to this article in The Atlantic, people are reading more than ever.  However, it isn’t clear if what they are reading is of quality.

Despite these harbringers of gloom, it isn’t all bad, for the advent of e-publishing has given rise to some innovative ventures.

Cue the Review of Australian Fiction.  Captained by the brilliant, twice-doctored, Derren Brown devotee Matthew Lamb and managed by able seaman Phil Crowley (who, with his background in economics, understands fiscal logistics, a weak spot for many a writer, at least certainly for this one), the RAF publishes two short stories every two weeks.  Using a mentoring arrangement, one is written by an established author, and one by an emerging author.  The issues are published via the ebook platform Book.ish, and can be read via anything with a web browser.  Never again might one be stuck in a hotel room with only a Gideons Bible for company (certainly, it’s the RAF to the rescue).

This is also a dirt cheap way of sampling a wide range of contemporary Australian fiction.  Each issue costs $2.99, or, alternatively for subscribers, each volume of 6 issues is $12.99. That means if you give up 1 coffee per month, you can afford to read roughly 250 pages of fresh and engaging writing.  For a writer, it’s also an extremely efficient means of finding out who’s doing what in the industry.  I’ve learnt more about Australian fiction in the last four months than I have probably over the last decade.  That might say more about my laziness with reading (or rather, tendency to default to 19th Century fiction or A Song of Fire and Ice when at a loss for a book) than the dissemination of info about OzLit, but you get the picture.

The most recent issue contains one of the best stories yet, James Bradley’s ‘Visitors’, although I am biased, as I found Bradley’s The Resurrectionist a startling and tightly-drawn marvel, and it’s up there with my favourites (du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go).  In this story, Bradley uses botany and aliens to elegantly render a familiar concept: how someone you know, or thought you knew, can become alien to you.  Using the language of symbiosis (though the invasion of alien botanical life sprouting in the forests), he articulates how any relationship is a risk, and how it always alters you:

‘The ecosystem is changing, they say, new organisms invading the biomes, changing them.  In Guatemala and Burma, trees bear strange fruit, spread alien seeds.  In the ocean, phosphor drifts, its DNA hybridizing with the phytoplankton, creating new life that darts and swims beneath the surface of the waves.  Whether it is good or bad seems impossible to tell, simply that it is happening, that we will not be the same any longer’ (17).

It’s a lovely metaphor, also documenting how, in a relationship, what you create together is always something new.

Other stories I’ve enjoyed have been those by Kalinda Ashton, Susan Johnson, Geoffrey Dean, Marie Munkara, and the most peculiar story written by Meg Vann in which the protagonist had a disorder that was, as far as I could work out, some cross between anorexia and autism; whatever it was, I found it drawn with a creepy delicacy that contrasted with the blunt ending.  Irrespective of what was going on (and I like that I’m confused) I’m never going to be able to think of the State Library of Queensland in the same way again.

Clearly, regardless of the medium, good stories are continuing to be published, which is pretty much the conclusion I came to in my conversation with H.  People want to read good writing, and they will seek it out.  I urge readers to subscribe to the RAF.  At the very least, it’s a reminder that Australian fiction is diverse, entertaining, and worth supporting.

Meanwhile Ewan Morrison, writing in The Guardian at the end of January, employs the ideology of economist Hyman Minsky to postulate that e-publishing is a bubble that will burst.  Not really having much concept of economics aside from how to afford my next frock (ie. starve for a week), I can’t comment on this in any way.  I’m just going to keep on writing, and see what happens.  After all, I’m incapable of doing anything else.

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