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'They're killing literature'

24 April 2006

A recent article in The Australian highlights the problem facing literary fiction writers in Australia. Brian Castro, prize-winning author of six novels, had difficulty in getting his seventh novel, Shanghai Dancing, into print. Having been turned down by Random House and HarperCollins, which wanted major changes, it was eventually published by new independent Giramondo, won literary prizes and has sold well enough to be reprinted twice. So Castro was lucky, but others have been less so and he says: 'I think they're killing literature... everything is about the bottom line'.

Academic Mark Davis's recent research shows that the number of home-grown literary novels produced by Australia's mainstream publishers has almost halved since the mid-1990s, although some of the slack has been taken up by the smaller independents. But official statistics show that Australians are buying less home-grown fiction. Sales fell from Aus$125million in 2001-2 to Aus$73million in 2003-4.

Just as elsewhere, literary fiction has been affected by globalisation in the publishing industry. Nine out of the top 10 Australian publishers are now owned by multinational media giants and, as Davis says: 'such companies tend not to see themselves as custodians of national literary cultures'. Australian publishers deny this charge, but publishers everywhere are trimming their lists to concentrate on books which will sell. Veteran literary agent Lyn Tranter says it has become very much harder to get serious literary fiction published than it was 20 or 30 years ago. 'They're all saying "We are publishing the same number of novels as we were and they're lying.'

Partly this is because electronic point of sale has revealed, here as elsewhere, the small sales figures of some literary writers. Shelf life has also become shorter, as bookshop chains become more bottom-line oriented. But what if book-buyers simply don't want to read these literary titles? Shona Martyn, publishing director of HarperCollins (which is owned by News Corporation) says: 'Our job is to produce books that people want to read. We are a business. We can't be any more sentimental than a business that is selling ice cream or clothes.'

John Emery, Head of the Australian Literary Board, says: 'We have to acknowledge that literary fiction is not selling as well around the world... The novel may prove to be a transient literary form.' But is this true? You could argue that the huge growth of readings groups has actually focused attention on literary fiction. The Richard and Judy Book club in the UK has had an enormous impact in bringing quite literary titles, such as Joseph O'Connor's The Star of the Sea, to mass audiences.

Perhaps it is just that it's all become more international, and Australian writers, like British and American ones, have to compete on a global scale, but without the homegrown market that will help them find an audience when they're starting out. And does literary fiction have some special right to be published, or is it all really just a matter of what people want to read?