Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Howls of rage

seem to be coming from all directions.
The Parole Board issue is escalating. That is almost inevitable. Our state government feels so certain it will win the next election it now seems happy to interfere in court processes as well. That is dangerous. The Parole Board is essentially a court. It works within the law. It applies the law. It is advised by others. "Tough on law and order" needs to be balanced with basic human rights. It is one of the prices we pay for living in a democracy.
Balance is also needed on another issue. The Australian publishing industry, some Australian authors and some independent booksellers are crying foul because the Productivity Commission has recommended a relaxation of the laws which have kept book prices in Australia artificially high for years. The laws were put in place with good intent - to protect Australian writers and assist them in getting published.
The problem is that these laws were put in place prior to the internet, internet shopping, internet publishing, e-books and any other number of ways and means of circumventing their application. The reality is that they did need to be reviewed.
As librarian of a knitting guild I buy books over the internet. I would buy them from the local bookshop if I could but I would pay at least $5 more for each book, often far more - in one case it would have been $32 more. I would also have to wait for months rather than two or three weeks to get the books. My duty to the organisation is to buy the books they want for the lowest price I can.
We also need to question what it is we are protecting and, presumably, encouraging. Good writing? Australian writing? The two are not necessarily the same thing. Are we giving new authors a greater chance to be published? Not necessarily. Are we protecting jobs in the publishing industry? Not necessarily.
The reality is that good writing is being published in Australia and overseas. Australian writing is not always good. Some of it is so self-consciously Australian that it is cause for cultural cringe rather than cultural celebration. It gets published because it is seen as being the "Australian voice". Indeed, there is little chance of being published in Australia if you do not have the required "Australian voice". While we have the Vogel Award and state governments dabble the very tip of their smallest toes in the arts the further reality is that new authors find it just as difficult to be published here. "If you want to be published go and do a creative writing course at university" I was told. No thankyou. I do not want to be told what to write or how it should be written. I would like an honest appraisal of what I write. That is another matter altogether.
Jobs in the publishing industry are also going off-shore - like the printing of books. Most Australian books get printed in Asia - often Hong Kong. Many books are edited via the internet from the US or the UK.
It is difficult to know what we are protecting now. It is said that the chain bookshops will take over, that we will be a dumping ground for cheap remainders. If we are then we are at fault. We are at fault as individuals for buying "bargains" rather than "books". As a nation we are also at fault for not acknowledging that it is now governments who must be the new patrons of the arts.
We must acknowledge we need books. We need to read.

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