Since my last post – and thanks so much to everyone who liked it – I have been giving more thought to my writing career.
I realise that I shied away from confronting one of the core realities about the writing career today: namely, who are you? If you have to Put Yourself Out There to Reach Your Readers you have to first work out who those readers might be and then consider what kind of author they want you to be, which means, you have to look like that writer. Once upon a time a writer looked like him/herself, no matter what he/she looked like. Shirley Jackson (below) wrote Gothic horror stories about life in small New England towns. Her publicist would never have let this photo into the public realm if it was today. Actually her story is very interesting, see the link below.
And then there is Charles Bukowski. OK, this is a cheap shot, but hard to resist.
Actually when you look at photographs of famous writers going right back to the early twentieth century you can see already the aesthetics of writerly fame were already at work, in parallel with the growth of photography. There are profound existential questions here, but let’s skip them for the moment and go right back to Square One!
Everyone in this game accepts that Marketing involves being someone marketable. These days the author is a product, and like all products it does matter what she/he/they look(s) like and whether or not they fit the current paradigm for successful writers. There are countless guides to how to ensure a successful author photo. I like this one, especially for its analysis of specific published author photos. A certain look, a physically attractive or interesting persona, a hesitant smile that looks great on the back cover, a certain age, an air of reserve and mystery – possibly the hint of the exotic – that will work. But the thing is, if that is the author in their photo, then it has to be the author in real life as well, in the unlikely event they get asked to appear in public somewhere, like at the Podunk Valley Writers’ Festival.
What do you do when you don’t even dimly resemble any of the persons identified as successful writers in their photos? It has occurred to me that it might be helpful to hire someone. Good training for a budding actor! Hire a young person, able to manage the Internet, look great and make public appearances, that might be a good alternative. After all, the gig economy demands people work in all kinds of different careers so there must be hundreds or thousands of young people who’d love to be writers without having to write any books. As for the writer, if you can use a pen name, why can’t you use a pen body? There are ghost writers, why not writers’ ghosts?
Is this a good plot or what? I don’t think it’s been done before although back in 1976 Martin Ritt directed a very young Woody Allen in a movie, The Front, about a writer manqué who signs his name to scripts by real writers blacklisted during the darkest days of Hollywood, when J Edgar Hoover determined what would and would not be acceptable from writers and movie makers according to his own warped ideologies.
And there has been at least one movie about Ghost Writers – Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Ewan McGregor, 2010.
Maybe there are other movies with similar plots, and that great little series Younger, currently in Season 5 on Stan, takes up the issue of ageism in the publishing world, and the extent to which millenials are currently determining what is published and what isn’t – in tradpubland of course. Incidentally in researching this blog post I came across a list of films about writers here. I’d love to watch all of them in one big binge! That’s the only thing I might enjoy more than actually writing the stories myself.
Ever get the feeling that independent publishing, which promised so much, is heading down the vortex, especially for Australian authors? When it all started rolling it seemed like writers would be able to reach readers without all the intermediaries deciding who and what would be allowed through the hallowed gates of author-dom.
It looked as if new technology would link writers and readers all over the world and open up the artificial geographic zones which for half a century had been creating unnecessary boundaries around the best new writing. Readers were forced to pay absurdly high prices in some areas, including Australia, to accommodate the outdated business model. You might have thought the response would have been to change the business model, but no, that didn’t happen, and now things seem to be in some kind of weird spiral.
In the US E-books are still selling, and selling well. In number they far outweigh trad pub titles, and just recently they have superseded print books in dollar value. Of course many of these sales are for traditionally published books from established publishers, who bring out an e-book edition along with their print editions. It is very hard to get accurate figures separating the different market components out.
When Indie publishing took hold, a network of new support mechanisms evolved to help authors bring their work to an eager public. Traditional publishers went on doing exactly as they had been doing (but added in e-book versions) and everyone else was free to try things out in all kinds of ways while Amazon provided the all-important technological platform.
For a while Amazon set the prices of the e-books from the traditional publishers. But after a legal case spear-headed by global giant Hachette Amazon was forced to raise the prices of the e-book versions so they did not compete with print books: take a look at the price box next to the Big Five published book you want to buy on your Amazon site and you will see “The price was set by the publishers”. This has pushed e-book prices higher for “good” books from all the global players who have eaten up the smaller niche publishers at least in the English-language market.
Meanwhile millions of other books are left wallowing about at the lowest possible end of the price scale in the hope that someone, anyone, will buy a copy. The unregulated indie market has turned out to be a ghastly place full of bad writing, creepy fantasies, idiotic space-nonsense, buff six-packs and bizarre arrays of erotica. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in the Amazon indie market better not be a serious reader who thinks books have something to do with improving society and culture.
In Australia, the e-book revolution hardy took hold although Australians are known as early adopters of new technologies. Try asking around among friends and workmates and see how many actually have and use a Kindle. The answer, if you are an indie author, is super-depressing. It seems everyone longs for the olden days.
But there’s more to it than persistent nostalgia. It’s not just that people like going to physical bookshops, or buying physical books (often as presents for others), it’s that the guardians of Australian culture mounted an incredibly successful campaign against Amazon among booklovers. They were readily convinced that anything coming out of a corporate US giant like Amazon was automatically going to be a Bad Thing. This impression was shored up among the writers’ groups, in publishing circles, among academics and general literati, the local press, the network of book clubs and whatever other areas of public communication had anything at all to say about books and writing. Indie authors did not appear at Writer’s Festivals. Nobody mentioned them on the TV book shows (all now defunct); everybody interested in books and writing in Australia knew that good writing only appeared through a reputable publisher. The books by Australian authors hailed by the literati sold in modest to low numbers. Books written by Australian indie authors had to succeed in the US market, or not at all. There has never been an identifiable market for Australian independent authors in Australia.
Now things are even worse. Amazon won’t let Australians buy e-books – or any books for that matter – from it’s American site. This is supposedly because the Australian government didn’t like it that e-books were being bought by Australians who weren’t paying GST on them. Now the reader is forced back to the .au site, no option. Add the GST to the cost of the e-book and it looks a lot more expensive than when it was $2.99 on the US site. Previously, readers who wanted to order a print version could do so from the US site and pay horrendous postage. It seems that hardcover versions of Big Five published books are available through the Australian site, but still have to be sent at a high postage rate from the US. So guess what? You might as well buy a print copy of the book from your local bookshop, or by ordering online. Who needs Kindles and e-books after all? Somehow all this seems to have shored up the ultra-conservative elements in the Australian book world.
E-book author earnings are still very substantial, and when you consider that many authors identify themselves with a self-managed publishing imprint, the result is even more impressive. But of course this is happening in the US, not in Australia.
Australian authors often made print versions through CreateSpace and ordered fifty or a hundred or whatever copies to distribute themselves in Australia, sell through their own website or send out as freebies. Now CreateSpace has closed down and everyone is supposed to use KDP for their print books. But nobody, not even the author, can order print books from their US-based Amazon account, and Amazon is not going to be printing books in Australia anytime soon. You can’t even order a proof copy of your new e-book from KDP, apparently, because that would involve sending it at the US price. I believe this issue is currently being looked at by Amazon, but the bulk print copies will never be available again. So it’s back to the Australian traditional publishers.
Several correspondents have asked why authors don’t just have their own books printed locally, instead of worrying about the whole Amazon/e-book experience? Well, there are three good reasons. Firstly, local printers quote for a paperback version around two-three times the cost CreateSpace used to be able to supply them at, even with shipping from the US. They can look a lot better with much nicer paper but the price needs to be set very high if the bookseller gets the 40-50% discount they expect. The author may finish up getting even less than the miserable payout from a book priced at $2.99 on Amazon. Second, local bookshops are very reluctant to stock books from independent authors unless there is some local reason to do so – like a book about riding bicycles along back paths here in the Blue Mountains, which sells well from just two or three bookshops. The author supplies the copies personally when the bookshops run out. But if you are trying to sell more widely it means you have to keep stocks of your printed books somewhere – in your garage, or in your bedroom, or in a warehouse-type space, then you have to post or send or courier copies to whoever wants them, then pick them up again if they aren’t sold.
There is no simple answer, obviously.
BTW I want to thank Anna Castleton for her recent comment (August 31st) which prompted me to write this post sooner rather than later. I also should mention that my e-books, such as they are to date, have been illustrated and cover-designed and the interiors formatted by a well-regarded professional (in Mexico, as it happens) and the colour shift problems I had with my children’s book The Priceless Princess when print copies were made on Ingram Spark were the result of the Ingram Spark presses not “reading” the PDF files correctly. Ingram Spark seems much more responsive these days and is making a significant push into the space being vacated by Amazon. And it prints in Melbourne. More on this in a later post.
The best thing about getting older is realising that others are getting older at the same rate, especially your favourite writers. They’ve been writing for years and years, and you’ve been reading away alongside. In traditional publishing it means that they write and you read at different moments of the Zeitgeist, so you experience them in different ways according to where you both are. Helen’s recent book of essays Everywhere I Look felt both familiar and dazzlingly fresh. Preoccupied with my current volume of memoirs, this and the publication of Bernadette Brennan’s study of Helen’s work (more on which in another post), sent me scurrying off to rediscover her work in the present moment, 2017.
A lot is now available on Kindle. I had purchased her print books over many years but most had gone off into the mysterious places books go when you move your stuff around a lot. Now I could repurchase and reread all at once. Yes, it is a Kindle binge. A wonderful short novella about a trip to the Antarctic was the first surprise: I had never heard of it before. I reread The First Stone and This House of Grief and The Spare Room and then I came to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I had never read before..
What can I say? Absolutely riveting, so moving, so saturated with a personal truth which is at the same time a collective experience of being “us”, people in Australia, experiencing things in different ways, and it is these differences which Helen tries to clarify and explore but in the end the mysteries of human behaviour defeat explanation or even understanding.It is great that Helen is getting the praise she deserves in the US at last. Reading some of the reviews on Kindle is sobering, though. They are not negative, rather, puzzled, a bit confused. Why is it that some writing travels seamlessly through English-language markets while other books falter? Why was The Dry such a hit in the US? Why does Liane Moriarty work everywhere?
I hope a lot of people discover and rediscover Helen Garner now. Nobody could have guessed back in Monkey Grip days what she would become. If you could give a medal to an Australian writer, Helen should be first on the dais.
Advice for writers always includes something about how to deal with writer’s block, as if it’s something like the common cold or a pernicious case of athlete’s foot. I have never really understood this, as most of my life I have been unable to stop writing even when I should know better.
However I think I have just developed a case of something like it and I don’t know how it has happened or what to do about it. I am as usual writing and writing – for instance, I am writing this very piece – and I am doing research for various projects I am in the middle of and I have started revising a lot of stuff on my blogs but I am definitely avoiding the one thing I really need to write, the thing I need to finish so I can actually get on with the next thing and then start something absolutely fresh. It must mean something … but what?
I have been working on a book of short stories, some of which were written years ago while others are brand new or radically revised. Some are quite long, almost novella length, others are super-short. I’m planning both e-book and paperback releases through Amazon and Ingram Spark. Maybe I’ll get a local printer to do a quality small run for the Australian market. Everything is ready for a final assembly and edit BUT there’s this one story I just can’t finish. It’s been through several versions, the main character has had several names and a variety of backstories, the key issues have changed several times, the narrative has shifted, her late husband has oscillated between being a stuffy idiot, a self-important moron and an OK kind of guy … and now I have her in the middle of the story and something really dramatic has to start happening to her and I just can’t get it moving.
So I wake up first thing in the morning determined to finish the story but instead I start looking at note I was writing about something else and then I’m looking at emails or trying to upload a pdf or whatever and two hours pass and then I have to start doing something else and my quality writing time is over so I say I’ll get back to it later in the day but it doesn’t happen, and then it’s night time and tomorrow is another day and I am sure I will finish it then but guess what? No luck …
Yes, it’s procrastination but something more as well. Is it some deep-seated psychological resistance to actually finishing this book and actually publishing it? Do I doubt the value of this story in particular, or the collection as a whole?
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. I certainly don’t feel anything like indescribable terror. I’m just cross with myself for having constructed what feels like a wall between myself as a writer and the end of this story. Meanwhile Louisa, my character, is stranded in her luxurious hotel room in Bangkok waiting for her cosmetic surgical scars to heal. Poor thing.
Well it took six long days but I finally unpacked my new Kindle Fire HD 2016 8 inch and after the usual struggles with passwords and buttons and chargers it lit up, and what a pretty ***** it is. Actually I am not sure what it is – a thing? a device? a machine? Just another object? Yes, it is an object, but an object which reaches into the very depths of a writer’s being – this one’s, anyway.
Ridiculous, I know, but the whole time I didn’t have a Kindle I couldn’t seem to write a word. I carried around the print-out of latest version of Suburban Gigolo wherever I went, thinking I could start the next round of edits, but there was just something wrong. Didn’t even take it out of its brown paper bag. Night after night I re-tilted my bedside lamp and focussed my eyes on the printed pages of Emmanuel Carrere’s Liminov. I am really enjoying this book, in a strange abstract way, but the process of reading doesn’t feel the same. And if I can’t read, it seems I can’t write.
While I was recently in hospital I couldn’t read either, not because I didn’t have my Kindle – I did, it goes everywhere with me – but because I was so knocked out by the drugs and the pain and the numbing routine and the astonishing reality of having a metal knee now embedded and growing in my bones and flesh there seemed no mind-space left over for reading books.
However I became addicted to that enlightening TV show “Diagnosis Murder” about how a doctor (a spritely white-haired Dick van Dyke) helps his detective son (played by Dick van Dyke’s own real-life son Barry) solve strange criminal cases which embrace medical issues.
This was on every afternoon and I lay on my back gazing at the TV screen up on the wall and felt both cheered and reassured by the ability of doctors and detectives to solve all human problems, as they were still able to do in the early 1990s, unlike today where the crimes are so much more hideous and the main role for the medical specialists is scraping up samples from torn fingernails and cutting cadavers open with wryly humorous remarks.
But TV in the end is no substitute for reading, and now I have a Kindle again I can read all the books I recently downloaded just before it finally died. These include the only book by Carrere which I can find on Kindle, The Kingdom, yet another excursus into the world of the first Christians, a theme which seems to have been trending recently, no doubt due to the near universal perception of imminent apocalypse. I even started watching A.D. the Bible Continues (2015) on Stan but that otherworldly gleam in Peter’s eyes is really getting me down. Actually I thought the first three episodes were excellent, but it became a bit repetitive after that.
The thing is, you live with stories, and it matters how they reach you. TV has become a wonderful medium now that you can watch series the same way you read a book … you don’t have to wait until next week’s broadcast, you can just keep on and on and on until you absolutely have to get up and go to Aldi or clean up the cat vomit. Then the clever TV knows exactly where you got up to, and takes you directly back there. Just like the Kindle does.
I can feel myself falling in love with my new Kindle, even though I’ve hardly even turned it on yet. What creates this powerful attraction? A lot of people have it with their mobile phones, almost unable to be diverted from them even by great moments in the Real World such as picking up your children from school. The recent campaign in Britain to get parents to actually look at their child when they pick the poor little thing up at the school gate marks just one moment in the process of human alienation we are in the midst of.
How to think about these object-obsessions? To cut a long psychoanalytic story short, it is a kind of transitional object. You know, the blanket the child carries around until it decays, the beaten up teddy bear, the Thing your little one just can’t be without. Some clever evil genius worked out that we never grow up, we humans, we go on looking for the comforts of childhood, and these days they’ve given us an electronic item instead of Blanky. I’m not the first to think of this, although I did feel disappointed when I found this quote:
The thing about electronic objects though is that they just don’t feel the same . How about making Kindle or phone cases out of woven feathers? I had a kind of feathered scarf when I was a small child and yes, obviously it came from my mother, and I needed it in the same way I seem to need my Kindle now. I just can’t go to bed without it, and if that happens then I can’t seem to write anything the next day. What The ????
Cindy Fazzi’s recent post “Six Signs of a Literary Snob” here reminded me of the vehement debate around the effects of cliques formed around creative writing courses and literary journals in Australia which erupted in 2016 and resulted in a wild outburst from a young Australian author in that revered Melbourne literary journal Meanjin. Luke Carman has runs on the board. He has published short fiction in local journals (HEAT, Westside, Cultural Studies Review) and has been on the shortlist for a few recent prizes. He has published a book of short stories (An Elegant Young Man) and tutors in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney… but there are two strikes straight away. Short stories are considered somehow mildly deplorable and definitely not a mark of “real” literature, and Western Sydney – which means anywhere between Ashfield and Wentworth Falls – is by definition not a site from which worthwhile literary forms could possibly emerge.
Luke spat the dummy in a big way. He said that Australian literary endeavour had been infiltrated by “wannabes” who were “dictating terms for an artform to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence”. Luke was taking on the prevalent literary snobbery in Australia which seems to be flourishing more vigorously than ever, especially regarding the books that agents and publishers are permitting past the starting gate, and in the award of literary prizes and other marks of distinction.
Cindy’s go-to list for the literary snob:
Reads only literary fiction; absolutely no commercial genres for this reader.
Refuses to read self-published books.
Refuses to read any best seller, even if it’s literary.
Doesn’t like to read feel-good books or happy endings. The more depressing a book, the better for this reader.
Doesn’t like to read “easy” books. The more incomprehensible, the better.
Won’t read a novel published after a certain decade or period (e.g., nothing after the 1960s or after 19th century, etc.)
This fits the Australian scene perfectly, except for #6. The literary world here is mainly devoted to recently published works from authors who have already made their mark on the Ozlit scene. Debut authors need to have come through a Creative Writing program in one of the main universities and consequently enjoyed Fellowships and residencies in prestigious programs. They are usually championed by an important figure, preferably a famous writer, who refers them on to agents and publishers. Agents and publishers want books whose themes resonate with the current cultural obsessions – indigenous dispossession, gender-based suffering, migrant disaffection, the struggles of the repentant drug addict – and have no interest in books which engage the general popular audience, those which sell well because of their exciting plots and “easy” writing. As for the happy ending, who could take that seriously?
A great example is the spectacular but largely culturally invisible writing career of Sydney author Liane Moriarty, recently dubbed “the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of”. I came across her work entirely by accident, wandering about on Kindle as I do most nights, exploring new things to read. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman writer, offering great fiction about a Sydney I knew, so recognisable, real places and real (often horrible) Sydney people! I loved the first of her books and then bought and read all of them in quick succession. Now she can’t write fast enough to meet her reader’s demands. This is a writer who has sold six million books around the world. Her books are hardly light-weight. They address the dark side of Sydney suburban life in a way never written about before. Her endings aren’t “happy” although they aren’t necessarily tragic either. They are well-written, lovingly crafted and you can’t put them down. Now Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are starring in the movie adaptation of her smash-hit “Big Little Lies”. Oh, OK, there’s the problem right there! She is successful! People want to read her books! She’s sold the film rights! And she’s writing about Sydney suburbia. Not good among the Melbourne establishment which pretty much dominates the literary scene these days, or so everyone seems to agree.
So what about Luke Carman? He’s writing about Sydney too, but it’s a Sydney even Liane Moriarty’s fans won’t know much about. Set largely in his home-suburb of Liverpool, the characters in his stories reflect the turbulent and sometimes bizarre reality of contemporary life for the young in Western Sydney. They are addicts, poets, people who see ghosts, Lebbos, Grubby Boys, scumbag Aussies. His alter-ego writer loves Whitman and Kerouac and Leonard Cohen. The book is full of energy, edgy street-scenes and local voices, really INTENSE as the younger generation say. I loved his book, published by Giramondo, which is a pretty respectable local publisher, and wondered what had led to his “spray” in Meanjin here. It’s a wonderful but complicated essay, full of rage and bile. Many would join me in saying, “Luke, I feel you”.
Without doubt the Australian literary scene is self-referential and highly conservative. Obsessed with its own preservation, denying the validity of the e-book, loathing self-publishing, there seems to be in a kind of retro-neo-colonial suspension going on here. New forms of expression and new kinds of stories are ignored or, more accurately, not even recognised.
The overlap and interplay between visual and written culture is at an exciting place. As long-form television is replacing the standard movie, new strategies of writing (the long-form literary equivalent, as practiced by Knausgaard for example) opens up a new trajectory reminiscent of Proust. Screen-writers write fiction and turn their fictions back into television series – thinking here of that fabulous 2016 series Good Behaviour – and “books” can be as long or as short as writers like and readers enjoy.
It’s become a terrible struggle for the conventional author trying to get “the book” published in print. The e-alternative is terrible as well, especially trying to find a market with the five million books now available online. But writers can’t help themselves, they like to write, and readers like to read, it’s a question of finding new ways for them to get together. The canapés and champagne Harbourside set may still be seeking their Bourdieuan distinction, but there is a lot more to the writing scene now, thank goodness!
Writers are born, or so they say. Problem is, publishers don’t have room for them all. They have weird criteria about what they are willing to publish. They hate the slush pile. Then along comes self-publishing. The freedom to write what you want at the length you want to write it, to publish it to a potentially world-wide audience and to control every aspect of the process! Perfect. And when the writing is finished – voila! A few fiddles on the computer, a cover of some kind and that should be it, right?
Well, we know now how wrong that is. The labyrinth of self-publishing discloses itself with consummate cruelty. Soon the writer’s brain is entirely occupied with technical issues, spending sleepless nights scouring the internet as the poor sap slowly learns that the actual writing is both the most and least important element in this process. Moreover there are hundreds of thousands of others all doing the same.
As self-publishing has exploded the author has to become an author-preneur and master a thousand arcane skills. The easiest method is to hire someone else to do it all and pay them. That way your book will definitely be published, in e-version and print version, and you have become a “real” author. There are hundreds of agencies now offering these services, with all kinds of bells and whistles: editing, covers, conversions to different formats, uploading. But it costs! So there is your book but now nobody is buying it. What to do? Marketing…. Oh, that costs more again! And here are more agencies willing to take your money to do it for you. Or you can do it yourself at minimal cost but it still costs. Professional reviews at $500? (Biggest ripoff of all – that’s Kirkus).
Very few authors ever reveal what the whole process actually costs them and what income it produces. One recent exception is US indie author Joynell Schulz who has generously shared through her blog everything she has been going through to get her first book out there. Find her at http://www.joynellschultz.wordpress.com
In her most recent post she sadly recounts what it has cost her so far, and what her sales have been. Short answer: nothing like enough to recover costs. So now she is investing more in various marketing approaches. Good luck with that Joy!
One author who has shared his writing costs and income is Jim Chimes. He has put up his figures for several years now. It is worth noting that he is a hybrid author, with an agent and a traditional publisher. He also publishes short works and some other stuff as an indie. His income has increased steadily over the years and he is now making a good-enough living from his writing to give up other employment. What a reassuring message!
His most recent posts analyse the results of a survey he carried out among a variety of writers – indie, trad and hybrid. They all wrote novels: non-fiction and short fiction was not included, although of course if a novelist had also published shorter writing that income would have been presumably included. This makes very interesting reading. It shows a huge variation in the annual income from his respondents. The most surprising finding is that indie authors even after deducting their costs have the highest median income – higher than authors publishing through both large and small presses. Eight novelists made more than a million dollars last year and some of them were indie authors. The average income across all the respondents was around $17,000. Overall authors publishing with large publishing houses and indie authors made around the same average income.
A key to being a successful indie author, though, is to be able to manage the thousand tasks which a traditional publisher would otherwise manage. Here is where much of the expense comes in, and the strategies required to be a successful author require a lot more than writing. But what happens when all the strategies are followed but the writing itself just isn’t all that great? Every author who is self-publishing has to ask hard questions, ultimately about their books. And their audience, genre, style, look – and how fast they can work. Jim Chimes’ figures clearly show that full-time authors – those who do nothing professionally other than manage their writing career – make many times more than those writing part time. But the books have to be good enough, and there have to be a lot of them. It’s a bit like a production line. But if your books aren’t selling, then there’s no alternative to writing part-time. Chickens and eggs!
Maybe it’s better to think of writing books as a kind of personal entertainment, an expensive pastime like owning a race-horse. You might never get your investment back, but if you enjoy the thrill of the track, go for it! Or, if you disapprove of racing, maybe yachting or flying would be an appropriate analogy. Either way, you can spend all your time doing something that engages you even if it costs. So many writers on their blogs and in comments say that they don’t want to make money from their writing, but they don’t say they are happy to lose it. But maybe that’s what it takes to be a successful writer these days. Next thing the writers will be paying the readers to read their books. Hmmm. That definitely has potential!
Writing my previous post about pernicious publishing practices in the Amazon age, I found myself reflecting on that Australian literary and political figure Bob Ellis. Near the end of his life (he died at his Palm Beach home in April 2016) he gave a radio broadcast about the things that really mattered.
His early life in small-town Lismore had, on reflection, been one of them, and he regretted the way he had lost contact with the tight-knit community-based world where families all knew each other back for generations, where collective events were celebrated and sins were forgiven. Of course we know it isn’t like that any more – the horrors of small-town and rural life are the stuff of legend – family murders, suicides, drug addiction, child abuse and the rest of it – any virtues seemingly eclipsed in the heady rush of late modernity. It surprised me that he expressed such nostalgia for a way of life he despised in his glory days.
I was a little disappointed in Bob’s book, not because the individual essays and articles weren’t interesting but because I had expected an autobiography or memoir, a reflection on earlier commitments and decisions. What seems self-evident at one time may turn out to seem very peculiar three decades later. Bob’s radio broadcast suggested he was in a state of reconsideration, and this book sometimes let you glimpse that, but more would have been welcome. As in life, Bob couldn’t stop himself namedropping. The reader is left in no doubt about how chummy he was with the great and good as well as the infamous not-so good. Bob Ellis was an Australian icon, but his legacy may disappear quickly. He was a genuinely strange person.
I knew Bob back in his Sydney Uni days, when he hung around with those two great poets Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Bob was generally long-haired and shabby. Les was fat and looked like a farmer, which in fact he was. Geoff was immaculately be-suited and always elegant and polite. They were an ill-assorted trio. Les went on to become a right-wing identity and Poet Laureate, while Geoff remained a lawyer as well as a poet. Bob became ever more leftish, cultivated important connections and wrote many plays and screenplays as well as several books.
Young Bob Ellis (ABC)
I met him many times at pubs and parties, but he mostly ignored anybody who wasn’t important or political and was rarely cordial or even polite to those he deemed below him. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade, during which time I had spent two years as an anthropologist living among Aboriginal people in the desert. Then, to my amazement, there he was at Maralinga, at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, 1984. I had been asked to act as the Royal Commission’s anthropological advisor, reporting directly to the Commissioner. “Diamond Jim” McLelland was an august and controversial legal figure with his dapper suits and air of absolute superiority. Renowned as a supporter of Gough Whitlam and accused of extreme Leftism by various Australian rightists, he went on to front the Land and Environment Court.
In the remote flyblown deserts of Northwest South Australia Diamond Jim fitted in with grace and good temper, sitting under flimsy shades among the Aboriginal witnesses, squatting around campfires, and walking unconcernedly through the plutonium fields. I went wherever he went and listened to all the evidence. I pointed out where translations to and from English seemed inadequate or wrong. Bob Ellis was there to write a book. He and Diamond Jim seemed to be best mates, and had been permitted to attend the desert hearings, a rare privilege. I don’t think any other writers or journalists were allowed to be there. Shambling, shuffling and disordered, Bob behaved with dismissive contempt to almost everyone. He did try to converse with the Aboriginal witnesses but they had no idea who he was and thought he was just another lunatic white man. He paid no attention to other white people, including me, so I never got to discuss his perceptions of what was happening, although I would have liked to.
I have finished a long story – novelette length – about Maralinga for my new collection of stories, Radiant Sands, which will be out soon. In Bob’s collected works was a long piece about Maralinga, which I had not been aware of previously. This essay seems to be all that remains of his intended book.
Bob seemed to have attended closely to the Aboriginal evidence and was able to convey the extraordinary quality of the desert hearings, although the details were sparse. It was a good piece, and I enjoyed it.
My fictionalised novelette, Last Patrol, is very different. The people Bob Ellis saw and heard during the Royal Commission were members of the the same groups of people whose story I tell in Last Patrol. I wanted to restore the realities that lay behind the formality and structured context of a legal hearing. I imagined events and invented composite characters. But I believed then, and still believe, that it was a true story. I had no reason to question the account of many people that their relatives had been living in the far bush and that some had perished in the bomb blasts.
I attempted to persuade the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission to follow up this line of questioning. It is not possible to ask the Royal Commissioner directly to pursue such an issue himself, it has to go through arcane and indirect processes involving the introduction of evidence which can be challenged by others with the right to appear at the hearing. There were plenty of these. Many Aboriginal witness statements agreed that there were people coming in from the far north-west at the time of the first tests, and that they had never been seen again. But there was no way of getting direct evidence since nobody had survived. To present this as evidence would require that the witnesses know exactly who they were, be able to name them, to state why and how they knew there were walking into the atomic test sits area at that time, and the basis on which they knew it. If they couldn’t do so, their words were just speculation and hearsay, or so I was told. The question opened up too great a can of worms, even for this enquiry
Aboriginal people had told each other stories which had passed along the chain of communication to the north and west and right around the desert. The criteria of “truth” in a legal case depends on a certain kind of evidence: this, but not that; here but not there. That’s not the way Aboriginal people think, nor is it the way their world is constructed. Even the “black cloud” evidence was not fully convincing to the judge and the legal team. The “missing relatives” story was even less so. The Australian legal process when applied to non-English speaking Aboriginal people is so totally misplaced and unable to penetrate into the “truth” of any situation. I was so completely disaffected and infuriated by the way the Royal Commission proceeded, and the minimal impact of its findings. It did result in clean-ups, and the local Aboriginal land-holders did get rights to their land eventually, but the deeper truth of what happened seemed to me to have been consistently glossed over and trivialised.
Memories and stories have their own rationale; memoirs and autobiographies move to a different rhythm and produce a different kind of truth. Writing about an historical event using fictionalised reconstruction is a kind of knowledge-creation but it still makes me feel uneasy. Purely factual history makes the reader comfortable although there are so many different ways to construct it. Of the several factual books on Maralinga the recent prize-winner Atomic Thunder, by Elizabeth Tynan, is undoubtedly the best to date.
I don’t know what kind of book Bob Ellis would have written, or what he would have made of my story if he had lived to read it. I wrote Last Patrol well before Tynan’s book appeared. To what extent should one book influence another, where one is “fact” and the other is “fiction”? What value can we place on fictionalised narratives which rely on imagined events and composite characters? It’s an issue which needs far greater consideration than I can give it here, or probably ever.
All the injustice that the Aboriginal people of the desert experienced seemed wrapped up in the chain of events that motivated my story: their peremptory removal from their traditional lands, the contempt displayed towards anyone who protested, the absolute dismissal of their rights to life and liberty. It was ghastly but not surprising back in the days when the atomic testing program was established, but to find much the same attitudes expressed, even if covertly, in 1984 was truly shocking, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Was it wrong to use fiction to write about it? Wouldn’t a thorough analytic recounting using the detailed transcripts and thousands of pages of documents have been better?
Like Bob, I once thought I would write a book. I tentatively called it Maralinga: Memoirs of a RoyalCommission. I still have cartons and cartons of material in storage. But it became clear as the decades passed that I was never going to do it. Is a fictional story any kind of substitute? All I can do is hope that readers are led to consider the possibility that Aboriginal people in Central Australia are the only human beings on the planet ever to have been nuked, other than the victims of of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not sure I did the right thing in writing that story, but I felt it needed to be told and that seemed the only way to do it. I will leave it up to the reader to decide, when it finally appears.