LITERARY PRIZES AND REVIEWS by NOEL KING
This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.
The Australian dollar currently is worth around 75 cents of a US dollar, and the average income for a writer in Australia is $12,900 a year, which is why so many writers and creatives, in Australia as elsewhere, drive cabs, work in restaurants, or teach. That amount of around $13,000 is not a living wage (Steger, 2015). Accordingly, winning a literary prize can be a windfall for a writer, permitting him or her to devote themselves undiverted to their craft for a certain measure of time.
On the general matter of writing and money, and using film adaptation as an example, however complicated critical discussions can get concerning the relation of a literary work to its film adaptation, one thing is certain: if the budget for the film is sufficiently large then the author’s percentage after first day of principal photography will permit him or her to feel secure about a comfortable short-to-mid-term future for their writing. Much as William Faulkner’s literary career benefited from the money thrown his way by Hollywood and Howard Hawks, allowing him to stay home in Oxford, Mississippi, to write his celebrated novels and stories, so Daniel Woodrell benefited from the $35 million budget attached to Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Woodrell’s 1987 book, Woe to Live On. Woodrell’s portion of that money funded his next five years of writing, giving him the time to try different things and directions, one of which was Winter’s Bone, which sold better than all his previous work and also was adapted into film.
In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value, James F. English cites the Nobel Prize for Literature’s beginning in 1901 as the start of literary prize culture. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, was privately wealthy and so took the $80,000 dynamite money he received in 1973, tossed in an additional $20,000 of his own, and established the Patrick White Award. Given annually to an Australian writer who is regarded as having made a significant contribution to Australian literature across the body of their work, the prize brings with it $23,000. It is given to an oeuvre rather than a one-off work. The 2015 recipient was Joan London, a writer based in Fremantle, Western Australian. Previous recipients have included Amanda Lohrey, Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Harrower. London’s most recent novel, The Golden Age, also won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s award with its tax-free amount of $80,000. So, together with her Patrick White award, London will have $103,000 to fund her writing over the next few years, independently of whatever royalties she earns.
We should recognise up front that one sideshow aspect to literary awards concerns scandals, as English notes. Scandals can be a lot of fun. In 1972 John Berger presented the BBC’s Ways of Seeing series, which was accompanied by a little book that must have sold vastly well across decades, being course-adopted in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, into great numbers of undergraduate degrees in art history, visual arts, and media studies. Berger favoured blue shirts but for reasons of television film cameras and the use of blue screen, that wouldn’t work, so he had to duck outside the studio and buy some shirts without blue in them, as producer Mike Dibbs explains: “He arrived back with what has provoked much comment over the years, a pair of identical cream and reed ‘chain-mail’ shirts, circa 1971. We didn’t give them a second thought then, and now they’re iconic!”. At the height of this paisley-shirt-wearing fame Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G. He refused it, saying he would donate half the money to the Black Panthers and use the other half to fund his writing of A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr’s study of migrant workers in Europe. In 2015, Verso put up on its website the text of Berger’s speech, and the following quotations come from there:
The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.
Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question…
One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.
It’s similar to those Hollywood Academy Award moments of refusal of best Acting Oscars: from George C. Scott, who in 1971 refused his Best Acting Oscar for the Francis Coppola-scripted Patton and called the Awards a “goddamn meat parade”, and Marlon Brando’s declining of his 1972 Best Actor award for his role as the titular character in Coppola’s The Godfather, sending in his place a beautiful Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather.
If we broaden the notion of “scandal” to include “hoax,” then Australia has a distinguished record in this regard, from the 1940s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax where two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted sixteen poems meant to ridicule then-current trends in modernist poetry, and submitted them to Max Harris in Adelaide who edited a journal devoted to new currents in modernist writing, Angry Penguins. The fake poems appeared in the Autumn 1944 issue of that journal. Inevitably, once the hoax played itself out, Harris’s reputation suffered for a while, but the poems became celebrated and continued to be published, a line from one of the fraudulent poems even giving Australian cultural critic Humphrey McQueen the title for his book on Australian modernist painting, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944. It’s a bit like a literary version of the ‘Sokal Affair’ visited on the Duke University Press journal, Social Text, in 1996 when a physicist submitted an article to the highly regarded US cultural studies journal in order to demonstrate that C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” were no closer to getting together.
In Australia in 1994 the ‘Helen Demidenko Affair’ occurred in which the fraud concerned a University of Queensland student named Helen Darville, whose parents were English immigrants. Darville won the Vogel Prize, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society, and the Miles Franklin Award for a novel whose authorial name was ‘Helen Demidenko’ and whose father allegedly was an illiterate Ukrainian cab driver who had emigrated to northern Queensland. This novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, purported to be an account of the treatment of Ukrainians by neighbouring Jews during the Ukrainian famine of WWII, and also an account of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Demidenko later went on to postgraduate study at Oxford University.
In the case of the allegedly Aboriginal writing of ‘Banumbir (or Birimbir) Wongar,’ whose 1977 collection of twelve short stories, The Track to Bralgu, gained international attention from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and was published in the US in 1978 by Boston’s Little, Brown & Co, the author was found to be Sreten Bozic, a Serbian anthropologist who lived in Melbourne, and who at one point said criticism of his literary-authorial deception should be tempered by the fact that he had been treated as an Aborigine throughout his life, i.e. treated badly. By the way, has anyone ever traced the “real” identity of B. Traven?
And last – but only in terms of random examples from Australia – in 1980 Paul Radley won the inaugural Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35) with his book, Jack Rivers and Me, which sixteen years later he said had been written not by him but by his great uncle, Jack Radley. In one sense we should probably align scandals such as these with those routine media stories whereby the work of a canonised author (Patrick White, Henry James, Jane Austen) is sent off to a contemporary publisher and inevitably declined for not being quite what the publishing house is after. I think these instances and the Sokal incident indicate that some people have too much time on their hands, whereas the other scandals are more intriguing.
The US has seen instances of plagiarised or invented pieces of writing succeed in winning prizes, such as Stephen Glass’s journalism, only then to be exposed and shamed, only for that moment of humiliation to generate a further confessional publication in a mea culpa vein which sees even more books sold, this time by a penitent, disgraced author. This puts us awfully close to the stunts used by P. T. Barnum, as reported in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin says, “Barnum was perhaps the first modern master of pseudo-events, of contrived occurrences which lent themselves to being widely and vividly reported.” In 1835 Barnum “exhibited Joice Heth, an aged negress whom he advertised as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. For a while he made fifteen hundred dollars a week from her.” Heth later died at the age of eighty but not before Barnum had shown “his mastery of the art of compounding pseudo-events” by writing to newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a hoax and claiming that Joice Heth was not a human being but “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” Boorstin’s interpretation of Barnum’s exercises in early publicity is to say, “Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”
The United States also has tossed up some instances of fictional works masquerading as non-fictional works, simply because non-fiction was deemed a better-selling genre, again leading to shaming and exposure, but of course the book sales had already happened. In 2008 Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail Press (see short history below) commented on this trend: “Like that woman, Margaret Jones, who wrote about her life with a Chicago gang. It would have been a good novel but it would have got nowhere and she felt she had to re-cast it as non-fiction. And the same thing happened with that life of a boy soldier. Nowadays everybody has to make their story non-fiction and true.” Around that same time Ayrton wrote a piece for the April issue of Author in which he said:
Fiction writers are forced by the pressure of publishers and agents to present their work as non-fiction and are discredited when the truth comes out – Margaret Jones’s Love and Consequences about Chicago gangs would have made a great novel. Unfortunately, she felt the need to present it as fact and was exposed by her sister! Because it is the author that is fêted and not the book, today’s readers are in danger of losing the ability to read fiction.
A rather different, more solemn example of a scandal or controversy concerns the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (Submission), was released in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. The utter coincidence of this overlap of an already controversial writer whose latest novel seemed to share a ‘content’ with ongoing anxieties and debates about Islam, ISIS and terrorism, generated much critical-cultural debate. And this controversy can only have been exacerbated by the tragedy of the recent acts of terrorism in Paris and Brussels.
In this next section I will act as a conduit for opinions expressed on some of the topics we have addressed in some of our Davao conference sessions, by quoting some opinions from several of the publishers I have interviewed over the last twenty years. This way you get to hear the opinions of professionals working in the field. One of the questions I asked each of the small-independent presses with whom I was fortunate enough to speak was whether a particular literary prize and/or a favourable book review had led to a spike in their sales. As they gave their various answers they sometimes mentioned other things that had benefited their commercial enterprises, and I mention some of these below.
In 2006 Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Perth, Western Australia, four to five hours by plane from east coast Australia, pondered whether the seemingly ever-increasing Australian literary prize culture had helped FACP secure more sales, and concluded:
Prizes have been very important, particularly in the early days. Operating from Western Australia, working away from the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, has always had its difficulties, but there has been some advantage to that. In the early days, particularly, for our size and the small number of books we did, we were really very successful in the number of reviews we got from around Australia. Maybe it was novelty value.
We found with literary prizes, from the outset, that unless it costs a fortune to enter, you enter! Because opinion-makers judge prizes and even if you don’t win, if you are attempting to draw attention to your list and key people are reading for this poetry prize, or that fiction or history prize, then they’re seeing your books regularly. And they talk to other people. And then when you win one every now and then, it helps the editors of the literary pages of journals and newspapers, dailies, weeklies to start looking more closely at your titles. And with some prizes there are advantages in terms of direct sales. Some more than others. In our experience the Miles Franklin is the one that leads to the biggest number of sales. After that it would be the NSW Premier’s and the Victorian Premier’s awards on about a par. In terms of the response from readers, with most prizes sales drop away pretty quickly but you do see an initial little sales-spike here and there. In Western Australia we have the WA Literary Awards and we’ve had several winners of these. While that doesn’t affect Australia-wide sales, it certainly affects the local market. Because, let’s face it, when you walk into a bookshop, you can be overwhelmed by the choice. I’m in the trade and I’m overwhelmed! They’re all saying ‘buy me!’, but it can be the Tower of Babel with so many voices of relatively equal pitch, so you can be drawn to whatever little badge or stripe is on a book, or a to a quotation from someone famous.
The other big prizes are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Even being short-listed there is good because children’s librarians, teachers, parents buy off those gold and silver badges. So even short-listing can lead to a significant jump in sales. And to win means a very big jump. Yes, prizes are important.
In London I have been very lucky, across a couple of decades, to interview Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press on a regular basis, getting his changing assessments of how these things factored in to his press at a given moment in its publishing history.
Serpent’s Tail Press was established in August 1986 when Peter Ayrton and John Hampson got together to set up a publishing press based on the models of late 1960s radical political presses in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Ayrton was the publisher and Hampson the sales manager. They had met while working at Al Saqi, a leftist press specialising in books on the Middle East and each had experience with other left-leaning presses, Ayrton at Pluto and Hampson at Verso. In the beginning, the press was based at Ayrton’s house and they worked with a team of freelance translators, designers and illustrators, producing their first books in August 1987.
In 1987 Marsha Rowe left her co-editor position at Spare Rib to become Serpent’s Tail’s fiction editor. In 1989 Serpent’s Tail won the Sunday Times Small Press Publisher of the Year award, edging out Verso Books, Bloodaxe Books, and Element Books. By 1992 Serpent’s Tail was publishing about thirty books a year in print runs of up to 5,000, seeking to represent marginal, dissenting voices of various kinds. For example, in the wake of the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”) Serpent’s Tail strengthened its list of gay and lesbian writing, publishing Ian Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?, a mixed-genre discussion of cultural shifts from Oscar Wilde in the 1880s to late 1980s British gay culture, and the Simon Watney et al non-fiction anthology, Taking Liberties, a book which showed how various institutions discriminate against people with AIDS.
Serpent’s Tail Press very soon was sufficiently successful to be able to move from Ayrton’s house to a small renovated terrace in Blackstock Mews, a short walk from Finsbury Park tube station. In their first seven years of publishing, they translated innovative fiction from Spain, Germany, and Argentina, instituted a cultural studies list, and experimented with the publication of some books of political photo-journalism. This was the Serpent’s Tail context when I first interviewed Pete Ayrton back in 1992, asking him how he was managing to survive as an independent publisher. He said:
It’s a very exciting business to be in because it must be the only business left in which minnows like us can take on multinationals and have more or less the same chance of getting a lead review in a national newspaper. Whereas, with the other cultural industries, like music or films, you need millions of pound or dollars to start. You can start in publishing by doing one book. For instance, recently there’s been a self-publishing of a Jamaican thriller called Yardie, which has sold 10,000 in a month. They just put it in the bookshops and it goes. That’s what makes it an exciting business to be in at the moment.
The success of that book by Victor Headley, detailing a Jamaican subculture of gangs and drugs, saw its author go on to publish another four novels with larger presses. It is a moment that seems to have come full circle and wound up in New York, where, thirty years on, authors like K’wan Foye and Vickie Stringer have replicated the success of Yardie. As Neil Munshi explains, Foye’s self-published novel Gangsta was sold “out of the trunks of cars, through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast” and had sold 80,000 copies “before it saw the inside of a Barnes and Noble.”
Foye hooked up with Stringer by way of the email address she had on the back of her self-published book, Let That Be The Reason, written while she was “serving a seven year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop.” Stringer had an imprint named after her former drug crew, Triple Crown Publications, and offered to publish Gangsta. Foye accepted and his next book, Road Dawgz, came out with St Martin’s Press. This sub-genre is called “street lit” and “urban fiction,” and it makes a lot of money, selling in the 100,000s for those who get to the top of this particular pulp pile. But Munshi says that mainstream publishing avoids it. If the success of Yardie recalled the moment of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), then Gangsta and its world might recall Spike Lee’s early hour-length film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).
No doubt you are all aware of the most lucrative international literary awards, such as Dublin’s IMPAC Award, worth 100,000 euros. In their 2013 piece for The Sunday Telegraph, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden list a host of UK prizes that range from £60,000 (the Man Booker International, offered every two years) to £50,000 (the annual Man Booker) to £40,000 (the David Cohen Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Folio Award) to £35,000 (the Costa Award) to £30,000 (The Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize), and so on. In 2012 Hilary Mantel scooped several of these awards, winning the Man Booker and Costa Book Award for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, as well as £40,000 from the David Cohen, taking her total winnings to £125,000. In 2015 the BBC adapted Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, into a six-part drama series and no doubt more will follow.
Australia has a great many literary awards. Each state has its own set of Premier’s awards with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In the case of these state literary awards, the categories are usually the familiar ones of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, and a supervening Book of the Year award which can go to any of the winning entries in the sub-categories to give that title a further $10,000. There is also a Prime Minister’s Book Award, alluded to earlier, which carries a tax-free prize of $80,000.
A la the UK’s Women’s Prize, Australia offers special awards for female writers, and an award for writing by women which offers a positive depiction of women and/or girls. These prizes bring with them $23,000. In 2016 the Stella Prize, given to a book written by an Australian female writer that is deemed “original, excellent, and engaging,” was worth $50,000. Writers short-listed for this award received $2,000 and a two-week paid Writer’s Retreat to help them develop their fiction.
In her piece, “On Literary Awards,” for Inside Story website, Susan Lever says:
This plethora of prizes may be overwhelming to readers, but for writers in Australia, an English-speaking country with access to the literary publishing of the rest of the world, they offer a little financial support and, sometimes, help in building a reputation and boosting sales. It remains difficult for a literary writer to make any kind of living from publishing in Australia.
But the relation of prize-author-press-money still requires some teasing out. Courtesy of some national and state autobiography awards, a friend of mine, John Hughes, won $40,000 for his memoir, The Idea of Home. He was also invited across from Sydney to Perth and hosted to some lovely food and wine by Janet Holmes à Court down at Western Australia’s Margaret River region.
It is also true that on some occasions the press which has published an award-winning writer might not see much increase in book sales as a result of the award. We know that it is not always the case that winning the Booker Prize – an award established by Jonathan Cape Press – will generate sales. Famously, in 1994 James Kelman won the Booker with How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Scots dialect, and his book sold scarcely any copies in the wake of his award success. That is, some prizes benefit the writer a great deal and the press scarcely at all, while some other prizes benefit both.
Fiction translated into English is always helped by winning a major award. When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek became a Nobel Prize winner, Serpent’s Tail sold 100,000 of The Piano Teacher and 25,000 of the other books of hers they had in their list. Prior to that they had sold 4,000 copies of all of her works on which they held English translation rights. So it seems to depend on which prize you win. I remember the year of the Academy Awards when Phil Kauffman’s excellent film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Chuck Yeager and co, The Right Stuff (1983) was up for seven awards. The studio was desperate to win some awards and generate more financial life for the film. But the four awards given were in the technical areas (Film Editing, Tom Conti’s Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects) as opposed to gaining awards for acting, cinematography, director and best film. In 2016 we might now see 1983 as a watershed year in Academy Award prize culture. Receiving those awards had a negligible impact on The Right Stuff’s box-office whereas there now seems a much greater general interest among filmgoers in the technical, geeky aspects of filmmaking. As the latest embrace of 3-D by filmmakers and film viewers indicates, most viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were deeply involved in analysing and appreciating its technical features, as opposed to earlier ineffective, sporadic experiments with forms of 3-D that had accompanied cinema from its birth through to the 1950s.
In Australia two things usually follow on from a book winning a major award or even from being short-listed. First, a host of local state municipal libraries acquire it, as do university libraries. The absence of any strong library system at municipal or university level in the Philippines means that this flow-on factor wouldn’t work here.
Second, in Australia, such prize-winning works sometimes find themselves adopted onto state-based secondary education curricula and when this happens many private secondary schools – Australia’s equivalent of the English “public school” – invite the author to address their students who are studying this text. The text in question is thus humanised and personalised for this elite cohort of student-readers, and the author is healthily remunerated.
A different perspective on these issues of literary celebrity, prize cultures, and book sales comes from a long-time friend and wonderful Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction, Amanda Lohrey (cited earlier as a recent winner of the Patrick White award) who said, in an email:
A few Australian writers have succeeded in constructing themselves as a brand – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner – but for most other Australian writers it’s tough. Buyers of literary fiction are one of the demographics most adversely affected by economic trends over the past two decades – ask librarians who are the real trackers of who reads what and why, and who used to buy and now borrows. Publishing literary fiction continues to be a form of high-class gambling, and you can pass this along to any aspiring young writers you know.
In March 2002, when Michiko Kakutani gave a rave review in the New York Times to the Hobart, Tasmania-based Australian author Richard Flanagan for his novel Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan was, in very quick succession, interviewed by a Los Angeles radio programme and hurried by his publisher across to the US for a whistle-stop coast-to-coast tour of book readings and book signings – all to capitalise on one review. London-based publisher François von Hurter, one-third of Bitter Lemon Press, which specialises mainly in translated crime fiction, said that a single review in The New York Times had great impact on sales, much more so than any single review in any English newspaper.
Pete Ayrton’s take on this question was:
I think this is more true in the States where a full sized review in the New York Times will cause something to really take off. I don’t think there is one place in the UK so I don’t think that is so much the case here. The thing about the New York Times is that it’s the only national newspaper in the US, apart from USA Today, which is unimportant for books. Whereas here we have the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and so on. I think what’s important in Britain is if you can get five or six or seven reviews. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, upon publication, was reviewed more or less everywhere, and that causes people to notice. But I don’t think there’s any one place in the UK where one review or interview will crack it.
In the UK and Australia the increasing prominence of TV book shows is another factor granting visibility and prestige to literary works. Everyone remembers that Oprah had enormous impact on book sales in the US, guaranteeing an additional million copies sold for each title selected, and allowing for the scandal in 2001 that accompanied Jonathan Franzen’s baulking at Oprah’s endorsement of his The Corrections, and his reluctance to have Oprah’s stamp on his book.
When mulling over the impact that UK book shows had exerted on Serpent’s Tail titles, Pete Ayrton said that it was the televising of these awards that was having the greatest influence and then added that readers’ groups had become very important to book sales:
Richard and Judy is pretty mainstream. They select good books but they’re not going for ‘edgy.’ Of our books they possibly would have selected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin but they didn’t. And Richard and Judy are probably the sort of people who don’t like the maternal ambivalence in the book, the fact that a mother could be questioning her role and her love of her children. TV programmes like these have grown enormously in importance, and literary prizes have as well: the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, they now all have much greater visibility because they’re televised, and they can really push sales. The other thing which has developed on a very large scale since we last spoke is readers’ groups. This is a big, big phenomenon.
People meet in bookshops, libraries, peoples’ homes. It’s almost 95% women and obviously that means certain books will meet the demands of that particular market very well. A book like Kevin is absolutely ideal for readers’ groups. I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to groups of 80 and 90 people, most of whom haven’t read the book, and they are saying, ‘I have a Kevin,’ ‘my son’s like Kevin,’ ‘the mother was quite right, I’ve sometimes felt like that,’ ‘was it nurture, was it nature?’ Any kind of book that poses these kinds of questions is ideal for readers’ groups, and they are a very fast-growing phenomenon.
In the US that is called “the water cooler debate.” At one point Kevin had sold 600,000 copies in two editions and was selling 1,000 copies a week. US writer Shriver has been a long-term London resident and reviews books regularly in the London press. In 2011 Kevin became a film starring Tilda Swinton and no doubt further sales piggy-backed on the circulation of the film.
The most recent big selling success for Serpent’s Tail is their importing of the US book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which, as of November 2015, had sold 750,000 copies in print and ebook. Earlier in its career Serpent’s Tail had experienced great success with what Ayrton referred to as “posh porn,” by which he meant English language translations of French author Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold 50,000 in trade paperback and 150,000 in mass market. Serpent’s Tail followed this with the translation of another sexual confession, this time by a very young Italian woman, Melissa P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and that also did very well, selling 35,000 in trade paperback for Serpent’s Tail, and eventually selling 2 million worldwide.
In respect of television literary chat shows and their place in all of this, from 1975 until 1990, France had Apostrophes as a weekly ninety minute television literary talk show, hosted by Bernard Pivot. The viewing audience was between 3 to 6 million and the show helped generate considerable sales for the books and authors it discussed. According to the New York Times, Roland Barthes sold 80,000 copies of one of his many books after appearing on the programme. Australia currently has Jennifer Byrne’s hosting of the ABC’s Book Club. The format sees Byrne moderate a discussion with two regular guests, Marieke Hardy, granddaughter of celebrated Australian Communist writer, Frank Hardy, and Jason Steger, Books Editor for Melbourne’s The Age and Sunday Age newspapers. Each week these three are joined by writers who might be Australian or might be overseas writers visiting as guests at one or other of Australia’s literary festivals. So it’s a celebrity book chat show and there are clear limitations to the terms in which books can be discussed. Even so, it was from watching this programme that I discovered how brilliant Colm Tóibín, David Malouf, and Richard Flanagan are at explaining a book, contextualising a piece of writing and making a serious case for it, so at its best The Book Show exhibits a flexible format.
To take the notion of “awards culture” in a slightly different direction, in the case of Australia we must mention the widespread adoption over the last twenty-five years of postgraduate degrees in the creative arts, along the lines of the US’s MFA and Doctorates in Creative Writing, and of opportunities for funded Creative Writing postgraduate study in the UK at places like University of East Anglia, set up more than four decades ago by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Now such degrees are available all over the UK. The flourishing in Australian tertiary education of the Doctorate of Creative Arts (sometimes called PhD by Unconventional Format) has permitted many creative writers, across all media (fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic novels, poetry, drama, radio-sonic, film-TV, digital), so long as they are Australian residents, to receive three and one-half years funding at $25,000 a year plus whatever additional funds are available at a given university for assistance with the candidate’s general research needs and occasional need for conference attendance.
When I was pitching this avenue of funding to various writer friends, from the mid-1990s to around 2010 or so, trying to persuade them to come on down, I always characterised it as an “alternative arts council grant,” and this often proved persuasive. This was a perfect storm of institutional and individual self-interest whereby many people who might otherwise have stomped around banging on about “the school of hard knocks,” denouncing the privileged safety of “the groves of academe” while saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” suddenly were very happy to come in and be funded for three and one-half years. Since the average income of a writer in Australia, as indicated at the start of this presentation, is $12,900 a year, the creative writing doctoral scholarship money was both substantially more than that – almost double – and also more than any book advance the writer was likely to receive. The result was a large number of postgraduate completions in this new area of Creative Studies across all media forms, one of whom was the Filipino Miguel Syjuco who did his doctoral study at the University of Adelaide. And under the Australian system these scholarship holders would have no academic fee debt because that was looked after by the host institution.
International Postgraduate Awards and Vice Chancellor Awards are funded generously at Australia’s “Group of Eight” universities (e.g. Sydney University, Melbourne University, ANU, UNSW, UWA etc.) but of late the Humanities is far less likely to receive this money than are the hard science departments. So this little industry has been complicated by issues of residency/visas, and punitively high tuition costs for overseas students that increasingly cash-strapped Humanities areas of Australian universities are most unlikely to fund. Add in rising costs of medical coverage for overseas students and we have reached a point where this formerly safe harbour now finds itself being ravaged by the rapacious idiocy of neoliberalism that everywhere blights the Australian tertiary education sector, as it does the UK tertiary educational system. The US system is hugely competitive in terms of being able to receive fully funded places in Creative Writing at eminent institutions (only six places available at Johns Hopkins University and so on) but their system, now definitely straitened, always had many other cards to play in this context of funding postgraduate study: from full scholarship to tuition waiver or offering in-state tuition to an out-of-state student, to undergraduate teaching contracts for the duration of the higher degree being undertaken, and so on.
In the wake of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) – reviewed twice in the London Review of Books – a conversation has started on the history of tertiary education creative writing courses in the US. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs NYC (2014) introduces the topic of whether being in a major US city (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco) and attending writing classes and literary events might be as worthwhile as incurring a considerable debt to have university letters after one’s name. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s Los Angeles Review of Books article, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” tells us that one of the article’s authors incurred a debt of $27,000 to undertake her MFA, and has repaid $30,000 so far with $13,000 still to go. Her co-author had, the year earlier and twenty years after graduation, made her final payment on a debt of more than $70,000 required to acquit her original loan of $30,000. As they explain:
Creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in his The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year.
They argue that “prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing.” This is very similar to the circumstances that obtained in Australia at the same time, when creative writing began to consolidate itself at postgraduate level at most Australian universities. Their meticulous description of the university management practise of shaving margins that sees predominantly adjunct teaching staff used to teach increased numbers in courses like these that are deemed “cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating” applies equally to the Australian university context. And the fact that D. G. Myers’s 2006 second edition of his The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 finds him debating points made by Asian-Australian Paul Dawson in his Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2004), results in a brief, informative sketch of the differences and overlaps between these two national university systems’ embrace of creative writing as a tertiary education money-spinner.
To conclude, an anecdote concerning one person I persuaded to come into PhD study at the University of Technology, Sydney – John Hughes, whose book, The Idea of Home, published by Sydney independent press Giramondo, won $40,000 in literary awards. That was done as his doctoral thesis on full scholarship across three and one-half years (exactly like Miguel Syjuco’s doctorate undertaken at the University of Adelaide). Earlier in his career John had received the Shell Scholarship in the Arts – only one is awarded in all of Australia – to undertake postgraduate study at either Oxford or Cambridge. He chose Cambridge, stayed four years working on his doctoral topic, “Tropes in Literary Criticism from Coleridge to Derrida,” but did not submit his thesis. His supervisor urged him to stay on at Cambridge and work as a postman but he declined and returned to Australia, working as a rural fireman and tutoring in Humanities courses at a polytechnic in my home town, Newcastle, where he had done his Honours degree in English prior to winning the Shell Scholarship. It was in Newcastle that I got to know him and very gradually, over several years, I persuaded him to re-enter the academic world by way of a doctoral scholarship at UTS. He agreed and after a very easy supervision – his prose was perfect – in which I suggested some books and articles, he won the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities, and that became the book Giramondo published. For a few years after that I tried to lure John from his job teaching English at an all-boys’ school, Sydney Grammar, into a University post. That dance continued a while until John and his wife unexpectedly and late in life had a baby, and his deal at Sydney Grammar meant that so long as he taught there his son would receive a private school education for a tenth of the usual price. He then became the school’s Librarian and his only teaching duty involved running two special tutorials, one on European Literature for a small group of very intelligent boys most of whom would go on to do Law and Medicine at University.
One day, as we were catching up over a beer in a local pub, I asked how much Sydney Grammar paid him as a Librarian and Senior Teacher in order to compare it with my salary as a Senior Lecturer, and see how plausible was my attempt to lure him into the world of Australian tertiary education. He told me his salary and I told him it was what a full Professor in the Humanities would receive at an Australian university. He already knew his work conditions were far better than anything that would obtain in our neo-liberal tertiary education system.
So I left John Hughes to his Librarian duties at Sydney Grammar School, a job which allows him plenty of time to read the work of other librarians- such as Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges – whenever the mood takes him.
Peter Ayrton, “We Need To Talk About Fiction,” Author (UK) (April 2008).
John Berger, “’I have to turn this prize against itself’ — John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” reprinted in a blog by Sarah Shin (November 5th, 2015).
John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005).
Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America (1962) (New York: Vintage, 2012).
Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2004).
‘Helen Demidenko’/Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1993).
Mike Dibbs, “On Documentary: Re-Seeing Ways of Seeing,” in John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005): 26-30.
James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005).
Chad Harbach (ed.), MFA vs NYC (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (Brisbane: Univ. of Queensland Press, 1993).
John Hughes, The Idea of Home (Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2004).
Michel Houellebecq, Submission trans. Loren Stein (London: William Heinemann, 2015).
Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.
Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.
Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.
Noel King, “An Exciting Business to be in at the Moment”: Interview with Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Euphoria Cafe Bar, Blackstock Road, London, 25 September 1992.
Susan Lever, “On Literary Awards,” Inside Story, 13 May 2016.
Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)
Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1979).
Neil Munshi, “We gonna make books our hustle,” The Weekend Financial Times (14-15 November, 2015): 1-2.
G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006).
Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era an the Mainly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 2015).
Paul Radley (Jack Radley), Jack Rivers and Me (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).
Jason Steger, “At $12,900 a year literary fiction does not pay: study,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Thursday, October 8th, 2015): 29.
Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” The Sunday Telegraph (15 October 2013).
“French TV Show on Book’s Ending,” New York Times (September 5, 1989).
“Banumbir/Birimbir Wongar”/Sretin Bozic, The Track to Bralgu (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1978).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.
[Header image: Book by Jan Murin @Flickr. Used under this CC licence.]