Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing
As Sean Kelly wrote in a recent article for The Monthly, our public debate and mainstream media coverage has become increasingly simplistic. We have misplaced the tools for navigating complex topics; there seems to be no time for reflection. This can be said of issues for contemporary Australia as diverse as the refugee crisis to the housing crisis and the terrorism crisis. The point is they’re all ‘crises’; more and more, we are accessing these subjects through the language of extremes; we are witnessing a growing propensity to shy away from deep and sensitive analysis. As, at its core, this is largely a problem with language-use and communication, it is unsurprising that one of its victims is a primary communicative tool: the book.
Whenever I read an article about the Australian book industry, it either bemoans the apocalyptic state of the arts or quivers with unsanctioned excitement at our flourishing literary landscape. Either all the bookstores are closing, or the independents are thriving. Either eBooks are colonising the hands and minds of superficial readers (and then, in turn, no readers at all) or the hardback is making a comeback. Publishers are sinking faster than the Titanic or they’re making a killing selling penny dreadfuls. Perhaps this overview is, in itself, an extreme and reductive view, however it serves to underscore the emerging tendency to talk in opposites, or, as we have seen with the recent Q&A boycott, not talk at all. If we cannot answer a difficult question, we’ll stay silent and shake our head until the interviewer thinks we’re having a stroke.
What we need is to inject some moderation into our public talk. There’s a reason why slow, gentle psychotherapy is called the “talking cure.”
I won’t pretend things are peachy in the Australian book industry, but I shan’t herald Armageddon either. It’s not as simple as that. Across Australia, and indeed across the world, writers, publishers and booksellers (and indeed many other players in the arts and cultural sector) continue to face enormous challenges. We are weathering the storm of the continued downturn in the market, vying for attention in a noisy digital world, rallying together for a pool of money that disappears down the gurgler faster than you can say “George Brandis.” But the downturn in the market, the noisy digital world and the insufficient trickle of top-down funding also presents opportunities - opportunities to do things differently, to shake things up a little.
This is our attitude at UWA Publishing, one of the few major publishing houses in Western Australia. The challenges we face are necessitating changes that are ‘energising’ – not wholly positive or negative. Having committed to publishing dynamic content, the real task is finding new ways to deliver this content to readers. It is a matter of cutting through the chaos, utilising and reflecting on the chaos, harnessing it. To be a publisher, now, is to be more than a publisher, to be something else. We are evolving from a traditional publisher into a “cultural hub”, a facilitator of open conversation, learning and discovery. Part of this move has been to partner with other creative organisations to develop a program of events that foster “discussion,” not talk. We’re popping up around Perth, at different times and in different places, hosting events designed to encourage thinking, rethinking, listening, mediation, reflection, consideration. The first of such programs is the Literary WINTERarts festival, which offers Perth-dwellers an array of events relevant to our lives and times. There will be a panel discussion on contemporary reading habits and what these may mean for cognition and development; a workshop on how to use archival material imaginatively; another workshop on what makes good criticism; a poetry night that shall experiment with long-form poetry podcasts, and a bunch of book launches.
The point is that yes, there are problems, or ‘puzzles’, but there are also always solutions.