Literary Hoax

An interesting – and rather disturbing – literary hoax has come to light recently here in Australia. It involves the writing of our only Nobel Prize for Literature winner, novelist Patrick White.

There has been much talk in the blogosphere about The Weekend Australian‘s sting (or stunt, depending on your point of view), whereby the paper sent 12 publishers chapter three of Patrick White‘s Nobel prize-winning novel The Eye of the Storm, changing names, the title and giving White the pseudonym ‘Wraith Picket’.

Ten rejected the submission (some suggesting Wraith join a writers’ group or buy a how-to book!) and two didn’t bother replying.

I am not sure what to think of this stunt. At first I was amused, but on reflection I was rather incensed. It is hard enough to get published as it is without one of our major newspapers carrying out such a pointless stunt. One could come to the conclusion that today’s raft of publishers do not really recognise great writing when they read it. I’m not an expert on the writings of Patrick White so can’t comment on the acclaim accorded his work.

On a more worrying note the current debate here in Australia – and probably elsewhere too – is that publishers no longer publish works of literature for the sake of publishing great writing. Most publishers work only on the “bottom line,” that is – will it make money? Market driven publishing and great literature seem to be mutually exclusive. I guess that one cannot blame the publishers for always seeking to make a profit.

Where to for writers of literary novels in an increasingly small market like Australia? The harsh reality is that writers like White probably would not get published today. Work like his just does not sell in sufficient numbers to be economically viable.

And what about the hundreds of struggling Australian writers trying to break into the published world? It must be discouraging to think that the writing of even one of the “greats” of Australian literature was rejected out of hand by today’s publishers. In my opinion, this hoax has done nothing to develop the Australian literary scene. It has possibly sent it even closer its seemingly inevitable demise.

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6 Responses to “Literary Hoax”

  1. Sim' says:

    I suspect that the publishing industry will likely go the way of the music industry – the only realistic way for new artists (authors) to get themselves published will be to self-publish online.

    How the business model would work is another thing entirely – and that’s kind of the point about publishers. Everyone wants to make money from the work, including the author (who still does need to eat, no matter how “great” their literary skill), and the publishers, who still haven’t found out how to print and distribute a book for free !

    Unless you want to offer a modest government subsidy to “artists” so they can concentrate on producing their art, or have them all live in a comune where they share the toil in exchange for food and shelter … then somewhere along the way, people need to make money from the exercise.

  2. Trevor says:

    Good points Sim’. I hadn’t thought of the obvious connection with what has happened in the music industry.

    Still – I was only talking about a small, diminishing part of the publishing world, the literary fiction part. Popular fiction is alive a kicking, especially if the author is young, beautiful and very marketable, OR the author taps into the current popular culture or psyche (eg The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter).

    The visionary part of me says that much of the print media will go the way of the dinosaur; it’s just too big, cumbersome, expensive and with too many people pushing their own agendas.

    In the immediate future (5-10 years??) on-line publishing (eg the blogosphere) will push large slabs of the print media into extinction.

    In the longer term, say 15+ years, who knows? What form will publishing take? What part will the internet play in all of this? If I knew – it would make both of us very rich.

    Got a spare crystal ball handy?

  3. Rick says:

    I think you have it right, Trevor. The stunt was pointless.

    ‘Literary’ writing has never been a large part of the publishing industry, and has been getting smaller for decades. How many poets, for example, made a living off their poetry? Yeats. Any others? Market driven publishing and great literature aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Several of the authors we think of as literary now were popular writers in their day – Shakespeare and Dickens for example.

    One of the nice things about the internet is that more people are actually reading than in the past few decades. Television isn’t as dominant as it once was. And more people are actually writing and publishing what they write than ever before. Much of it is ephemeral, but much of it is of good quality and I’m sure a percentage of it will be known and admired in the future.

    In terms of money, maybe we’ll see a return to patronage in which rich individuals support the work of someone they see as talented.

  4. Trevor says:

    Your point about poets is interesting, Rick. Here in Australia it is hard for poets to get published and very few markets (perhaps 5 or 6) pay little more than a token few dollars. It is interesting then to realise that, despite the very small market size here, more than 20 volumes of poetry are published annually. Many would have print runs of 500 copies or less and few make any money for the poets.

    Despite that, I read some time ago that there are probably half a dozen poets – perhaps a few more – making a full time income from poetry. Not from published volumes, mind you, but from workshops in schools, colleges and unis. Some would also be subsidised through grants, scholarships etc. 99% of Australian poets have another source of income.

  5. Daniel says:

    I can not comment on the situation in the past, but i feel that publishers are not trying particularly hard to relate to the literary writers in Australia. All accounts I have heard suggest that the situation is much worse than in other western countries, particularly france, germany and the UK. Sending out form rejection slips while clearly not reading the submissions sent to them is a bit of an insult to the writers who have sacrificed great amounts of time and energy. The publishers do not on the whole seem to be sorry about the situation. They are not for example working around the problem, or looking for solutions.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for entering the debate Daniel.

    The harsh reality of the Australian situation is economy of scale: there are far too many writers (due to the many writing courses in universities) trying to get their works published in an ever diminishing market. Layer upon that the spate of publishing house mergers over the last decade which means there are fewer and fewer publishing companies.

    The publishers are not inclined to “work around the problem” for another set of economic reasons. It is just too expensive to employ more than two or three readers – and when you consider that many publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts annually, the problem of reading all of them becomes prohibitive. Sad, perhaps insensitive, downright insulting, and maybe immoral in some people’s eyes – but economic reality is a harsh master.