“And Then Who Do We Have Left To Publish?”: The Grim Future Of Writing In Australia

The literary scene was one of many groups disadvantaged by the 2014 Budget, but they probably wrote the best open letter out of anyone..

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Want to be a writer? I hope you like peanuts. And baked beans.

You should probably prepare to survive solely on a combination of the two, in light of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to strip millions from arts sector funding over the next four years.

“We View With Dismay The Many Proposed Changes”

Pensioners, job seekers, university students and everyone in this article have spent last month or so decrying the government’s hard-line 2014 Budget. The Australian arts sector added their voice to the pissed off chorus as well, weighing in with the kind of perfectly phrased open letter you’d expect from a bunch of professional wordsmiths.

Signed by the likes of JM Coetzee, Angela Meyer and John Birmingham, the petition harangues Team Abbott for “devastating those who make art of any kind in this country” by slashing $28.2 million from the Australia Council plus $38 million from Screen Australia and $120 million from the ABC and SBS over the next political term.

The widespread outcry over the Abbott/Hockey budget was such that this letter got lost in the froth. What the letter offered, though, was a summary of the ways in which art enriches Australian life, and the precision with which the government was planning to dismantle its support mechanisms. With some of the heat having gone out of the budget debate, now seems like a good time to discuss the situation that confronts the arts with some of the key figures behind the open letter.

“We Ask That You…Recognise What Art Offers Australia”

“Many people don’t see the value in art and so don’t want it to be funded through public monies,” says Meanjin literary journal editor Zora Sanders, who co-authored the petition. “The government steps in to support industry and enterprise in all sorts of spheres, but support of the arts is often the most controversial, even though the funding is extremely modest when compared to the support other industries receive.”

Take, for example, this frightening comparison. The arts create more jobs for Australians than our country’s mining industry, yet mining is rewarded with a metric buttload of federal and state financial support each year. (Here’s the stats for those of you who crave details: according to the government’s 2013 document Creative Australia, cultural industries directly employed 531,000 people, and created another 3.7 million jobs indirectly in 2011. According to its own widely-circulated figures, though, the mining sector employs only 187,400 directly and almost 600,000 indirectly.)

“The Prospect Of A World Of Culture And Art That Is Unaffordable To The Majority Of Australians”

Sanders says that it’s hard to name a prominent Australian author who hasn’t been published among Meanjin’s pages over its 74-year history. Literary journals, she says, are “the proving ground for new talent and a place for established writers to test new ideas”. But Meanjin operates under Australia Council funding and would wither and die without government support.

“Making a living as a writer gets harder and harder every day,” Sanders says. “There is less money and more people willing to do the work for little to nothing. Writing is work, it deserves to be compensated in the same way all other work is. If individual artists and writers aren’t supported, the whole literary ecology collapses. And then who do we have left to publish? Only those who can afford to support themselves by other means. That’s a sad prospect.”

Jacinda Woodhead, deputy editor of Overland literary journal and co-author of the petition, says under the cuts we can expect to hear less from young writers, artists in rural or regional areas, and creatives working on smaller projects. Like reading ambitious or confronting works that challenge the status quo? Bad luck, as projects that aren’t necessarily guaranteed commercial successes will also disappear, says Woodhead, leaving our literary culture “dull and bland”.

“These proposed cuts present a government trend: while we might not see immediate cuts now, in three to six years there’s a very real threat that lit magazines will lose funding and we will also see all kinds of literary projects disappearing,” she says.

“Devastating To Those Who Make Art Of Any Kind In This Country”

Thing is, the budget cuts create a double whammy. It comes at a time when traditional journalism models are faltering and many publications are tightening their own budgets. Making it as a writer, especially a freelancer, is harder than ever. It’s an increasingly competitive pool where there’s less and less money splashing about. You have to really want it, and be prepared to live on peanuts while you work to make it.

I speak from personal experience. Last year I left the safe confines of a News Limited salary to try my hand at freelancing, hoping to stretch myself and my writing beyond the creativity-choking ‘inverted triangle’ of daily news reporting.

In between mouthfuls of cold baked beans, I began writing for Melbourne literary journal The Lifted Brow, which is assisted by Abbott’s crew through Australia Council for the Arts funding. Like most literary journals, The Brow isn’t flush with cash, and can’t shower its writers in millions. But that modest funding stream opens a window of opportunity through which young writers like myself can connect with quality editors and learn to push their prose to a higher level.

“These Cuts Will Impoverish Australian Culture And Society”

Access to these kinds of confidence-building proving grounds are critical for creative writers. Yet funding cuts would rob us of the very institutions which take on this role. As the open letter highlights, important works will “simply never be made” and Australia will be robbed of “a whole generation of artists, writers, publishers, editors, theatre makers, actors, dancers and thinkers”.

And all this despite the fact that Australians demonstrably love art. In 2009, 9 million people visited an art gallery or a museum — more people than went to the AFL and NRL combined.

The arts community has demanded Abbott and his ministry rethink the changes and reinstate arts funding. Poet and author Maxine Beneba Clarke even personally handed the PM a copy of the open letter at last month’s Australian book industry awards. She’s not sure whether he ever opened the letter, and so far there’s been no official response.

In the meantime, I’m considering buying shares in baked beans.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance writer living in Spain. Koren blogs at The Little Green House, tweets at @KorenHelbig and lurks on Google+.