Reprint: Authorship: Local Discouragements by Arthur H. Adams

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Everybody knows "Punch's" famous advice to those contemplating matrimony, "Don't!"  

The same curt reply must be made in all sincerity to those who are contemplating entering the bonds of Australian authorship. Marriage without means is everywhere regarded as a foolish proceeding, fraught with the probability of disaster. So it is with Australian authorship. Yet there are, strange to say, practising authors in Australia. The itch for writing may explain this paradox; for the real author would write at the North Pole for the pleasure of expressing himself, even if he knew that no eye, save that of a seal, would ever glance at his pages. Australia is a poor country for authorship; and in the arts literature has been, and probably will be, the poor relation of genius. It is true that a subsistence can be made; but it is doubtful whether any writer in this continent has achieved even a modest competence from the sole product of his typewriter. The earnings of the most important profession, that of letters, are meagre and intermittent; and, what is just as important, the writing profession is looked down upon by all worthy citizens. So low down in the scale of importance is the author in Australia that in the honours conferred by the King I cannot remember even an O.B.E. that has been gazetted to an Australian author, unless, of course, he his gained that honour outside   of Australia. No Nobel literary award has ever reached this country.  


What authorship we have in this continent is due to the help of journalism or publicity work; and I know only two poets who are able to publish their works as they should be published. The plight of our authentic Australian authors is too well known to need particularising; our poets die in poverty or are kept alive by the kindness of friends or of the State. Yet our poets are the most important people in the six millions of our inhabitants; they are the voices of Australia; and their songs are the most vital things In our lives. By our poets and our novelists shall we be judged by posterity; and our anthologies will remain immortal while mere prosperous citizens will be forgotten.

One fine thing for which the Director of Education of this State is to be lauded, is the insertion in the school books of our education system of the poems of this land of ours. No longer are the school children taught "The boy stood on the burning deck," but the finest poems in the Australian language. And it is my belief that as these children grow up they will hand down to their children the fine things produced by our poets for eternity. Recently I was asked by a Western Australian blind institute for some of my poems and those of other Australian bards to be translated into the newer Braille type. Hitherto only English verses had been included in the library for the blind.

In order to exist as an author it is necessary to call in the aid of extraneous help. Journalism is the crutch by which most of us manage to exist; and judicially used it is a valuable help. But usually the poet finds that poetry (in Australia) does not pay; and who can fault him when he marries and has to keep a family? The goal is a distant one for the poet or the novelist and the best he can look forward to is a modest competence, though so far I have not found a single poet who has earned enough to retire upon his exiguous gains from Australian literature. The rest of us have to stick to journalism.


There is one important disability that affects all Australian authors, a handicap that is not observable in other English-speaking countries. This is the inherent prejudice of our reading public against Australian novels. The reason is that the reader does not really want to read about his own country. The English novelist is sure of an audience when he writes about England, and similarly the American novelist. Those oversea novelists have not to range the globe to obtain acceptance by the publishers; the majority of English and American authors can set their scene in their own land. The Australian reader prefers the wild west of America to our equally interesting wild west of Australia. There is something exotic in big, broad- brimmed hats of the cowboy that the Australian lacks in the slouch-hat; the stockwhip is a less romantic weapon than the six-shooter. We regard our own country as a dull field for fiction, thought that prejudice is happily dying out. There is, naturally, no romance in the Australian country town or the selection, no romance for us who live in those places; though, of course, romance is everywhere and more so in Australia than in Texas. If an average reader were offered the choice of a novel set in Bourke or one in Piccadilly, the London novel would be chosen. We think we know all about Bourke, perhaps because the right interpreter of Bourke has not yet been born.

Another prejudice that must be killed to give the Australian author his chance is the fact that we meet our local authors and know them too well. Most of them are engaged in journalism; none of them are well off. How can a reporter on a newspaper produce a work of genius? I know no Australian novelist who can afford even a Ford. The Autralian author remains permanently within the employee class, with a few exceptions.

The Australian author has not only to produce readable novels of his own country, but he has to meet a very stern competition against the flood of imported novels. He needs a tariff preference against the imports from America and England. One does not want a high tariff against imported novels, but there should be some arrangement, such as that suggested in regard to the film releases, a percentage of Australian works to be displayed on the booksellers' counters, among the imported fiction. Yet books cannot be bought as boots are. If the Australian reader does not want to read the books of his own country, heaven help us; and that is the only place whence help can come.

As for publishing Australian books in London, there is one important draw-back, the British income tax. I have suffered severely from that impost. I have for many years paid three income taxes, and the British impost is not light. So serious is the aspect that I have told my London literary agents to stop the impending publication of a cheap edition of two or my books; the small profit I would expect is not worth it. The British income tax would swallow my small earnings.  

Yet we novelists and poets go on; we cannot help ourselves.  

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 9, 2012 7:05 AM.

Combined Reviews: The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: The Poet to be Yet by Arthur H. Adams is the next entry in this blog.

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