Saturday, May 30, 2009

Richard Flanagan's nutty contribution

As regular readers of this blog would know I have been particularly critical of our well-known Australian authors for their less than intelligent contributions to the parallel importation debate currently exercising the Australian book industry.

In January I awarded the first prize for awfulness to Peter Carey, and predicted that, having descended to such a farcical rock bottom level, surely the contest among authors to write the most appalling drivel was over.

How wrong could I have been!

Richard Flanagan gave the closing address at the recent Sydney Writers festival, and you can get it here.

Apparently Flanagan received a standing ovation for this speech. Jason Steger in The Age described it as 'a beautifully crafted and blistering attack on the proposal to allow parallel importation of books into Australia'.

In my experience (wide, as it happens) it doesn't take much to get a rousing cheer from audiences at writers festivals. Just push the predictable, soggy left buttons and you're there. 'Smash economic rationalism' - cheer!; 'Smash corporate greed' - cheer!; 'Smash John Howard' - cheer! (that always got a big one); 'Smash the banks' - cheer!; 'smash the free market' - cheer!.

Flanagan got all these usual suspects in there, and added some more: 'Smash book chains', 'smash Bob Carr', 'Smash the GST', 'Smash the Woolies/Coles duopoly'. Cheers all round.

As if this wasn't enough, he added spice to the brew with the following visions of apocalypse, guaranteed to get the crowd downright salivating: 'the dying of the Murray or the Great Barrier Reef', 'a theology of the abacus rather than the cross', 'economic malaise and environmental despair', 'a climate system stressed and unstable', 'more people live in poverty than at any time in human history', 'untold damage to Australian culture', 'a remarkable industry crippled'.

The audience is now at fever pitch. This guy is not a top story teller for nothing. They're eating out of his hand, and then he closes with these beautiful words and phrases, far better than anything your average tub thumping evangelist could ever do:

'But as in Tyndale's time, we will need to stand up for such things to happen, for the ongoing right to hear our stories in our voice. And in time I hope we in Australia my even find our own words as remarkable as those words 'beautiful' and 'atonement', new words that not just describe but create a new country and people coming into being, an idea for our language in the shape of these words and the worlds that come forth from them, word and worlds it remains our shared possibility to make and our future glory to know'.

The problem is that the whole argument is rotten to the core. It is based on a lie, namely that the proposed reforms to our importation regulations would destroy the reality of territorial copyright in this country and thus destroy the industry. If this is wrong, which it is, then Flanagan's fine words are no more than empty, emotional rhetoric.

I thought Flanagan's latest novel, Wanting, one of the best novels of 2008, and I said so in this blog (Dec 16). What characterises this novelist's art is his sure grasp of the details of past lives and societies, imaginatively brought to vivid life.

But absolutely none of this propensity for careful research is evident in this SWF speech. He simply accepts at face value the prevailing but wrong-headed notion that ending the parallel importation restrictions would end the possibility of territorial copyright for Australian authors and publishers. Somehow this demon got out of the bag and is scaring everyone witless. But the demon is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. Even the simplest examination of the evidence and the real issues would uncover that. Combine it with a bit of hard thinking, and the demon vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Flanagan's speech ends up a hubristic, pompous, insufferably smug, self-important tirade against a fictitious enemy.

It is also an elitist mish-mash of the most tiresome sort, setting high minded culture against the vulgarity of commerce. The Coalition for Cheaper Books is 'predictably deceitful', 'compelled to so shamefully manipulate its customers', only interested in making 'big business richer'.

He also recycled the nutty, protectionist propositions he first put forward a decade ago: a 'national book commission'; 'a raft of measures, programmes, laws and institutions all with the purpose of supporting Australian writers telling Australian stories'. Few people took them seriously then, and few will now. But it's great fodder for writers festivals. Cheers all round.

I cringe when academics presume to be familiar with the intricacies of the publishing industry - not the best of them, mind - and I have likewise cringed during this debate when authors have presumed to be experts on all aspects of the publishing industry, including its complicated supply logistics. But I must reserve special distaste for Flanagan's commercially naive and simplistic take on corporate realities generally and its experienced players like Alan Fels. His cynicism is unearned, bought on the cheap.

The standing ovation, therefore, was for a weak and emotional rant, nothing more than bluster and wind, supremely unworthy of one of Australia's greatest authors.


Anonymous said...

Why not a comment on Tim Winton's rant earlier this week? WTF are these "Aussie Rights" he kept referring to?

Peter Donoughue said...

Unfortunately Tim is as misguided on this issue as all other authors who've commented on it.

While his submission to the PC is one of the best on the subject of Australian rights and how critical they are to authors' well-being and Australian literary culture generally, it doesn't address the central point of this whole debate, ie, whether removing the PIRs would make any difference to the ability of authors and publishers to buy and enjoy Australian rights.

My argument is that it won't at all.

Interestingly Helen Garner seems to be the only major Australian author not to wade into this area. She's been utterly silent as far as I can tell. Certainly no submission to the Commission. Is it because this wonderful writer has an incredibly fine and sceptical mind, that thinks independently? Her novels and reviews are characterised by a refreshing unorthodoxy. She's captive of no-one.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no on Helen G.

"I woke up with a terrible cold. Outside, the sea at Bondi was a grey leaden mass, reflecting my awful health. A friend rang to tell me about the booksellers who were trying to keep up the price of books in Australia. I flew down to Canberra to do some research on the issue. As I sat in the warm sun of a Canberra afternoon, outside a really nice coffee shop run by a really interesting ethnic couple who treated me like one of the family, I thought again about my headcold.

Back in Bondi, I tried to write a submission about book imports, but my headcold had come back."

Peter Donoughue said...

Ah ha..interesting! Notice she correctly talks about importing by booksellers and keeping prices up, not about territorial copyright. Also notice she actually takes the time to RESEARCH the issue..even goes to Canberra! How refreshing is this?!

Where did this piece come from?

Anonymous said...

Umm, from inside my head! It's a parody of Joe Cinque's Consolation.

Peter Donoughue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.