Blind Sparrow won’t save Aussie literature

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow is one who has often flirted with the lunatic fringe. But then, I guess that’s to be expected from the editor of the self-proclaimed “most radical of Australia’s long-standing literary and cultural magazines”. Interestingly, the Overland website indicates that the journal is supported by – you guessed it – public money. The key sponsors are: the City of Melbourne, the Federal Government, the Victorian Government, Melbourne University and – oddly – UNESCO.

Let me dwell on that last one for a second. The UN body tasked with promoting education and social/cultural rights throughout the world is spending money every year supporting some crackpot quarterly journal whose website, according to Alexa, gets less Australian hits than this one (which, by the way, gets substantially less funding. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to fund Major Karnage, I’m very open to the idea…). Don’t they have better things to spend their money on, like recognising Palestine as a state? Oh, never mind.

Point is, given the amount of public funding flowing into Sparrow’s journal and thus allowing him to keep his job, it is not surprising that he is so devastated at the idea of public funding for the arts in Australia being cut:

Note: I feel the need to “fisk” the article a little.

A new defence of literature is urgently needed – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

When right-wing parties win elections, arts administrators generally repeat to each other a piece of consolatory folk wisdom, along the lines that conservative governments fund culture more generously than their Labor counterparts. But if that were ever true, it rested upon a patrician sensibility in which certain manifestations of high culture (opera, ballet, etc) were understood as ritualistic reinforcements of class power: thus an orchestra, say, might be subsidised because its performances featured on the social calendar of those people who traditionally bankrolled the Liberal Party, even as experimental poetry might be allowed to wither.

What is “experimental poetry” anyway? What findings come from these experiments? Can experimental poetry pack opera houses full of people? Because if it can’t, I can definitely understand why an orchestra would get funding instead.

In any case, Tony Abbott’s a politician of a different stamp. … Like many of the new generation of Liberals, he’s spent his career chasing the Left out of what he sees as its institutional footholds. That seems to be at least part of the reason why Newman shut down Queensland’s awards – as the Oz helpfully reminds us, they “attracted controversy last year when former al-Qa’ida trainee David Hicks was shortlisted for the non-fiction award for his Guantanamo Bay: My Journey.”

Remind me again why Hicks’ book was shortlisted for the non-fiction award? By most accounts, it was a horribly written and only arguably a work of “non-fiction”. I’m extremely uncomfortable with this glorification of Hicks anyway. Even accepting that he was mistreated, he is still a man with an extremely racist and hateful worldview who supports the use of violence against innocent people (who aren’t him).

But he is hated by Bush and Howard, so I guess what does a little support for al-Qaeda matter? We can put aside the odd call for the slaughtering of the “Jews, non-believers and Americans”, right?

We need to build popular support. That seems obvious, but too often the responses to looming cuts in the sector begin and end with attempts to convince those making the decisions. What we need, instead, is public recognition of the value of culture, sufficient that ordinary people will rally to defend it.

That might seem like a tall order but there are reasons for optimism. Reading is, according to the ABS, a favoured leisure activity for about 60 per cent of Australians over the age of 15. The recent Books Alive survey claimed that in the week before the research, some 67 per cent of adults had read for pleasure. Writers’ festivals draw extraordinary numbers and are popping up all over the country, while creative writing courses are one of the biggest growth areas in Australian universities.

The people who care about books are out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can articulate why literature is of importance or why reading is more than simply an enjoyable pastime.

That’s the challenge for those who work in the field. There’s an urgent need for a new defence of literature, arguments that are neither philistine populism nor patronising elitism, but instead make the case why writing should matter to ordinary people.

It’s something we’ve traditionally been very bad at. We need to get much better, very quickly.

Ok Mr Sparrow, want to build popular support? Here’s my first suggestion: stop apologising for David Hicks.

In fact, there’s something deeply troubling about this whole discussion. We are treating the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards as if it is simply an attack on the arts, but they very nearly gave $15000 to a man who has been forbidden to profit from his conviction for supporting terror. The Sydney Writer’s Festival hosted him last year as well. What are publicly-funded institutions doing promoting David Hicks?

Yes, people who care about books are out there, but pouring taxpayer dollars into Overland is not going to help the situation. I find it incredible that Sparrow was so snarky about Conservative support for the orchestra when his journal is propped-up to cater to an even smaller group of cultural elites than the ones going to see the Sydney Philharmonic play Chopin. In fact, once a vaguely right wing government takes over in Melbourne or federally, they would have every right to axe their funding to an establishment as openly partisan as Overland. We’re not talking the ABC here, which at least has the pretence of aiming to be balanced – Overland has an agenda that it makes very clear. Why should governments fund organisations that publish anti-government propaganda?

The literary magazines that do well are not funded publicly, they have to find advertisers and buyers like everyone else. Similar for literary awards – there are a lot of people and organisations that would love to brand themselves as supporting literature to appeal to educated Australians. They would not, however, want to be anywhere near David Hicks and many of them wouldn’t touch Jeff Sparrow either. Arts communities in Australia need to start finding ways to both solicit philanthropic donations and appeal to a broader audience. This will never happen if success continues to be determined by whoever impresses the Mayor of Melbourne more, rather than whoever sells more books.

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