Archive for April, 2009

Many of the round-two submissions to the Productivity Commission smack of exasperation at the Commission’s seeming inability to engage with all the issues, particularly cultural value, lack of hard evidence for cheaper book prices, and detriment to authors. I’ve only read the summary of the draft discussion paper, and I felt my brain sliding off paragraphs into deep holes more times than I could count. But let’s see what other people had to say.

Nam Le deploys his legal muscle:

The vast majority of Australian authors cannot afford to write full-time; most of those who choose to do so already live on marginal incomes. As local royalties are orders of magnitude greater than export royalties – and authors receive no royalties for remainders – it seems crucial to acknowledge that the Commission’s recommendations, if enacted, would unquestionably reduce the income stream of Australian authors – an income stream already significantly lower than average. This will have the effect, as the Report also concedes at various points, of reducing the size and activity of the Australian publishing industry. No Australian writer will be immune: some may stop writing (while others are dissuaded from starting), some may find that the embattled local industry is unable or unwilling to publish their work, some may tailor their work and efforts toward overseas publishers. The follow-on effects to the literary and artistic culture at large are degenerative and obvious – the Report concedes all this as well.

Frustration from the Australian Booksellers Association:

There is a frustration felt by many of us involved in this debate that a reductionist approach has been taken in evaluating the economic benefits of culture and what structures should be in place to support those benefits. The difficulty in extracting what is cultural output from the more commercial aspects of the book industry, given the depth to which these two factors intermingle, should not lessen estimations of the cultural value of the industry.

Exasperation from Henry Rosenbloom:

What is worse, the draft report doesn’t face up to the fact that the case for the prosecution has collapsed. Of the two grounds for the inquiry — supposed problems with the ready availability and the prices of overseas-originated titles — the draft report effectively abandons the first charge.

Of the second charge, after labouring mightily, the commission has produced a mouse: it demonstrates that local book prices are competitive at the average $US–$Australian exchange rate of the past decade. Neither the supposed killer example of New Zealand’s experience after it abandoned parallel-import restrictions, nor the distortions of the Dymocks-led ‘Coalition for Cheaper Books’ turn out to be persuasive. The commission has been forced to recognise that there is no supporting evidence for the second charge, either.

Lest you think unease about the Commission’s approach is purely an industry shibboleth:

The NSW Government notes the Productivity Commission’s comments regarding the insufficiency of data necessary to accurately describe and analyse the market. The considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of any actual price effects caused by Australia’s parallel importing restrictions, highlighted by the Commission, and its failure to identify clear benefits that would result from implementing the draft recommendations do not provide a sound basis for changing the present well-functioning environment. The NSW Government considers that without a greater understanding of the market and potential impact on the cultural, social and educational benefits of the existing arrangements, the Draft recommendations risk undermining industry activity and the resulting economic and cultural benefits to the community, such impacts may not be reversible.

The suggested reduction to a 12-month protection period isn’t welcomed by economists on the other side of the debate, either. See Joshua Gans’ submission:

The economics overwhelmingly justify the removal of parallel import restrictions on books. Partial restrictions the form proposed by the PC only serve to continue to harm consumers with little to no support for Australian publishers and authors. Given the relatively small share of Australian-authored sales, it would be better to opt deregulation and leave it to cultural policy to address whether to support Australian authorship or not.

As the French would have it: ‘Bof.’

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April 29, 2009

Okay, now I have to read Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore. I get hooked by writer interviews more than by reviews. They’re personal, and they give me an idea of what the concerns of that person are, and how that person thinks, and how that person might approach entertaining me with their words.

Since there are plenty of good writers, more than I’ll probably ever get to turn my attention towards, I feel that interviews can be a good way to find out whether I and an author’s book will get along. It’s like how Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta Airlines, describes his interviewing tactics when selecting a Vice-President: ‘I like to ask people what they’ve read, what are the last three or four books they’ve read, and what did they enjoy about those. And to really understand them as individuals because, you know, the résumés you get are wonderful résumés.’

Ha! I can’t believe I just compared author interviews to job interviews. What next? Probably comparing forks to culottes.

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The cardinal rule of British culture isn’t anything to do with tea or the Queen. The rule is that if there’s a pretty, spunky character in a TV adaptation of a book, she shall be played by Billie Piper (see also Doctor Who, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and, uh, okay, Mansfield Park doesn’t count since Fanny Price is basically a blancmange with a piece of muslin draped over the top.) Suffering the indignity of reading a book with her face on it in public is pretty minor, though, since the book is written by Philip Pullman. Plus, she herself doesn’t annoy me all that much — it’s her ubiquity I find so galling.

The Shadow in the North is the second of Pullman’s ‘Sally Lockhart’ books. Plucky, ahead-of-her-time Sally is a financial consultant in 1800s London. One of her clients, Miss Walsh, has lost a lot of money in a shipping company called Anglo-Baltic, and Sally vows to get Miss Walsh’s money back. But it’s all a bit mysterious, because Anglo-Baltic’s ship, the Ingrid Linde, has just sunk without a trace in the middle of the sea. Meanwhile, Sally’s friend Jim has come across two standover men threatening MacKinnon, a skittish magician who can see into the future.

Yay — a mystery, and a mystery with a principled, brave, intelligent heroine. Sally is very quickly a character to get behind:

“You had three thousand pounds — isn’t that right? And I advised you to go for shipping.”
“I wish you had not,” said Miss Walsh. “I bought shares in a company called Anglo-Baltic, on your recommendation. Perhaps you remember.”
Sally’s eyes widened. Miss Walsh, who’d taught geography to hundreds of girls before she retired, and who was a shrewd judge, knew that look well; it was the expression of someone who’s made a bad mistake, and has just realised it, and is going to face the consequences without ducking.

But it’s not all goody two-shoes. Sally and her friends traipse through dance halls, lie their way into soirées, expose fake mediums, fall in love, learn card tricks and escape attempted hits. Well, Sally does go to the library at some stage to check out the patent registration lists. But Pullman can really write plot-driven stories, even with scenes set in libraries; he fills the pages with character and twist after character and twist.

One thing I love about young adult books is their capacity to unambiguously highlight the morality of actions, decisions and lives. It isn’t all angst and burgeoning hormones and unicorns, you know. Before long, Sally discovers that the disappearance of the Ingrid Linde isn’t her only problem: Axel Bellman, the owner of Anglo-Baltic and an extremely wealthy industrial entrepreneur, is involved in the manufacture of the Hopkinson Self-Regulator, which may be a weapon the likes of whcih the world has never yet seen. The book culminates in an exploration of violence, utilitarianism, love and power. Just as good books should, hey. Why are your friends reading Twilight? They should be reading this instead.

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April 24, 2009

The name of this NY Times photographer made me giggle a little bit. It’s not April 1st, is it? Happy weekend!
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April 23, 2009

A new parcel of Popular Penguins. Nick Cave! Whoa, my iPod just started playing Nick Cave (it’s on shuffle). Creepy. Other collective nouns for penguins: rookery, huddle, creche, colony. But you can’t beat alliteration.

Not book-related, but these 100x+ magnifications of sand from all over the world are fascinating.

Finally, Kevin Rudd has finally stimulated my package (ha ha). I was very good, and saved half straight away. Haven’t spent the rest yet, though I did buy my friend, who was yesterday admitted to legal practice, a copy of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. As Sir William Elliot would say: The law has its uses, I suppose, but I should be sorry to see a friend of mine belonging to it. (Just kidding guys, you are all very useful.)

I will be buying some books eventually, though not until I have finished at least two books on my ‘reading’ list. Most of the books I want are Australian-economy friendly. A definite contender is Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing Now. And Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. And Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. The Ian Wilkinson and Laurie Clancy short story collections from Ginninderra Press. There are a couple of American books I want, too, which I will get from Book Depository as I don’t think they’ve been released here. And more of those designer-friendly Penguin Great Ideas books. Okay, just thinking about this is making me drool.

Any other Australian tax bonus bunnies made up their minds about what to do with the money yet?

April 22, 2009

I might be going to Cumulus Inc. tonight. Something about going to a restaurant whose name has punctuation makes me a bit excited. Also, I have bourgeois eating habits, which will surely be the death of me in this upcoming recession.

I requested that the City Library purchase Philip Pullman’s The Shadow in the North, and it finally came in last week. They had the other three books in the series, which I’ve read, but not this, the second one. I would have bought it myself, but when I was a kid, I used to devour the library’s YA books about gutsy, interesting heroines. It’s kind of a wish of mine to perpetuate that experience for someone else.

You couldn’t do better than query my decision to begin yet another book — meanwhile, I haven’t started The Adventures of Augie March yet, which is my book club’s next book. But The Shadow in the North is great, and it won’t take me very long. I need some action (as in ‘lights, camera…’, you naughty thing!) until I can get the next season of Spooks on DVD.

Update: Got Season 4 of Spooks last night. Rupert Penry-Jones, here I come.

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Black Inc’s The Best Australian Stories 2007 (TBAST? TBAS2?) is pictured above in my hotel room in Dakar. (Senegal!) By all (travel guide) accounts it’s pretty difficult to find cheap accommodation that isn’t also a brothel in Dakar, so consider its green glow indicative of achievement and relief rather than envy. I was in Dakar for New Year’s Eve, so it’s been a long time between drinks. Let’s see what I remember.

TBAST has plenty of very strong examples of unique voices, an element which is key in short-form fiction. I enjoyed every story in this collection, even the non-virtuosic ones. Most of them have been published before in Australia’s various literary rags. My favourites, though, the ones I still think about, were mostly written in sophisticated, forcibly rendered first-person narrative. I do enjoy a good first-person now and then. So, to some examples.

Tom Cho’s ‘The Bodyguard’: ‘Someone is stalking Whitney Houston and I have been hired to be her bodyguard.’ A demented, playful, anxious foraging into Hollywood romance and masculinity, this is the kind of writing I’ve been thirsting to see from an Australian for a long time. ‘Quirky’, creative fiction needs an assured, strong voice, and Cho can certainly produce one of those. I kind of almost fell out of my chair for this story. He’s got a collection out now, too.

I die for Louise Swinn’s fiction. Her story Endgame is a compelling example of how vocabulary and sentence structure can give rise to a very successful voice. Endgame‘s protagonist is an immediate presence:

The class was told that I’d found my mother burning and I had never corrected them. Nobody said it to my face anyway. We filed out to morning assembly and I stood leaning against the brick wall up the back listening to the principal call out winners of last week’s basketball. I watched the cloud through the window as it darkened and exploded into massive drops of loud rain. Our teacher flicked the hall lights on. I expected her to tell me to stop leaning against the back wall but she didn’t.

There are also a couple of violently impressionistic stories that use such commanding imagery that my retina, impossibly, retains memories of them. Patrick Lenton’s ‘Uncle Jeremy Has Turned into a Tree’ needs little explanation from me. In Lee Kofman’s ‘Floating above the Village’, a cross-cultural mother-daughter relationship and desultory wanderings through Melbourne are anchored by the fey spectre of Chagall’s Au Dessus de la Ville.

Then, of course, there’s Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which needs a category all of its own. No other piece of writing has been on my mind as much in 2009 as this story. It is complex and fictively autobiographical. The fictive Le is ‘dreaming about a poem’ in Iowa, and when he awakes, his father is standing in front of him,

smiling ambiguously. He wore black trousers and a wet, wrinkled parachute jacket that looked like it had just been pulled out of a washing machine.

What a punch in the guts. How simple his writing can be, and how powerful. Le’s story unbalanced me when I first read it (in The Boat, last year): Did I like it? Did the angsty, awkward confessions (‘The truth was…’; ‘That’s all I’ve ever done…’) interrupt the superb tension between the writer and his father; were the writerly clichés of Johnny Walker and blonde girlfriend too thoughtlessly exploited? But…wasn’t the brevity of the dialogue potent, and the son’s appropriating the pathos of the father’s Vietnam War experience ever-so-tentatively callous? At the apex of what good literature can do, Le is sitting on a solemn throne, pumping conflicted blood through his readers’ hearts as well as his.

These are just a few of the friends you can make in this book. So the news is good, all very good. Can’t wait to read TBAST. I mean, The Best Australian Stories 2008.