One celebration and two king hits

During the last two weeks, there have been highs and lows for readers and writers in Western Australia and beyond. We delighted in the offerings of the Perth Writers Festival, reported by many (including The West Australian) as one of the most successful in recent years. But we have been dismayed by two major blows—one by the government sector and one by the corporate.

The Western Australian State Government announced that the WA Premier’s Book Awards, open to books published nationally in the previous year, will now be held biennially instead of annually, with the next awards to be announced in  2016 for books published in 2014 and 2015. As a shortlisted author in 2014 for my novel Elemental (Fiction and People’s Choice categories), I can attest to the enormous value of such recognition, not only in publicity and sales but in validation and encouragement. Stretching the awards over a period of two years will dilute the impact of a shortlisting, especially for those titles published in a ‘between’ year, as timeliness is an issue in an industry where books often have a scandalously short shelf life.

Much has been said, and rightly so, about the effective halving of the financial recognition of writers through making the awards biennial—presumably for budgetary reasons (a saving of $65,000), although the Premier has declined to comment on this. But equally alarming is the halving of the number of books—across many genres—that will be recognised and promoted through shortlistings, let alone awards, over that time. And overarching all these considerations is the negative message that the decision sends about the value of the literary arts to the vibrancy of life in our community.

Here are a few of the many comments from those in the industry who have spoken up in the print media recently:

While this will hurt writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, the saving is a pittance in the scheme of things.—Kim Scott, writer, The Australian

WA is still an affluent state. Reducing these awards by half is cruel to the writers who spend years completing books that should last for decades.—Terri-ann White, publisher, The Australian

The financial cost to the state of running the awards is minimal, more so in the context of their importance to local writers, booksellers, librarians and readers. Frankly, this is embarrassing.—David Whish-Wilson, writer, The Australian

It’s a tremendously disappointing decision. I would have thought the magnificent effect of The Giants on the community was enough to convince any government that spending money on the arts isn’t wasted. In this so-called backwards Wild West, we are among the greatest readers and love to buy books.—Diana Warnock, arts patron, The West Australian

It was a surprise decision and we have a lot of concerns.—Sharon Flindell, CEO, writingWA, The West Australian

[The decision] has major ramifications across the industry and reflects very poorly on the government’s support for the writing sector.—Delys Bird, UWA academic, 2014 awards judge, Western Suburbs Weekly

These awards have long drawn a spotlight on WA’s talent and have inspired new and established writers.—Jane Fraser, publisher, Western Suburbs Weekly

The impact of a prize-winning book and the profile it brings is much greater than a football match, I would say.—Michael Campbell, 2014 awards judge, Sydney Morning Herald

This kind of recognition is so important to an individual writer’s career.—Amanda Curtin, The West Australian

Perth writer and bookseller Emily Paull has initiated a petition calling on Premier Colin Barnett to stop cuts to the awards. If you feel strongly about the issue, please consider signing.

The second recent blow to writers and readers—this one from the corporate sector—has slipped by almost unnoticed; however, its potential effect is just as damaging to writers, publishers, booksellers and readers. A paragraph in the current writingWA e-newsletter states:

writingWA was dismayed to learn earlier this week that a decision has been taken to reduce the space available for books coverage in Tuesday’s edition of The West Australian by 50%. The reliable—and highly valued—double page spread will now be limited to a single page and occasional sporadic coverage on other days.

Over the past few years, the coverage of literature in the pages of The West Australian has gone from strength to strength under the enthusiastic and visionary direction of Books Editor William Yeoman. The sudden contraction of the newspaper’s commitment is devastating news. If you are concerned, please consider contacting The West Australian directly to express your views.

*Here are two more posts on the changes to the WA Premier’s Book Awards: one from Louise Allan and one from Emily Paull.

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32 Comments

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32 responses to “One celebration and two king hits

  1. I didn’t realise about The West Australian newspaper changes, so thank you for bringing it to my attention and I will write to them. It’s another sign of how books and literature are being devalued in our state. Reading, books, literature—it’s not as if it’s a a waste of time or even frivolous, and it’s an incredible shame the government and corporate world doesn’t want to support it.

    • I’m in the same boat, I had no idea. Will definitely write to The West Australian. The reviews section of that publication is a huge source of word of mouth sales for us, and readers trust Will Yeoman’s opinions. His reviews, and those of others working under his vision, have been showing increasing diversity and also a commitment to supporting the arts in this state. Bad call on the part of the powers that be, down at Newspaper House. Another angry letter to write, methinks.

  2. Glen Hunting

    Hi Amanda,
    I can only assume that you selected the photography of a cloudy sky quite deliberately and cleverly…
    I wonder if Capitalism, and our entrenched acceptance of its strictures, hasn’t a lot to answer for in regards to your/our argument. I can live with the likelihood that the majority of people will not seek out culture in the ways and forms that we readers and writers do i.e. via the arts in general and literature in particular. What is really difficult to accept is that such financial i.e.(at this stage) so-called practical constraints are placed upon those of us who are captivated by these art-forms and wish to go on living our lives being enlarged and nourished and challenged by them. I never actually proselytise for the arts and literature, because I believe people should be free to choose whatever activities or pastimes or cultural offerings give their lives pleasure or meaning. But equally, I want to have the opportunities to choose and embrace whatever I feel is most appropriate for me, and for people like me who are similarly inspired and invigorated by them. This might seem like a bourgeois, left-wing, bleeding-heart luxury in these times of economic and material difficulties, but surely it’s the kind of egalitarian, possibility-laden kind of life that most of us would support or want if we were asked or pressed directly.
    It would be more understandable and defensible if the Premier’s Awards represented a more severe impost on the public purse than it does. Given the reported annual turnover of the State’s finances (with all due respect to current budgetary difficulties) and the annual prize money attached to the Awards themselves, I can only assume that the recent decision to restrict the Awards to a biennial event is motivated more by politics and party predilections than by fiscal responsibility.

    • Thanks, Glen. It’s always interesting to read your comments.
      There’s also a rumour going round that the State Library is going to have shorten its opening hours because of budgetary cuts. All the traditional soft targets…

      • Glen Hunting

        Which is ironic, given that the Reid Library at UWA has just extended its opening hours until 2am, 7 days a week during term time. God bless them for it, but where’s the money coming from and why isn’t there more of it to splash around in the vulnerable arts sector in the State budget?

      • Different shoeboxes, I guess. But it certainly underscores the disparities in thinking.

      • Glen Hunting

        Yes, maybe. I don’t know how much UWA gets as a Govt. subsidy, if anything. But I love the idea that I can go to the Reid and escape my own over-familiar four walls and fill my frequent insomnia with reading and writing in the best damn library in the state.
        I’m probably not a real insomniac, actually. I’m just a night owl who likes lit.

      • Glen Hunting

        Far too many adjectives in my first comment BTW. I shouldn’t try to write responses so late at night!

      • OK, just be aware you’ve used up a fair proportion of your March quota.

      • Glen Hunting

        So adjectives are the new bandwidth, huh? 🙂

  3. Thanks for this, Amanda. There are disappointing developments, and I have already signed Emily’s petition.

    Interestingly, the new Victorian state government has created a role for a Minister of Creative Industries, linking our state’s economic future to our arts culture, as well as linking arts and culture to quality of life (I refuse to use their word ‘liveability’). Loath as I am to sound like a neoliberal, but I wonder if the WA government and business might think differently if they could saw support for arts and literature as an economic benefit rather than an expense.

  4. reidonwriting

    Eloquent post, Amanda – good that you’ve spoken out on this. I wrote to my local MP about the biennialisation of the Premier’s awards, and received a standard answer that pointed out it’s technically an internal Library resourcing matter – “This decision is not part of a formal budget process, rather the result of a reprioritisation of Library resources” etc. I’ve also written to the West Australian protesting about its halving of space for books, but I don’t expect they’ll pay any attention to squeaks from writers.

    • Well, it’s great that you’ve written those letters, Ian, even if the response so far has been predictably disappointing. It has probably taken the government by surprise to receive letters; I think they assume that their lack of interest in literature is mirrored in the community, and they’re wrong.

  5. Ian Parmenter

    It is an act of vandalism that the Premier’s Awards have been butchered by a Premier who is happy to spend more than $1.5 billion dollars of our money on a football stadium. Outrageous!

  6. reidonwriting

    In contrast to these disappointing developments in WA, I’ve read in today’s Australian a report that David Walsh (MONA) is putting significant financial and promotional support into the Tasmanian literary magazine Island – on the fair-enough condition that it devotes itself to print rather than than the digital medium. The quoted comments by Island editor Lamb about the rightness of a focus on print are cogent, I think.

  7. I can only reiterate what’s already been said. There’s more to this than money, it’s signalling that the arts don’t matter in WA.
    And yet some of Australia’s finest writers emerge from WA. It’s very distressing to see this, it really is.
    All I can say is that we as lovers of OZ Lit must band together online and try to spread the recognition that authors need as far as we can, using our blogs and social media.
    Until you lot get yourselves a change of government!

  8. marlish glorie

    Thanks for writing this sad yet important post, Amanda. The comments before me are distressing yet fill me with pride. All of them are eloquent pleas. Writers deserve recognition. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so, here in the West. As mentioned by Terri Ann-White, the contribution made by authors i.e. creating books, is enormous and lasting. Our books will be read beyond our lifetimes. Writers now, will help shape the lives of many readers in so many positive ways, that we won’t see, that you can’t see. It’s not immediately apparent. The effort of writers needs to be validated, so they can go on with their invaluable contribution to society.

  9. Amanda, thank you so much for alerting us all to this. it is reminiscent of when Campbell Newman cut the Premier’s Award as soon as he came to power (ahem…can we hope for such karmic justice here?). I agree with everything said. Writers need recognition, financial support and validation. Society needs writers… (Interesting about David Walsh though…)

  10. Pingback: One celebration and two king hits | Kim Coull

  11. Pingback: Three pearls, a squirrel and a couple of jam biscuits | looking up/looking down

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