The confrontation between Tower Books and Angus & Robertson provides a glimpse of the difficulties facing Australian literature today.

As Michael Rakusin notes, there’s now a real possibility that Carpentaria – the remarkable Alexis Wright novel that’s won the Miles Franklin and just about every literary prize going – might not appear on the shelves of a major book chain.

If novelists are finding the going tough, it’s infinitely worse for Australian poets and writers of short fiction. Bookshops occasionally stock a short story collection but almost none carry contemporary poetry. And most publishers would prefer to be visited by a serial killer rather than a poet – at least true crime sells!

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And that’s the rub. It’s very, very difficult to make money out of literary publishing in Australia.

Fair enough, you might say. If no-one wants to read some obscure versifier, let them go the way of the dodo. The punters will vote with their wallets about which books matter.

Yet the free market isn’t an election – or, if it is, it’s not in any sense democratic. Most obviously, if the books produced by small presses no longer even appear on the shelves, how can they ever find readers?

Of course, I would say that – I’m the editor of Overland, a literary magazine.

But funnily enough, John Howard agrees, at least when it comes to education.

Consider the recent Op-Ed piece by Kevin Donnelly, the government’s pet education theorist.

“If students are to understand how our culture has evolved,” he explains, “they should be introduced to poets such as A.D. Hope, Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright, as well as classic authors such as Lawson and Henry Handel Richardson.”

Donnelly makes the traditional conservative case for the literary canon, bigging-up the “moral and aesthetic value of great works.” These, he says, should be the foundation of our curriculum.

Yet if any of these “great works” were subjected to the same criteria facing contemporary writers, you’d struggle to find them in the shops. Hope, Slessor, Wright and co. only give the cash registers at Angus & Robertson a workout to the extent that school kids are forced to buy them. And how do you think the two Henrys would go without the protectionism of the education system? Can you imagine The Getting of Wisdom competing head-to-head with the latest Harry Potter, with its impossible discounting, its film tie-ins and its zillion dollar marketing campaign?

A “Literary Round Table” is a grand idea. But, as the Tower Books story reveals, the real threat to Oz-lit does not come from snooty postmodernists who deconstruct beer-coasters rather than reading book. The problem lies instead with the contemporary infatuation with neo-liberalism, a system that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

We should fight for literature. But the important struggle is not in education: it’s in the market-place.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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