Author Christos Tsiolkas sent the following letter to the board of the ABC yesterday …

I am writing to make clear my strong dismay at the proposed changes envisioned for the ABC’s Radio National The Book Show. I believe a stand-alone literary show is vital to the health of literary culture here in Australia. Both as a listener to the ABC and as a writer here in Australia, I am well aware of the terrific job The Book Show does not only in promoting literary culture but in being part of the conversations and arguments about what our literary culture is: who are we talking to, what are we talking about, what is our relationship to the international literary culture, what should we be talking about? I know that a hybrid arts/books/culture show can in no way sustain that kind of engagement.

You must all realise that there is a lot of good will that programmes like The Book Show have developed between writers and the ABC. I think there is also a fierce loyalty writers have to the ABC because the arts programmes champion, defend and, just as importantly, challenge literary cultures. By any meaningful definition of what a public broadcasting cultural program should be, The Book Show is a success: in terms of allowing a space for writers, critics, academics, publishers and readers to engage; through keeping conversations, arguments and debates about books vital and on-going; in acknowledging the worth of work across genres; in speaking to and for and about the audience that buys books, reads books, discusses books.

Just like us writers, you will find that those listeners are also fiercely loyal to the show. (I should note too that if one of the changes I have heard mooted is correct — that of splitting fiction and non-fiction across programmes — then the changes don’t even make sense. Recent debates in literature have raged over the slippages between fiction and non-fiction, between what is memoir and what is imagination. Again, The Book Show is one of the spaces in Australia where those debates and arguments have occurred.)

There is also such a deep reservoir of good will between us writers and Ramona Koval, between us writers and all of the staff of The Book Show. It is there because the programme has supported us from the beginning of our careers as writers. We are not only called to come on when we are “bestsellers” or “names”. This is why the programme still remains vital. We have seen the commitment of the staff when it comes to reporting from writers’ festivals, from forums and from workshops. That good will too is now also in jeopardy.

I will give you a concrete example of how that might affect my relationship with the ABC in the future. I have been happy, in the past, to be invited along and engage in debate and conversation on The Book Show and to do it when I don’t have a new book to promote. I have been happy to do that because I have faith in the commitment to literature on behalf of The Book Show staff, and because I see such involvement as crucial for a dynamic literary culture in Australia. In light of the new changes, I don’t feel that urgency any longer.

I am a writer in my mid-forties. Growing up in the era I did, I turned to the ABC for cultural inspiration and challenge. Younger generations don’t feel that loyalty to the ABC, I understand that. But you don’t chase that kind of loyalty through destroying all that is positive about the organisation. In my experience, young people are smart enough to name it when they smell hypocrisy. Sure, create alternatives to The Book Show, but it isn’t — and shouldn’t be — an either/or situation. What is happening now risks losing the audience and goodwill you already have and confirming the suspicions and low expectations of an audience the ABC claims it wants to foster.

The proposed changes are a dumbing-down, we all know it, regardless of the double-speak, evasions and weasel words being used to cloak it.

Michael Mason, Manager of Radio National, responds …

Our new Books and Arts program (working title only) will not diminish the importance of books in our programming mix. Importantly, across the week there will be no decrease in our commitment to books in the 10am-11am slot. This is because we have increased the length of the program to cover the full hour …

To answer your question, it isn’t true that the program will only look at fiction. The brief for the proposed new program will focus on fiction, memoirs, literary criticism and publishing news. We want to continue our analysis and debate around identity, memory and story and our focus on memoir will enable us to do this …

On Saturday nights, we are proposing that a new Books+ program (again working title) will cover fiction and non-fiction as well as publishing industry news as part of its arts journalism focus. We’re also proposing to broadcast an omnibus of the week’s book readings as we know listeners often miss one or two and believe that people will relish a quiet time for a more complete reading.

ABC Radio National provides more coverage of books and writing than any other Australian media outlet. This commitment continues strongly across the 2012 schedule. Conversations with writers, discussions, talks by authors, a dedicated poetry program, Australian drama, book readings and extensive coverage of writer’s festivals remain key elements of ABC Radio National’s offering to audiences. — read Michael Mason’s full response here (PDF)

Peter Fray

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