Jul 1, 2009

Tim Winton’s guest post

Yup, that's all Winton below. Look, I was going to keep this post short, but the issue – the Productivity Commission report on

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

Yup, that’s all Winton below. Look, I was going to keep this post short, but the issue – the Productivity Commission report on “Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books”, in the hands of the government as of today – suffers from being crazy esoteric* while being indescribably crucial to whatever it is we call our culture. To see Tim Winton’s superbly delivered Miles Franklin acceptance speech, in which he dismembers the report, play the vid. But for the rest of you lazy lot, or narrowbanders, read the core of his speech here. (Any transcribing errors mine, but I’ve checked and proofed. And yes, ironically reproduced without Mr Winton’s permission, but this is in a good cause – his. Ours.) Winton tells it like it is.

“The single most important factor in decolonising Australian letters has been the advent and gradual acceptance of ANZ rights; I’m talking here about territorial copyright. It’s not unique to Australia – every American and British writer enjoys it in their home country, and after generations of sacrifice and struggle, Australians now have it it too. It recognises Australia as a distinct literary culture and a publishing market in its own right. It’s the unheralded basis of our literary success, the reason we’re finally considered as equals.

For our writers, Aussie rights are the bedrock of fair play. They’re the only hope we have of making a living here in our own country.

But thanks to an agency of our own government, Aussie rights are now in grave jeopardy. So tonight’s a timely occasion on which to consider the value we attach to our own accents and stories, especially given that for the past decade or so we’ve had the luxury of taking them for granted.

The Productivity Commission is hostile to Australian rights. The commissioners have displayed a touching faith in the implacable genius of the market. As an interim measure they want Aussie rights to be limited to merely 12 months. After that all bets are off. Under that system you might be interested to know Breath would already be out of local copyright, just in time for the nation’s most prestigious literary award. And the copies in the room around you with the lovely gold sticker wouldn’t in all likelyhood be Australian editions, they’d be foreign imports. Export editions or import editions for which I wouldn’t be paid a royalty. And who would object to that really? You work for three years, you get paid for one – the genius of the market.

Anyway, that’s just the first step, because the commissioners are keen to expunge Australian territorial copyright altogether when, as they say, the next opportunity arises. Which means, of course, when it becomes politically palatable.

Now, that opportunity will only come if Australians are complacent about the success of their own culture, or if they suddenly stop caring about fairness in the workplace. Or perhaps if they can be convinced, once again, as their forebears were, from colonial times until the 1960s, that to be Australian is, after all, to be essentially second rate.

Australian rights are fundamental to the maintenance of our literary culture: our publishing, our printing, our writing and teaching – God help me, even our reviewing. For writers, this is the cornerstone of our fair go. And the policy confronting us has become our equivalent of WorkChoices.

Australians have outgrown colonialism but the loss of territorial copyright will return us to a colonial relationship in literary terms to London and New York – and what a squalid surrender! What a waste of cultural capital that would be. My twenty-five-year-old son has never known an Australia of cringers and whingers, and snobs and bolters, a country where people are compelled to ape the accents of their “betters” from another hemisphere. And I pray that he will never have to, but I fear that he may, unless we stay awake.

So tonight let’s not be distracted by one novel and one writer. The gong is great, I’m very happy. But I’m anxious we stay awake.

Consider the distance we have all come since Miles Franklin’s day and think of what we now stand to lose. Our Brilliant Career really could go Bung, and if it does, the work of generations will have been wasted, and we will have brought dishonour upon ourselves. And I really believe we can’t, and won’t let that happen. So let’s drink to that, eh? Cheers.”


* You may have caught the discussion about this subject on Late Night Live on Monday night. In which former NSW Premier Bob Carr, in his role as champion of underprivileged kids who can’t afford books, and board member of the pro-Commission Dymocks, steamrolls both host Phillip Adams and fellow guest Louise Adler by simply talking over them. Henry Rosenbloom at Scribe Publishing takes a surgical knife to the ideology.

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10 thoughts on “Tim Winton’s guest post

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    […] Tim Winton’s guest post – For our writers, Aussie rights are the bedrock of fair play. They’re the only hope we … will return us to a colonial relationship in literary terms to London and New York – and what a squalid surrender! What a waste of cultural capital that would … […]

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    […] Tim Winton’s guest post – For our writers, Aussie rights are the bedrock of fair play. They’re the only hope we … will return us to a colonial relationship in literary terms to London and New York – and what a squalid surrender! What a waste of cultural capital that would … […]

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    […] Tim Winton’s guest post – To see Tim Winton’s superbly delivered Miles Franklin acceptance … copyright will return us to a colonial relationship in literary terms to London and New York – and what a squalid surrender! What a waste of cultural capital that would be. […]

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    […] Tim Winton: Anyway, that’s just the first step, because the commissioners are keen to expunge Australian territorial copyright altogether when, as they say, the next opportunity arises. Which means, of course, when it becomes politically palatable. […]

  6. whchong

    Dear Jack,

    Your remarks are deep and rich and long; I’m not the right person to bat here.

    I’ll only note that authors of my acquaintance have benefitted immensely since ANZ rights were brought in, and I’m the last person to say that they should learn to live without them.

    I can’t help but keep returning to this: if the whole darn ‘universal right’ is so great, why does the US and UK insist on their ‘territorial copyright’, what you call ‘just a scam-name’?

    And bringing it right back to the supposed point of all this bitching – the consumer.

    The consumer, you and me, who this wonderful lobby and our wonderful government want to benefit so altruistically. (Does anyone really believe that?)

    Well, I don’t need their help – I can already buy books as cheap as I like by going online. Apparently the government doesn’t give a toss if they don’t tax my book purchases because – God bless – I’m operating by the laws of the global free market.

    Yup, I’m on a gravy train, so I don’t mind if the authors have some crumbs. So yeah, let them keep their copyright, what the hell.

  7. Jack Robertson

    I’ll answer your points: but firstly…you have to stop calling it ‘copyright’ of any sort. Copyright is automatically bestowed on any word you or I or Tim Winton writes, anywhere. It doesn’t need any more laws anywhere to exist – it’s a universal ‘right’, one recognised by any territory that is signatory to the relevant Berne convention. What PIR’s create is not some subset of universal copyright – ‘territorial copyright’. That’s just a scam-name a profoundly self-serving hard copy industry has granted to its protected marketplace (what PIR’s really create). Policing universal copyright in practise is obviously a different issue – and it’s going to get infinitely harder in this digital era, which is what makes this PIR tosh such a moot sideshow – but the key point about copyright is this: if an author has not signed a legal contract permitting reproduction, distribution and sales of his words (within any parameters attached), and someone does so (outside those parameters)…then they are pirate products and already actionable.

    One of the real bitches inherent in this debate from the industry PoV – if only they were honest enough to stare it down – is not about ‘copyright’ but about the efficacy and comprehensiveness of their own evolved contractual apparati. One (very small) genuine problem with pulling down PIR’s is not predatory overseas publishers and voracious mass market chains as such, but the many intermediate distributors and end-point buyers who are – allegedly, if you ask the industry itself – separate from contractual limitations imposed on original publishers. Writers/publishers in Australia argue that they will be contractually ‘helpless’ to prevent bulk re-sellers and remainder warehouses dumping stock here if PIR’s are removed. In fact this again is very arguable. Generally we’re dealing with unsold books, here: and generally there’s no money in them, and so publishers haven’t really tested the legalities re: a lot of the on-selling by bulk end-receivers that goes on. You’ve got fifty thousand unsold ‘genius books’ on your hands that no punter wants to buy, some warehouse Shylock offers you a job-lot figure for them…of course you’re gunna ask no questions about where he’s going to dump them (and then protest, if your writer complains, that ‘legally’, your hands are now washed). It’s very likely bullshit, highly-contestable, the sooky-sooky-mummy-helpee wailing of a sclerotic, complacent and aloof industry that wants the vast (possible) benefits of mass-market production and economy-of-scale distribution that big chains and bulk print runs potentially offer…without the comcomitent effort/time/expense of doing ‘due diligence’ on downstream contractual ramifications of multi-layered, intermediary deal-making and over-supply of dud product. Hard copy publishing in the 21st century is full of grand noble ‘cultural visionaries’ with the restraint and accountability of Barry Hall and the collegiate ethics of the NSW ALP. Book writers in the 21st century, meanwhile, all want Wal-Mart reach, Hollywood marketing, hedge fund percentiles yet the same old Toff, Spoff, Uppity & Smug (hand-embossing Shakespeare since 1598) disdainful distance from the biffs and thwacks of mercantile give-and-take every one else takes as standard SOP.

    Book writers and book makers need to get the hell over themselves. Especially now. If you want fine-grade contractual control over your darling deathless prose – but also global oomph and spread – there’s only one honest way to ensure it: write big-enough sellers from and into a fully open global market such that you can railroad your contractual arrangements into exactly the shape you want on th epower of your hungry demand alone.

    Cossetting our pens behind PIR’s is worst kind of training regime for that game I can think of.

    What’s nutty about this debate is that writing for money has always been as pure a markeplace stoush as you can get. Wannabe aggregate supply far outweighs actual aggregate demand. You have to be good to sell your writing at all. To do so even the best writers sign all sorts of targeted contracts licensing their copyright in all sorts of territorial, linguistic, type, market, byline, time limit and media genre combinations. This is especially so now, in digi-loony-land. Keeping tabs on the complexity of this daily copyright trade on a case-by-case basis is where agents – and copyright lawyers – do their grunt work. Writing for money is and always has been CONTRACT based. You get what you can, and what you can get invariably involves a zillion trade-offs: what you have to ‘cop’ to get your words into a bigger/new potential reader market. Journalists manage this professional calculus on a daily basis, as a matter of course. The notion that a disembodied (from the words) quality like ‘geographical territory’ can really be the basis of a sub-class of ‘copyright’ was always a bit shaky at best when it came to a small (English language) market like Australia, and now in this digital Google-web-English era it’s untenable.

    It’s here that the calls for equivalency between Australia and the US/UK fall down, and also, it’s here that Wintonesque arguments about the risk of losing our ‘cultural hegemony’ are exposed as a complete inversion of the real risk. We Australians all write in English. That means, firstly, any entry into overseas English markets – UK/US – we can get ourselves represents a hugely skewed plus for us, in comparison to the reverse. I get into the US and my book’s potential market just multiplied by ten. My mirror-compadre in the US might add five percent to his here. The reality is that if you run the biggest show in town – where everyone wants to ply their trade – you can do what you like and smaller fry can like it or lump it. To mimic the big guy’s protectionist stance on the basis of ‘monkee see, monkee do’ is nothing but ridiculous churlishness, and to suggest it automatically puts us on ‘equal terms’ re: product output is laughable delusion, and sends exactly the wrong message to the very local industry producers you want to gird their f**king loins, and charge that big mutha protected marketplace overseas, have a go, get in there and mix it in the Main Game.

    Believe it or not, American and UK writers and publishers are not lining up in their thousands, desperate to crack into the OZ market. Us setting up a protected marketplace when we are hardly under siege from overseas buyers for our product is as self-harming as doing so for any other product. All it does is inculcate a protectionist mind-set that undermines our capacity to carve into the O/S main game. Writing – ‘culture’ – is especially prone to ossification and withering to unsaleable ‘quaint tourist’ status if it’s given life-support in the home production-market.

    Why not take these ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘local industry’ arguments down the comparative line to their logical extremes, and consider an English-speaking island of one writer, one publisher, a few hundred readers. Sure, if they want to grant themselves ‘territorial’ copyright (sic) in their national legislature too, they can go for it. (They can ‘legislate’ themselves a National Space Industry too, if they want). Sure, go ahead and make it (essentially) impossible for anyone but the local publisher to publish all books-for-sale on that island, or at least get first dibs. Sure, these days the readers can jump on-line and get any other book they like, keep up with the o/s cutting edge that way; sure, that one writer can churn out whatever, safe in the knowledge that the effective subsidy of his local publisher by the ‘secondary’ publishing of incoming cutting-edge books will give him a ‘career’ regardless of how good his are; sure, that publisher will stay in business. Sure…that little island will have a ‘viable’ industry. Woo-hoo.

    But how healthy is it that that local publisher has an effective ‘Guild’ control over its tenor, disposition, ebb and flow, the local publishing churn? Even if the one local writer gets his stuff up o/s – as ‘the’ quintessential (ie only) ‘Island’ writer to have on your shelves in your SoHo loft – is that ‘making it’ in any meaningful sense? Winton et al talks endlessly about ‘buying into’ the great global literary conversation on an ‘equal footing’, but he’s done so because he can write on an ‘equal footing’. That’s all. PIR’s actually have the reverse effect, if anything, especially when they are turned into self-conscious instruments of Cultural Defence. At least as pure unapologetic trade barrier – which is, by the way, how the Yanks and the Brits see theirs – they aren’t so appallingly humiliating to and of a nation’s writing culture. But as ‘Cultural Necessities’ they turn ‘Australian’ writers into boutique salon pieces, quaint little antipodean knick-knacks, literary didj’s and dot paintings. They make us look pissant, weak, frail, fragile, subsidised, protected…they bottleneck our ‘literary community’ links to that very global conversation. They grant a small number of self-annointed ‘literary community’ concerns the mechanism to bestow a quasi-official ‘imprimatur’ (or not) on our means of entry into that conversation.

    It’s the worse kind of cultural gate-keeping there is, and I say f**k that. I don’t many of our ‘literary community’ leaders actually know what good writing really is, judging by the rubbish on the MF shortlist this year.

    As for Carr and the bulldust ‘consumer’ arguments…they’re rubbish, but mostly irrelevant, anyway. Supporters of PIR’s have shown pretty convincingly that the Dymock’s ‘cheaper books’ line is untenable.

    But the real arguments for change are on the producer side.

  8. whchong

    I’m guessing from the tone that this bit of high-octane bomb-throwing is by the Jack Robertson of the Sydney Morning Herald’s web diary. (Awaiting confirmation.)

    I can’t say I’m persuaded. But thanks for articulating another position – rather more thought-provoking than Bob Carr’s broken record of high book prices and growing up too poor to afford books, poor wee thing.

    Here’s a couple of simple points.

    Why do the British and Americans maintain their territorial copyright? Do Australians really think we are more equal, or stronger than they are?

    And, look, if the government really wanted to lower the price, it’d do what is being allowed now when I buy a book from Amazon: just lift the GST on books.

  9. Jack Robertson

    What a load of whining, narcissistic, hypocritical bulldust. Tim was so concerned about fighting the good fight for Australian literary culture that he didn’t even bother to show up at the MF to take his forty grand cheque. He was off fishing. Neither did Murray Bail, Cristos Tsiolkas, Richard Flanagan or Louis Nowra, the other short-listers. Way to scrum down with the booky hoi poloi, boys. What posturing rubbish this issue has tossed up from our name scrivs.

    Winton’s selling a con. Territorial ‘copyright’ as created by PIR’s is no such thing. It’s just a trade barrier. The phrase is real street hustle side-of-mouth stuff. Remove his PIR’s and Tim can create his own territorial ‘copyright’ any time he likes by refusing to sign any contract that may allow overseas publishes to sell here. If these wimps haven’t got the negotiating oomph to do that they need to get better agents or write better books that give them grunt in head-to-heads. One of the funniest submissions in all 500 odd to the PC is from kids’ scriv Mem Fox, in which she relates an oh-so-heart-rending story about her first US deal: at first she wails and whines and pompously declares her passionate disdain for changes to good old Ozzie vernacular; then she lamely signs the dotted line agreeing to it anyway (she wants the loot); then she piously wails about how she’s regretted it ever since. Aw, our poor things, our poor widdle writers.

    As for the ‘threat’ to our ‘culture’ of those editions coming back here Yankified – first, if Winton and co are good enough writers, we’ll want to read their stories, in their vernacular. Second – maybe we all like Americanised stuff. Maybe we all like locking into the global grid. Maybe Tim’s idea of our culture…isn’t. There’s obviously SOME reason we so overwhelmingly prefer Stephenie Meyer to any of those five absent ‘literary’ writers above, AKA our pure brave Culture Knights. Maybe they should stop gazing in the love-struck mirrors our brackish pool of literary gate-keepers hold up to each other’s face at times like this, and try to figure out what makes Meyer’s stuff work. Culture isn’t made from the top down, by decree. It’s made organically, in the talent market/mosh-pit. Aren’t these f**king sooks-with-pens at all ashamed that they need to bleat to Big Mummy Government to put up barriers, to ensure their stories get read and Australian culture stays ‘alive’? Here’s an idea for life, boys: don’t write dead sh*t stories about dead sh*t Australian culture that no-one gives a dead sh*t about. Radical!

    Last and by no means least, this debate is so yesterday. Hard copy book PIR’s pale into irrelevance in a digital age in which massive paradigm shifts are underway, and nobody knows what publishing is going to look like tomorrow, let alone in five years. Old media ‘high lit’ publishers – and their patiently-nurtured marquee writers (like Winton), feted and garlanded and push-polled by Australia’s incestuous literary community, through many years of lean sales (where a free market may have culled them), to the point that their output becomes a benchmark of ‘quality’ automatically – need to grasp something: the old Guild rules are falling apart. No-one under thirty save starry-eyed literary groupies gives a sh*t what Tim et al’s Oz cultural diktat is any more. In a globalised self-publishing nirvana there’s cultural room for everything and everyone, everywhere, all at once. What there isn’t room for anymore….are gatekeepers.

    Hard copy book publishing is slowly disappearing up its own feverishly-winking, self-important pucker, and if it wants to survive at all it needs to lose the old ‘artistic & cultural noblesse oblige’ horse-sh*t delusions. Those who care about books will spit on their hands, stop whining abot PIR’s, and start writing and publishing to survive without crutches of any kind, to fight their ground with the only weapon to bring to this fight, which is good stories told in good words. They’ll spend their writing time writing the best yarns they can as well as they can, not long windy grizzles to the PC and lectern-thumping speeches for their Guild chook raffle nights. They’ll do what Nam Le did, and go and edit Harvard Review’s fiction page to get some traction with the big boys direct. They’ll do what Matt Reilly did; self-publish, and guerilla-stock copies in chains. They’ll publish novels in installments on their blogs. They’ll pay attention to what works, with readership as the driving KPI. Maybe in (digital) time we’ll even get to throw out the toxic Modernist dispensation in its counterfeit entirety, so that never again will any coterie of self-appointed artistic translators get to unilaterally decide what books are ‘good’ for ‘culture’ and what are not.

    Really, Tim Winton’s been an absolute bore and a monumental w**nker on this issue. Like them all. Go and waste several hours of your life ploughing through the solipsism and entitlement on display from our book writers, on the PC website. The thudding ‘cultural’ self-aggrandisement. The posing. The complete absence of self-scrutiny. At a time when hard copy journos are dropping like flies and the rest of us would-be writers are duking it out in the global audience free-for-all mosh-pit online, and workers everywhere stand in the path of the GFC long-stripped of artificial protections, all these sniffy book-writer demands for continuing market-compartmentalisation read like pretty-boy whimpers for Queensberry Rules in a pub fight.

    I suggest Winton should have spent less pen-time whining about PIR’s recently, and more working on the utterly rubbish ‘Eva’ character in Breath, bodged together in obvious mild desperation and tacked belatedly on the back end of an otherwise perfectly serviceable piece of high-end, weekend colour supplement surf journalism, to compensate for the (usual) Wintonesque absence of plot, and the (usual) lame menagerie of aimless, agency-bereft Australian losers. If a removal of PIR’s were to force Tim the Drip to fight in an open market for an audience by writing women characters who are more than the literary equivalent of blow-up dolls and margarine ads and men who aren’t all on f**king Olanzapine, that alone will have justified the policy shift.

  10. hackpacker

    Nice to see Winton speaking up for all the unpublished writers on this crucial issue.

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