When the Australia Council’s latest annual report was released last week, a particular pie chart began doing the rounds in literary circles, showing the distribution of funding by art form. While large slices of the pie were dished out to symphony orchestras (32.3%), theatre (16.1%), opera (13.7%) and dance (11.4%), literature received the second-smallest sliver (2.7%), trumped even by ‘cross-artform’ (5.5%) and saved from last place only by the ambiguous ‘miscellaneous’ (1.6%).
This is not a new development, of course. Literature has never been funded by the Australia Council to the same degree as the performing arts. For the most part this is due to the two-tiered structure of the Australia Council, in which a large proportion of funds are siloed for the 28 ‘Major Performing Arts Organisations’ (MPAs). These organisations – ten orchestras, eight theatre companies, five ballet companies, four opera companies and one circus – accounted for $107.8 million (62%) of available Australia Council funds in 2015-16. Of the remaining $66 million, literature received $4.6 million (7%) – a larger slice, but still below average compared to other art forms.
This figure represents the lowest level of literature funding in the past five years. Despite continual cuts to the Australia Council since the 2013 election, funding available for symphony orchestras and opera has continued to grow – symphonies from $51.2 million in 2011-12 to $56.1 million in 2015-16; operas from $21.6 million to $23.7 million. No other art form except literature has dropped below 2011 funding levels – dropped, in fact, to its lowest level in at least a decade.
In some ways this is puzzling, since according to the Australia Council’s own Arts Nation report, ‘reading is the most popular way of consuming the arts’ in Australia. In 2013, the Australia Council reported that ‘nearly nine out of 10 Australians (87%) read some form of literature.’ We can perhaps contrast this with the audience figures for the MPAs (collated by Live Performance Australia), which show that in 2014, 386,927 Australians attended the opera, 767,890 attended a dance performance and 1,015,122 attended a classical music concert.
Popularity, of course, is not necessarily an appropriate metric for determining the value of art. The point here is in not to denigrate the work of the MPAs, or to suggest that literature is somehow more socially valuable than the performing arts. But in the face of such an obvious disparity of funding, one might at least gesture towards the fact that literature accounts for a large proportion of the public’s engagement with the arts, and should therefore be considered on par with other art forms. The question is not whether we should have well-funded orchestras, but rather why literature has been left to sit only inches above ‘miscellaneous’ in the funding hierarchy.
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that society views the production of literature very differently to the performing arts. There’s a moment in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird where her father tells her that if she wants to be a writer, she must write every day. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano,’ he says. The analogy has stuck with me because it illuminates the difference between how we tend to think about writing in comparison to other art forms; how we often simplify and diminish the developmental phase of becoming a writer; how we expect literature just to be.
We don’t expect an aspiring pianist to be able to play Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique the first time they sit down at a piano. When we watch Odile turn thirty-two fouettes in a row during Swan Lake, we understand how much work has gone into their seemingly effortless execution. And yet when it comes to writing, there remains a sense that writers are born and not made; that writing can’t – and needn’t – be taught; that it’s completely possible to write an award-winning novel in the snippets of time between your ‘day job’ and your other commitments without sacrificing any kind of artistic excellence.
Writers are made by investing time and money in their development.
Perhaps it is possible – but it shouldn’t be the default way writers are made. Writers are made in the heart of organisations like Express Media, publisher of Voiceworks magazine, which was defunded during the ‘Black Friday’ funding round of May 2016. Writers are made through the crucible of editorial collaboration in publications like Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin (Jonathan Green, the current editor of Meanjin, has been blunt about what the withdrawal of Australia Council funding might mean for the 76-year-old magazine’s future.)
Most importantly, writers are made by investing time and money in their development. Generally this investment is the writer’s own – buying time to write by reducing paid working hours, writing hundreds of words for a nominal fee (or worse, for ‘exposure’), spending every spare moment ‘practising their scales’. Other times, the investment comes from others within the literary ecosystem – the editors working for tiny salaries (or often, for free), the interns who volunteer their time to ‘learn the ropes’, the overworked festival directors, the underpaid and overqualified editorial assistants who spend their nights and weekends trawling the slushpile.
This method of development presupposes that any given individual has the means to invest in themselves – but we know this is often not the case. There are countless reasons why developing writers may not be able to invest the time (and therefore money) into reaching their potential, from finances and family commitments to disability and geography, to name but a few. If we rely on individual artists to do their development in private, we risk a national literature where only the privileged can afford to contribute.
Imagine the poetry we could create in this country if we invested in literature to even half the extent that we invest in the performing arts.
This is essentially what Virginia Woolf argued in 1929 in A Room of One’s Own, when she wrote, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. In the same essay Woolf quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who points out that it is not a coincidence that most of the great poets of the twentieth century were university educated. ‘The theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth,’ says Quiller-Couch. ‘We may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.’ Woolf summarises this neatly: ‘Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.’
Imagine the poetry we could create in this country if we invested in literature to even half the extent that we invest in the performing arts. Imagine if everyone involved in the production of literature – the editors, the interns, the designers, the proofreaders and yes, even the writers – were paid a living wage for the work that they do. Imagine if our literary magazines were able to pay even the minimum MEAA-approved freelance rates to developing writers of all backgrounds, and as a consequence those writers were able to practise their scales every day, not just on weekends and public holidays. Imagine what kind of intellectual freedom we could unleash. To most working in the literary sector this feels like a pipe dream – but why should it be? If we fully support an orchestra employing 90 full-time musicians in the service of art, then why should we not also employ 90 full-time writers?
Literature, stripped of its board and its chair, with no umbrella body to advocate for it, is at a distinct disadvantage in the tussle for funding. While the MPAs’ positions are secure, literature organisations must continually prove their right to exist. They are in no position to interrogate the structure of the system they are operating under – we, as lovers of literature, must do it for them.
It can seem indulgent to argue for more public funding for literature when there are so many demands on the public purse. It can feel petty to point fingers at other art forms and ask, ‘why can’t we have what they’re having?’ But if we do not challenge the status quo, nothing will change. As Charlotte Wood said in her Stella Prize acceptance speech: ‘To write well is to light that candle in the darkness, offering solace, illumination – and maybe even the possibility of transformation – not just for the writer but for the reader, and for our society itself.’
That feels worthy of a slightly bigger piece of pie.