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Australia seen from space. The planet has a lurid blue tinge to it.

Image: Canva.

There are certain words that are used to describe literary titles released in Australia: they’re ‘timely’ and ‘important’, from ‘voices that need to be heard’. These are the books we’ll talk about with our friends and families. We’ll read their reviews in lit journals. We’ll go to see these authors on stage at writers’ festivals and eagerly await their next releases. But what does it mean to write a book like this?

For me, an emerging author, these words speak not only to a book’s content but its context. These identifiers position literature in the market and places it along the timeline of social discourse. Chances are the stories they describe tap into the contemporary zeitgeist and address the ‘wicked problems’ of the day. These are the pervasive issues that don’t have an easy fix, things like healthcare, inequality, the threat of (even more) pandemics and climate change. They’re also issues that inspire creative works across mediums, whether it be in music, theatre, film, video games or books. Countless creators have meditated on possible solutions to these problems through their stories.

But here’s where the tension emerges, a weird catch-22 that exists in the world of Australian literary publishing, where some work is lauded for being ‘timely’ and ‘important’, and other writing is branded as ‘non-commercial’ by contributing to our collective sense of overwhelming, existential dread.

Last year—when speaking with an agent about my own work—I was cautioned against making any mention of the pandemic as a plotline because it was an ‘active turn-off for many publishers and readers’. Having spent the better part of two years locked inside my apartment, it was a sentiment I fully appreciated. However, this exchange did make me wonder about the relationship between industry appetite and literary works that respond to big issues. It only took a quick search to find a collection of articles with titles like ‘Okay, Doomer’. Soon, I was familiar with the idea of ‘apocalypse fatigue’—the suggestion that the reading public doesn’t want to continuously engage with the many looming societal challenges.

I was cautioned against making any mention of the pandemic as a plotline.

For the last three years, I’ve been working on a PhD that questions whether there should be some sort of onus on writers to engage with these issues, and if so, how. What does it mean if publishers—and perhaps readers—really don’t want them?

As part of this research, I’ve interviewed some of Australia’s most exciting writers, including Eugen Bacon, an award-winning author of speculative fiction. She is optimistic about the power of literature and its contribution to the creation of a better future: ‘I think the writer is an agent of change. Not just as a documenter or a societal mirror, but as an influencer who can help people to think differently about things like gender, climate change, war, sexuality, colonisation or slavery.’

For Bacon, an author who works in the Afrofuturism genre, this means looking at the future and alternate realities through an Afro-Black cultural lens and equipping her protagonists with the tools they will need to overcome the challenges of an uncertain tomorrow.

Speculative fiction, and its subsets of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, have long been the territory of the ‘what if?’ story, a space wherein writers explore the unknown terrain of the future. Twentieth-century writers imagined facing these challenges in the decades ahead—George Orwell, for example, set his seminal work Nineteen Eighty-Four thirty-five years on from its publication. In more recent times, the immediate effects of issues such as the pandemic and climate change mean that this timeline has compressed. Many of the writers I interviewed expressed a feeling that the dystopian future is now, and that in some ways it is a race against the clock for their writing to outpace reality. In literature, this change poses a challenge to what we mean when we refer to works that are ‘timely’ and ‘important’ if they don’t consider these existential threats.

Many of the writers I interviewed expressed a feeling that the dystopian future is now.

Laura Jean McKay’s novel The Animals in That Country was unquestionably on point. Her tale of a surreal pandemic that allows humans to speak with animals was released in March 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic took off. Nonetheless, McKay notes that she’s previously been critiqued for her work being too ‘topic-sy’: ‘I guess what they meant is that I was sort of lecturing the audience too much. I was showing my politics a little bit too heavily.’

For McKay, politics and storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive, but it does create a challenge. ‘They’re just really saying, “It’s not a good enough story. Your characters need to be better.” We have a harder task as contemporary writers now because we need to both honour that literary tradition of having good characters in an actual sort of journey, but we also need to be addressing those facts of looking at our privilege and what place we’re writing from, who we’re writing about, and what’s going on in the world.’

McKay makes a strong point about the ‘craft’ of writing, and how being too heavy-handed in forcing issues upon the reader is a form of bad writing. But this can go the other way too. Writers exploring pandemics and climate catastrophes have now crossed over into the territory of realism, and literary works that do not address pressing societal problems might be viewed as another kind of failure.

This imaginative failure is a key point for Briohny Doyle, whose 2021 novel Echolalia tells an intensely intimate story of motherhood and family trauma that plays out in a world ravaged by climate change. ‘In my own practice I’m thinking about how we live, what our responsibility is to the future, what our responsibility is to each other, and the ways that what I’m writing can engage with these questions in an interesting way,’ says Doyle. ‘I find realist fiction that doesn’t engage with reality a little bit baffling. If you’re making high claims about your work in terms of its realism, if you’re saying this is a piece of literature about contemporary Australia, and yet there’s no internet, or it ignores the climate crisis or class, I don’t know if you can make that claim.’

Being too heavy-handed is a form of bad writing. But this can go the other way too.

The distinction between what constitutes literary and genre fiction has always been hard to define. Mostly, it’s a commercial function, determining where a novel will sit on the bookstore shelf, but it’s a definition that’s illustrative of a real tension that arises when creativity and commerce meet. As this line between what constitutes genre and literary fiction continues to blur, we need to consider the influence of the publishing industry itself.

‘I think there are two things that are coming into play here. Publishing is quite a conservative industry and it’s very inward looking,’ says Dr Alexandra Dane, a lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, whose research focuses on the contemporary book publishing industry. Dane suggests this is illustrated by the way agents and publishers pitch and market books based on previously successful titles, particularly those that have gone on to win prizes. It’s a practice that makes commercial sense, but it becomes problematic when it comes to the selection of ‘new’ stories:

Publishers have always viewed themselves as tastemakers. Everyone wants to be the one that makes the discovery. There’s prestige in that. I think there is an argument for the idea that “readers want what they’re told they want”, but if we’re talking about the readers of literary fiction in Australia, we know they’re predominantly limited to people who have some connection with the industry, so it’s a fairly closed loop. In a conservative industry, it means a lot of the same ideas tend to get amplified. If we want to think about where these big, important conversations are really happening, we might need to look beyond the literary space, maybe to genre fiction.

I find the idea of trying to anticipate the next big thing fascinating, as it suggests that in publishing there’s a desire to pre-empt trends, rather than being reactive. I posed this question to interviewer, podcaster and 2023 Stella Prize judge, Astrid Edwards, who has recently begun her own PhD research exploring the perceived barriers to publishing and selling climate fiction. ‘We may not be ready for pandemic stories yet, but I suspect that will only be true for a certain amount of time,’ says Edwards. ‘This should not be a blanket “we shall never publish fiction about the pandemic, we should never publish fiction about the climate crisis”, and if there are publishers or agents out there with that mindset, then I suspect they’re going to miss out on some great works of literature that will soon be ready to enter the world.’

Edwards draws the example of literature from the first and second World Wars—which is now held in high regard—but says it’s worth noting that many of these works weren’t written as those wars were happening. It was usually in the decade or so after. But in case of climate change, for example, Edwards notes we can’t afford to wait for the ‘decade afterwards’:

If some in the literary industry want to remain tastemakers, I think they should engage more deeply with these stories. If they can make vampires trend, they can engage with the climate crisis consistently. Ultimately, I think it comes back to the question of legacy. Writers aren’t just writing for today. The work that’s written now won’t just be judged next year, it will be judged fifty years from now, or a hundred, or in the 23rd century.

Edwards also looks to speculative fiction as leading the way, but says it needs more support. ‘I think there are a lot of questions when it comes to who and what is getting published in Australia. One of the (many) things not consistently being published is genre, particularly speculative fiction. That is a problem because speculative fiction, and all the various ways it manifests, is so often the literature of protest.’

‘Speculative fiction, and all the various ways it manifests, is so often the literature of protest.’

There are hopeful tidings in this direction. Edwards is a judge of the Speculate Prize, an award started in 2021 for an unpublished speculative fiction manuscript, presented by RMIT University in partnership with Giramondo Publishing. In 2022, we saw the publication of a range of new speculative fiction anthologies, including Another Australia, This All Come Back Now and Unlimited Futures. This year, independent publisher Affirm Press announced a new sales and distribution deal with Perth-based spec-fic publisher New Dawn, whose remit is to publish ‘stories that go beyond words’. Claire G. Coleman was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2023 for her genre-bending dystopian third novel, Enclave. These advancements signal some renewed energy, and perhaps a spark of optimism for readers and writers of speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction anthologies published in 2022: Another Australia, This All Come Back Now and Unlimited Futures.

Optimism is, of course, another lesson that can be drawn from stories that imagine the future and address these challenges. Eugen Bacon suggests literature should explore not only problems but solutions. ‘You may set out to present something so dire that it serves as a warning of the worst that could happen and acts as a deterrent,’ she says. ‘But speculative fiction is a safe space, wherein we can consider these things, to demystify them, and come to terms with them, but ultimately, as an agent of change, I think you need to offer some hope. No matter what, that is something I always want my reader to draw from my writing.’

Much like the wicked problems faced by our generation, the question of reconciling the relationship between creative works, societal discourse and commercial decisions has no easy answer. As the lines between realism and what was once traditionally the realm of speculative fiction begin to blur, perhaps it’s time the industry rethinks the stories they consider for publication and platform, and what it really means to be ‘timely’ and ‘important’. One thing is certain—as agreed by all of the writers, editors and academics I’ve spoken to—while it’s the science that may give us the solutions we need, it’s the stories we tell each other that will make up our legacy, and perhaps, give us the hope we need to move forward.