Culture Cringe

Recently I heard a fairly big player in Australian publishing say in one breath how important it was to know the market and read widely and then in another admit to not reading any of Liane Moriarty’s books. That Liane Moriarty, who has single-handedly breathed life – and bucketloads of money, I should imagine – into the publishing landscape here. Who’s hit the sweet #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller’s list – twice! – and sold film and TV rights to major Hollywood players like Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman besides selling millions of books around the world. And whose profit margins are so healthy she’s probably single-handedly propping up the faltering careers of many, less fortunate writers at her publishing houses. And yet in her home country – where she still lives and writes and writes about – when she is name-checked, it’s often in a sniffy tone that suggests her very funny, very clever, very bloody successful novels are just ditzy chick lit for middle aged, middle of the road readers who don’t know any better.

Last week, writerly and publishing types got their knickers in a big old twist over Australian academic Beth Driscoll’s piece, Could Not Put It Down, in the Sydney Review of Books. In the piece, Beth focuses on recent novels by Susan Johnson, Stephanie Bishop and Antonia Hayes and how they’ve been packaged to appeal to the mass market. She also points out these novels are “emotional” and “domestic” but that – phew! – they’re also written well enough to be “drawn into literary circuits of reception”.

Responses to the piece came thick and fast. John Dale pointed out via The Conversation that being highbrow or middlebrow is irrelevant when it comes to considering what writing survives the passage of time. The Guardian responded with a piece by critic Meredith Jaffe that asked, “Middlebrow? What’s so shameful about writing a book and hoping it sells?”. The authors even exercised their own beautifully pithy rights of reply under the collective statement, “the three terrifically sensitive lady novelists signing our names below are startled and offended by your reviewer Beth Driscoll’s collective dismissal of any discriminating powers of intellectual application to our respective works”.

Whether or not everyone missed the original point – Beth’s defenders have been quick to point out she’s a champion of Australian literature, including popular fiction – this and the Liane Moriarty thing had me considering why commercial fiction has such a lowly status here. Why do some cultural observers, taste-makers and industry insiders seem to shudder at the thought of a book being considered popular or having a cover that might entice more people to buy it? Why is attracting a wide audience of readers considered a negative?

People get very twitchy when commerce meets art: if you write for a wide audience then what you write must be appealing to the lowest common denominator etc etc. But shouldn’t we listen to the book-buying audience who are telling us they want to be amused, enthralled, entertained, scared witless and romanced as they turn the pages of their bedtime reading?

And when so much time is spent with hands wringing and heads worrying about a publishing industry that appears to be teetering on the edge of extinction, shouldn’t we consider how commercial fiction offers a way to keep the whole party going?

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