Does Australia Need an ICAC for Poetry?

by David Musgrave

I’ve been running a publishing company for over 12 years now, and as part of this series of blogs for Southerly, I’ve been asked to write on some aspect of the inner workings of a publishing company, and so I will – on the most important part, which is how it makes me feel: deeply ambivalent. I’ll deal with the positive stuff first. One of the great things about running an independent literary publishing house is the people you mostly work with, the authors. The overwhelming majority of them are a pleasure to deal with, which is an unusually high ratio of good to bad, in my experience. In one of my previous roles I was working in senior management in the private sector. Dealing with the other senior managers in the company I worked for was a little bit like trench warfare (without the gangrene (mostly)), and I’d say about a third of them were pretty unpleasant for a good part of the time. If you’re a glass half empty kind of person, you might wonder at the fact that only about 2% of the authors I have published have been less than pleasant to deal with, and if you are a glass half full kind of person you might wonder why anyone would be difficult to deal with at all, but the truth of the matter is that the people I publish are often very interesting and, at the very least, I often have a lot in common with them; some have become dear friends.

Because the press has its centre of gravity in poetry, I think that there is a great deal of understanding among our authors concerning the difficulty of publishing and promoting poetry in the wider literary marketplace, and there is a certain degree of appreciation for what we do with the press. Outside of our list of authors, dealing with arts administrators, literary editors, printers, designers, book sellers and distributors is often fun, sometimes spiky, and hardly ever dull. One exception might be relations with other publishers, which runs the entire spectrum from extremely collegial to extremely un-collegial: but these are our competitors, after all. The job satisfaction is high: seeing the success of books like Philip Salom’s novel Waiting, just shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, is a reward in itself, but also just believing in the work of the authors I publish is one of the central motivations for doing what I do. There is a great deal of pride to be had in contributing positively to Australia’s literary culture.

Other aspects of running the press are not so enlivening. I recall reading somewhere that towards the end of her life Dorothy Hewett reflected on life as a bit ‘disappointing’, and that probably sums up how I feel about our literary culture. This is not a knee-jerk response to one particular facet or aspect of it, but an accumulation of things that I have observed over the years. One thing about running a press and being in contact with so many different people is that the gossip is top-shelf stuff. Because I regularly talk with so many authors, other publishers, journalists, critics, and academics, I get to know a lot about what is going on behind the scenes, so much so that at times I wish I was like the character in that Bill Murray movie, The Man Who Knew Too Little.

There are probably two areas which I find particularly disappointing: criticism and awards, and the perennial undervaluing of poetry in ‘mainstream’ literary culture. Criticism is disappointing in its volume and in quality. I’m not sure it is a terminal problem, as the budding academic can find in the abundance of contemporary Australian literature plenty of green fields to work in, but one difficulty is with disinterestedness: there are too few critics who are not themselves practitioners, particularly in poetry. This problem is intimately connected with literary awards. For example, should a judge of a major literary award recuse themselves if one of the nominated works is by a colleague, or by someone with whom they are having an affair (or both!), or by someone who has published them (or rejected them!), or by someone who is just a good mate? Where does the line get drawn, and by whom? It is probably not possible to formulate rules for these kinds of conflict interest, but the unfortunate thing is that when it happens, it’s not a good look. Other parts of our public life have ways of dealing with such issues; perhaps it is time to examine this question a little more closely. The ‘system’ as it stands is eminently gameable – and it has been gamed.

With regard to the habitual demotion of poetry in our culture, that’s an issue that fills me with despair. Sure, we’re not like the UK, where if you are not a Faber poet, you might as well give up, or the US, where you might consider yourself finished as a poet if you haven’t managed to snare a teaching position, but do we as a culture take our poets and our poetry seriously? I often feel with all of the issues I have raised above that the quality of the work itself is of least importance in what passes for literary debate in this country. As a publisher this is disappointing because what I do is all about the work itself: editing it, preparing it for publication, promoting it for its positive values; to see how unfair the playing ground can be is very frustrating. In another life, I’d satirise our country’s literary culture, perhaps as the Japanese novelist Tsutsui Yasutaka did in his novel, the title of which could be translated as ‘The Great Runup’, which takes the piss out of literary prizes in Japan; but then I’d most likely end up as that Swiftian satirist who finds that “satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” I am a part of the culture that disappoints me, which makes it just that little bit harder to bear. I still like editing and publishing, though, and my colleagues at P&W are fantastic to work with. I will probably continue to do it until I croak.