SYDNEY - Literary culture carries profound social value. It is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth.
It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.
I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.
Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17.
It operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are ‘primary producers’ of creative content.
Books form a bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the education sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.
The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing. Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature.
Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.
However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and Covid-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income.
It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most have ‘day jobs’) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged.
Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.
The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. ‘Social well-being’ requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.
The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?
As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.
‘National identity’ also requires literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing.
More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.
Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.
It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.
An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is an efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.
Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The ‘trickle down effects’ — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.
Most writers’ work is not recognised as a ‘job’; if it were, if there were a definition of ‘writer’ as a category of honourable labour (such as, for example, in Germany and France).
I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.
Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program.
What about gifting libraries of Australian books as part of our aid program? This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult.
Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.
Gail Jones is a professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at the Western Sydney University. This article is derived from an edited version of her submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into the creative industries