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Award-winning authors warn of crisis for the next generation

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Three leading Australian authors have issued a passionate plea for more government support for Australian literature, warning that emerging writers face "absolutely dire" economic difficulties, especially during the pandemic.

Speaking at a federal parliament inquiry into the arts on Friday, they said the government's COVID-19 response package had offered nothing to writers, while the pandemic along with government cuts had taken away jobs they needed to survive.

‘Our culture tells us that writing and literature are indulgences, and you have to resist that,’ Charlotte Wood says. Credit:Yianni Aspradakis

"I don't know of any writer helped by a COVID rescue package," said Charlotte Wood – apart from those who accessed JobKeeper through some other line of work.

Writer Christos Tsiolkas said in recent weeks he had spent time with three young writers who were wondering how to survive. "They're talking about how they can pay the rent, how they can look after their young children," he said.

Christos Tsiolkas says a government grant was key to him finding his feet as a budding writer.Credit:Eddie Jim

"Incomes are appallingly low and falling deeply," said Wood, whose 2015 novel The Natural Way of Things was a surprise bestseller that finally enabled her to make a living from her books. She said literature got less than half the government support of other art forms and "this is just not defensible any longer".

"Public funding for writers is at rock bottom," she said.

The pandemic had "eviscerated" the three major income streams for writers outside books: public speaking, university teaching and freelance writing. Wood said she had heard anecdotally that bookseller events which usually drive sales for emerging local authors were not having the same impact online, with event-related book sales down 90 per cent.

The Australia Council invested $9 million in literature in 2013-14, which shrank to $5 million in 2019-20. In 2014 the government took $6 million from the Australia Council budget to fund a book council, which never eventuated. The money never returned to the arts.

The hearing on Friday came as a new survey from the Australian Society of Authors found that almost a quarter of full-time writers earned less than $2000 a year from their creative practice, and more than half earned less than $15,000. Less than a quarter earned more than $40,000 a year, below the median Australian wage.

The ASA said these numbers raise "significant concerns about the sustainability of Australian literature" – and pointed out that Australian literature was an "engine room" for Australian film, TV and theatre, with Chopper, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Slap and many more all starting their lives in print.

Tsiolkas, author of The Slap, said a government grant had been crucial to his starting as a writer when he was in his 20s. "If I hadn't had that initial grant all those years ago I would have struggled," he said.

Tsiolkas also emphasised the need to keep teaching English, and a love of literature, in schools.

"I do worry that we don't respect the teaching of English," he said.

Helen Garner mourned the "disappearance of the teaching of grammar and syntax in schools", saying some of the work she saw in writing classes was "almost illiterate".

"It just sounds like an old person whingeing but I think there's some truth in it," she said.

Garner said she was still deeply grateful for the funding she got from the Australia Council when she was starting as a writer, which "gave me time and the sense of being trusted", she said.

Wood said the answer to Australian literature's crisis was simple: "We just need money," she said.

"I support that most heartily," Garner added.

The committee on Communication and the Arts is running an inquiry into Australia's creative and cultural industries and institutions, and has been asked to look at economic and non-economic benefits, the best way to deliver arts policy, the impact of COVID-19 and how to improve access and opportunity.

On Friday it also heard from organisations including Regional Arts Australia, the National Association for the Visual Arts, ARIA and the Sydney Dance Company.

The next hearing is on December 4.

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