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5 things I learned about writing, publishing and Seinfeld

Unless you’ve been living under an Uluru-sized rock, or you live outside this land girt by sea, you may have missed that Charlotte Wood did indeed win the Stella Prize, as I predicted
here. (Although to be fair, others also predicted it – like the illustrious Kate W).

Last week, on a rainy, autumnal Melbourne evening, I trooped along to hear Ms Wood being interviewed with a panel of other authors in celebration of her success.  I listened enraptured – I am, after all, a total groupie – to Charlotte Wood, Peggy Frew (Stella shortlisted author of Hope Farm), and Alice Pung (award winning author and one of the Stella Prize judges).

During this totally engrossing discussion, I learned 5 things about writing and publishing, as well as a little bit about Seinfeld.

1. Short story collections are the literary equivalent of Merlotmerlot.gif

During the too short hour in which the packed-to-the-rafters audience listened intently to the panel, it was remarked several times that short story collections are considered by publishers to be unfashionable and un-sellable – reminding me of Merlot, post-Sideways. Apparently, if these collections are to be considered at all, the stories really ought to be ‘linked’ in some way. Meanwhile, memoirs are de rigeour. They will be snapped up by publishers and readers with alacrity – the literary equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc.

(I imagine blogs are somewhere floundering in a metaphorical barrel of cleanskins – you may find a treasure but much of it’s dross).

2. Australian writers earn bugger all

With Charlotte Wood the Stella Prize has not just found an excellent story-teller, but also a torchbearer.  In her acceptance speech, which can be viewed here, and in her Melbourne gig, she spoke about the artistic funding landscape in general, and also just how little Australian writers earn – it’s something bonkers like $4000 (or £2000 a year).  I don’t know, but I presume these statistics are similar to others writers’ incomes across the globe.

The solution?  Buy more books. Unwittingly invoking my wine theme, Ms Wood noted that most people won’t hesitate to spend $25 on a bottle of wine, but quibble about spending that on a book.  (Amazon has a lot to answer for, I think).  And in general, we all need to ‘give a shit about art and literature’, she says.

3. American readers can’t handle swearing or smoking

Mentioned merely in passing as she read a passage from her book, Charlotte Wood noted that the American publishers of The Natural Way of Things deleted her sweary words, as well as the references to smoking.  Clearly, Australian readers are made of tougher stuff than our American counterparts- or at least that’s what publishers think.  I’d be interested in kno2000px-No_Smoking.svg.pngwing what the UK publishers omitted, if anything. Jan Hicks, will you report back please?

4.  Stella’s machinations

The Stella Prize judges long-listed 120 books for the prize and then when it came to selecting the ultimate winner, the judges locked themselves in a hotel room from 9am -4pm to decide on the winner.  How I would have loved to have been in that position…

5. When in doubt, do the George Costanza

In the 86th episode of Seinfeld, George decides that every decision he has every made has been wrong, and that to turn his life around he needs to do the exact opposite of what he would usually do. He orders the opposite of his normal lunch in Monk’s Cafe, and then he introduces himself to a beautiful woman  by saying, ‘My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents’. To his surprise, she’s impressed and agrees to go out with him.

George from Seinfeld

Apparently Charlotte Wood employed the George Costanza approach when she encountered a writer’s block with The Natural Way of Things. She had  been trying to place the book in its historical context, given much of it is based on the reality of girls’ experiences in the Hay Institute – a girls’ reformatory established in outback NSW in the 1960s.  Then, in a George Costanza moment, she turned it all on its head and decided to situate it in the present – a move that unblocked her writing, and ensured that her novel would be marked out as a stellar contribution to our literary landscape.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

9 Comments

  1. I will report back. I pre-ordered it, so it will be one of my June reads. I can’t imagine a UK publisher removing bad language. Irvine Welsh wouldn’t have a career, for one!

    Sounds like an interesting talk. And that’s shocking about author earnings in Aus.

  2. ACE post (and thank you for the mention).

    Firstly, Charlotte is one of the best authors to hear speak – she is so engaging, so genuine and so willing to be involved in a dialogue (as opposed to simply speaking to an audience). My reading of TNWOT was made immeasurably richer by hearing her speak shortly after it was launched (and perhaps that is partly why I have been singing its praises for so long).

    Secondly, as a reader, I agree with those thoughts about short story collections (and memoirs). Why? I don’t really know…

    Thirdly, the way be show our appreciation for our artists (by rewarding them with $) is pitiful. I heard on the news today that Australia has the second highest incidence of illegal downloads of movies… shocking and disappointing – pay people for what they do! Support our local industry! Years ago I made the personal policy decision (for what it’s worth) to always buy books by Australian authors as a hard copy and to buy them from an independent brick and mortar book shop – helps the author, printers and the sellers 🙂

    The differences between Australian and overseas editions is fascinating. A friend of mine had a book published in Australia (it was very successful) and then some months later, it was published in the US. The changes to the US edition were extraordinary – they initially wanted to change the title (that was preserved), the new cover gave the book a very different vibe, and much of the text was stripped of ‘language’. The publishers also wrangled over two scenes in the book that were considered too strong for US audiences – one was pivotal but they wanted it removed. It seems odd when although confronting, the scene was in context, and yet books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Tampa are all deemed to be fine.

    Lastly, I love the George Costanza – it’s a move I should probably pull every now and then!

    • Great comments. I have made a similar pledge about buying books from actual shops, but I’m also keen to support the local library – like in Britain, I’m sure if push came to shove, they would be shoved. So I do my bit to keep circulation figures up.
      I didn’t realise writing was tailored to that extent for different international audiences. Looking at that more in depth would make a fascinating post…

  3. I started this tonight. Two fuckings on the first two pages and plenty of ripe language in the pages following. I don’t understand how the US editors could get rid of the references to smoking and it still make sense. What did they replace smoking with? Drinking? I’m about a sixth of the way through and know why you couldn’t review it in a standard way. I’m glad yours is the only review I’ve read, because I’m enjoying sharing the sense of disorientation and fear that the characters feel. It’s incredible.

    • Thanks so much for the update. Glad you don’t have the censored version. I love that first bit when you just have no clue as to what is going on. But I don’t think it peters out either. Once you’re done, read an interview or two of her – she’s just so inspiring.

      • I’m a third of the way through and it is just so good. She’s making me think of Margaret Atwood. I will read some interviews with her, and more of her books.

      • Oh, and the c-bomb dropped a couple of pages ago. Used entirely appropriately.

  4. I found out about all this today from Jan. I’m so looking forward to the book, but now that I know the US edition is different, I don’t want to read it until I can find a UK or Australian copy. I’m completely confused by this censorship because what the hell, are they marketing it to American children? And it’s frustrating because it will take me longer to find now, and also because it’s much more expensive that way (which I can’t really afford to do right now, but I might anyway, because I have a credit card and poor self-discipline when it comes to books).

    I very much agree that it’s important to support authors. I wish I could do it more often. I work in a public library, which I use for myself on almost a daily basis—and yes, libraries are always undervalued, and they need support too. I shop at used bookstores because that’s mostly the only way I can afford to buy books, and when I do have the chance, I want to support both local independent bookstores and the big chains (basically just Barnes and Noble now, in the U.S.) because I think they both fill important roles. There are so many factors to be balanced.

    • I agree with you about libraries. I feel like we need to support them too, as they inevitaby are an easy thing to save money by de-funding or funding less.
      Can’t remember whether I said this in my oringinal post or not, but the US publishers wanted Charlotte Woods to change the ending too. Thankfully she refused! However, I have met other authors who don’t stick to their guns like that – it’s a real shame I think and totally underestimates the audience.

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