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November 29, 2023

Toni Jordan on Celebrating Australian Authors

On 14 November 2023 at the ASA’s Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote event in Melbourne, Toni Jordan and Shankari Chandran delivered the keynote addresses on Celebrating Australian Authors. The following is a transcript of Toni Jordan’s speech.

To Shankari, one of the joys of my having the honour of speaking tonight has been getting to know you. Your work is brilliant, and I’m so pleased you’re here. I’m grateful to Olivia and the ASA board for the invitation to address you all. I joined the ASA when I received a contract for my first novel seventeen years ago. I didn’t know any published novelists, I had no agent, I had never been published before in any form, and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The ASA was invaluable to me then, and remains so today.

There’s an old joke about the publishing industry that goes like this: The first book ever published was the Gutenberg bible; the second book ever published was about the death of the book. And if, as is frequently suggested, the book is dying, the logical conclusion is that the people behind the book, we authors and illustrators, are also dying. There is certainly compelling evidence that we’re in a challenging time: that’s obvious from falling author incomes, from the rising complexities caused by AI, and from this year’s flattening in book sales, which many of us saw reflected in our royalty statements, advances and contracts. 

But, as Jane Austen said, ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’, because it’s not my job to talk about any of that. Tonight is a celebration, for the ASAs 60-year history, for the awarding the ASA Medal for 2023, and for the winner of the Gus ODonnell Essay Prize. So instead, I am here to tell you that, like Mark Twain, reports of our death have been wildly exaggerated. 

If I were speaking with any other group, at this point I’d make an argument about why we should take the trouble to celebrate our achievements at all. I might say something about how numerous studies show that the act of celebrating success releases endorphins, our feel-good chemicals, from the brain, which reinforces the behaviour that brought about the success in the first place, and makes it more likely that we’ll succeed again. Celebrating wins is not an indulgence, but is instead part of a sound strategy for improving performance. But I don’t need to say that in this company. I’ve known a number of you for some time, and I’ve been to enough writers festivals, residencies and publisher parties with free drinks to know that authors generally require little encouragement to celebrate.

And, if I were speaking to any other group, I’d make the effort to explain why we should be optimistic about our future in the midst of so much doom-and-gloom rhetoric. I’d talk about the evidence that shows that optimism significantly influences mental and physical well-being by — and this is the important part — increasing the adoption of  adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses that are associated with, among other things, a greater problem-solving capacity. Studies prove that, if we retain our optimism, we’re better at fixing things. Which, of course, makes sense. If you really think that what you do is futile, and that there is no hope of success — well, it makes no sense to continue wasting energy on a problem. Pessimism leads to disengagement. And there is no surer predictor of failure than that.  

But in this crowd, I know I don’t need to talk about any of that either, because I know you are all optimists. 

I know you are all optimists because authors, almost by definition, must be. After all, finishing your first manuscript is an almost impossible task. Firstly, it takes countless hours. The one thing that people consistently ask, when they find out that you’re a writer is this: how do you find the time. It’s as though they think the time is there, if only you look. It’s in the pocket of the coat you wore last week, or it’s slipped down between the cushions of the couch. But as we all know, you do not find the time. You must carve it out with your bloodied fingernails from work, and leisure, and sleep, and family, and friends in the face of, yes, sometimes support, but also sometimes resignation or even hostility. And you must teach yourself how to write your first book at the same time as actually doing it. And for what? In my experience of thirteen years of teaching fiction writing to adults, fewer than 20% of people who are motivated enough to join a class when they begin a manuscript will finish it. And of that fraction, only another tiny few will continue to work at that manuscript until it reaches a publishable standard, and an even smaller number — generally accepted to be between one and two percent of all those manuscripts submitted— actually become published. 

If you sat down and analysed the odds of success with any kind of realism, you would never begin. 

So we are not only optimists. We are pathological optimists. 

Considering that, I want to talk about why I think we have much to celebrate. 

In 1963 when the ASA was founded, few Australian writers lived here, even fewer were published here. Up until the 1970s, Australia was considered part of a British publishers’ territory and Australian readers were sent colonial editions: editions of novels published in Britain, designed to disseminate British values and maximize British publishersprofits. Colonial editions meant that British publishers could make savings by ordering larger print runs and send the surplus overseas. They also had very few expenses in Australia. Australian authors who published books with British publishers received a reduced royalty for books sold here, because they were categorised as ‘export’ sales under the terms of their contract. The money, and the influence, stayed where British publishers considered they belonged.

Asserting a degree of cultural independence is difficult when youre a smallish English-speaking market with a commitment to a living minimum wage for booksellers, dwarfed by the USA and the United Kingdom. Back then, there was no compensation for books held and loaned by libraries. The Miles Franklin literary prize, privately funded by the author’s bequest, was first awarded in 1957 to Patrick White, but there were no premiers or prime ministers awards, and of course no Stella prize. We have just heard from Shankari how her experience in being published has changed over just the last few years, since she was first told that her work was not Australian enough. Admittedly, I did not grow up in a house with books, but I’m sure in the 1970s and even the 1980s, my parents would have been unable to name even one Australian writer, and a First Nations writer, or a writer from a non-Anglo Saxon background, would have been impossible for them to contemplate. 

A personal anecdote here: when my first novel was published in 2008, I was asked two questions repeatedly by emerging writers aiming for publication, The first was this: why had I set the novel in Australia, when it would surely lessen my chances of being published overseas? 

This question seem absurd now, but that’s only more evidence of how far we’ve come. At the time, my answer was this: I didn’t know enough to realise I was doing anything risky. I set my book in Melbourne because I live here. In the early 2000s, Australians considered it very normal to read about Scandinavian psychopaths torturing people in cellars and lawyers in the deep south uncovering organised crime and English boy wizards fighting the forces of darkness. Yet at the same time, many of us couldn’t imagine international readers being interested in books set here. But of course, readers everywhere love travelling vicariously through novels. I remember my very sophisticated Italian agent, who is  based in Milan, saying to me, over the phone: And your story is set in Glen Iris? That sounds so exotic. 

The second question I was often asked by emerging writers trying to get published about my debut novel was this: why had I decided on a female protagonist. I don’t want to imply that there weren’t female protagonists in Australian novels twenty years ago—there certainly was. There were hugely popular books by Kate Moreton and Marcus Zuzak and Helen Garner, among many others. But writers who are trying to get published for the first time worry about every little thing: the font they choose, and the size of the margins, and what day of the week is better to send their submission off to the slush pile. It was amazing to me how many of them considered that, just a few years early, JK Rowling had been smart to not only disguise her own gender, but to choose a boy as her protagonist. They considered that, however slightly, I was decreasing my odds of publication by not doing the same.

Neither of those questions, about choosing an Australian setting and a female protagonist, make the smallest amount of sense now, when Australian books of all kinds, especially rural noir and rural romance, are hugely popular both here and overseas.

In the decade between 2008 and 2018, there were more than 9000 individual rights deals, across 92 countries and 70 languages, totally $114 million dollars. More than half of these deals were for children’s books. In 2021, 11 of our top 20 best selling titles were written by Australians, including the top five authors, which were the team of Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, the late Eddie Jaku, Liane Moriarty, Scott Pape, and Pip Williams. This year, high school students around the country studied Maxine Beneba Clark’s Foreign Soil and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. Theatre goers adored the adaptation of Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend at Belvoir Theatre, and next year will see another production of Tiddas, the play based on Anita Heiss’s novel. This year streaming audiences worldwide watched the Amazon series based on Holly Ringland’s The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and the Disney Plus series The Clearing, based on JP Pomare’s novel In the Clearing, while they wait for the upcoming release of the 10-part Stan series adapted from Holden Shepherd’s novel Invisible Boys, and the 8-part Netflix series based on Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which was reputed to cost 33 million dollars. 

This is all sounds great for Liane and Holly and Trent, I hear you think. In Shankari’s speech, she gave voice to something that many of us have thought: that, that success experienced by other writers would make it more difficult for us to also succeed. As Shankari put it, there was only so much space at the table. But that simply isn’t the case. As she went on to say, now she has learned to trust that more books being published by writers of colour in fact pushes the door open further.

And that’s how publication works for all of us, in a practical sense. This is partly a question of confidence in the minds of industry professionals and especially of readers. Many readers love Lee Child, or Ian Rankin, or Val McDermid. They might never have read an Australian crime novel before picking up The Dry by Jane Harper, but they loved it, so now they want to read another. Or, a reader might love Paul Murray, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Khaled Hosseini. They had never read a novel by an Australian First Nations writer, before picking up Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, so now they want to read another.

It’s also partly a financial equation, because publishing is a business, and we writers are all workers, as well as creators. We deserve to be paid fairly for our work, and to be provided with enough financial information to make informed decisions about our careers. In the publishing model we currently live with, it’s the profits that publishers make from best-sellers that enable them to fund more debut authors as well as more niche, literary works. And as an aside, we should all be grateful to romance writers and readers for this, because, as the highest earning genre in the publishing industry, romance titles have been subsidising the rest of us for years.

But Shankari’s idea of ‘pushing the door open further’ is true in another sense as well. Until recently, our understanding of the way creativity worked, in the arts as well as the sciences, revolved around an idea called ‘The Lone Genius Myth’. This was the idea that a genius—generally white, middle-class and male, basically a singular, often tortured ‘chosen one’ who is different from regular people and frequently forgiven any kind of bad behaviour — works in his garret, alone, creating his singular masterpieces. This is not only an untrue concept based in neoliberalism, it’s frequently sexist, racist and just plain unhelpful. Instead, an idea proposed by the musician and composer Brian Eno, is a more accurate and useful model of the way creativity works. Eno describes an ‘ecology of talent’ that he called a scenius — a scene of people who make each other better, a kind of communal genius.

Eno uses scenius to describe the way creativity works in the real world. He said: ’’the intelligence of a whole operation or group of people. I think thats a more useful way to think about culture. Lets forget the idea of geniusfor a little while, lets think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”

It’s a revolutionary concept that we see appear throughout history in The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonquin Round Table and The Inklings, but these are merely the ones who’ve had the best PR. In practice, we see examples around us constantly, in our writing groups and critique partners, in the sheer number of names that appear in the acknowledgements of any random book. I’m particularly interested in the idea of the network effect of success. I believe that when one of us breaks through, it increases the likelihood of it happening again.

And, in my mind, it’s true even if I never meet these other successful Australian writers. Every time I read one of their books, it changes me, and it improves in some small but concrete way, the nature of my future work. This essential cross-pollination brings us back again to the purpose of tonight, which is celebrating the ASA, the body that brings all of us together, and some wider thoughts about the idea of collective action in general. 

The lobbying function of the ASA enables skilled and connected people to put forward the case of each and every one of us. The education the ASA provides enables us to learn from writers who are just a little ahead of us professionally, and the advice the ASA gives to us individually allows us to benefit from the wisdom of people with a variety of perspectives. 

In an article titled ‘THE END OF BOOKS’ for the New York Times, the American novelist and essayist Robert Coover wondered whether books would survive the challenges they faced. Coover wrote: ’In the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.’

I’m happy to inform Coover that he need not have worried. His article, which seems so current in his emotions if not his specifics, was published in 1992. As the Harvard English professor Leah Price wrote, in 2012, ‘Every generation rewrites the books epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit.’ 

And it’s true. Like every good perennial panic — and here I’m including such classics as ‘music today sucks’, ‘kids today are lazy’ and ‘nobody wants to work anymore’ — we’ve had many suspects. Cinema, radio, a poor education system, too much education, television, a reduction in the use of public transport, the internet, e-books, computer games, streaming content, shrinking attention spans, reduced arts funding, copyright infringements, reduced discretionary income and shrinking library funding have all, at one time or another, been blamed for the death of the book. It’s a bit reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—and spoilers for a book that’s almost 90 years old, but that is a lot of separate stabs in one poor body. 

The truth is, we are not dead, or dying, or even diminished, and we have much to celebrate. Australian writing is in the most vibrant, successful and diverse time in its history, and we have all contributed to that. And we are still here, still telling the stories that reflect and define our nation. We have a long way to go in terms of representation, being fairly paid for our work, and being supported and valued by governments as the original creators that we are — but things are getting better. 


In this keynote last year, arts minister Tony Burke quoted Colin Simpson, who had been ASA vice-president at a crucial time of the organisation’s development, speaking about his strategy in lobbying for public lending rights. Colin Simpson said: ’I began to go after Whitlam personally. I used to turn up at functions, and it got so that him knowing what I wanted to talk about, he would hail me with, “Colin, public lending rights heh.’ 

That achievement, so important both in the history of the ASA and to each one of us personally, was not the achievement of a pessimist. I would argue that the none of the achievements that matter in the world are the work of pessimists. The American novelist and short story writer George Saunders once said that editing itself is a form of hope. Saunders wrote that “the path that leads from what this is” to what it could be” is going to require a lot of hard work…but I am suddenly up for it and see it as an opportunity to…well, to not suck.”

So tonight I want to raise a glass with all of you, to celebrate the ASA’s many successes over the past sixty years, and the successes of so many of us who continue to blaze trails for all of us. I don’t think we writers are very good at self-promotion. I don’t think the general public are aware of the accomplishments of the local publishing industry, not in the same way they are of the film industry. Liane and Holly and Trent should be as famous as Nicole and Margot and Russell. We are a hugely successful creative industry due to the quality of our work, but also due to the tenacity of committed professionals at every level: writers, agents and publishers. People in every nation and every language you can imagine are reading Australian writers right now, and we don’t do enough to celebrate that at a public level.

We are very good at the work we do. We are very good at helping each other. There are many obstacles in our path, some we cant even see yet. But the number one thing that we need to celebrate is this: that we’re exactly the right people for the job.