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Australia and France by the book: a comparison

By Sophie Masson - posted Monday, 15 November 2010

If arts policy in Australia is all too often PS, an afterthought in the thinking of political parties, then the literature side of it is the well-nigh invisible pps.

Despite the fact that the Australian literary industry is perhaps the most successful of our arts industries, both nationally and internationally, somehow it gets routinely forgotten by politicians, whether Labor or the Coalition. Requests by literary industry stakeholders for the major parties to discuss literary industry policies before the election went unheard.

Our new arts minister, Simon Crean, when asked about his arts interests, never once mentioned books. And of all the art forms, literature gets the smallest slice of the Australia Council for the Arts pie, an amount that has scarcely risen in years, making the Literature Board's job harder and harder.


You might say that the lack of interest in literature by Australian politicians reflects a national reality, but it isn't so. Australians are great readers - second only to Iceland, apparently - in our love and consumption of books. Books are amongst the most popular (and accessible) of cultural products, and according to many surveys, libraries, not cinemas (or sports grounds) are our most-used cultural venues. And our literary industry is productive, creative, and innovative.

So its neglect by politicians seems thoughtless, to say the least. Literary industry stakeholders like the Australian Society of Authors work very hard to try to bridge the gap between policy-makers and the literary industry, and have lobbied Governments of all stripes very hard over the decades, sometimes very successfully.

For instance, an ASA campaign was directly responsible for the introduction of what could arguably be seen as the single most important piece of literary policy ever to be devised in this country: the PLR (Public Lending Right) and ELR (Education Lending Right) schemes. But all too often literary stakeholders are shut out of decisions and forced to be reactive to, and often against, proposed policy, both Federal and State, such as the campaign last year against the parallel importation of books, or continuing campaigns to bring back Australian literature to school and university curricula, where in recent years it has been notable for its absence.

As an ad hoc approach to literary policy seems to dominate in Australia, regular contact and consultation with literary stakeholders simply does not figure, and growing concerns within the industry about copyright issues, the Google digitisation project and the changing face of publishing with e-books, do not appear to be addressed within policy-making circles.

The Australian experience is thrown into stark relief when you examine the experience of France.

I've recently returned from a six months' writer's residency in Paris and was able to observe at first hand the French literary/publishing industry and the very different way it interacts with policy-makers. It's well-known that France has a long tradition of valuing literature and writers of course, but what might be less well-known is the degree to which policy-makers are not only interested in literary issues, but regularly consult with stakeholders, such as the authors' organisation, the Societe des Gens de Lettres, or SGDL(founded in 1838 by such luminaries as Hugo, Balzac and George Sand) on the creation of policy.


In contrast to the Australian situation, French Government literary policy, whether conservative or socialist, does not favour an ad hoc approach, or individual funding of authors. There are grants available, but they are a minor part of the scene. Residencies are more prominent, with authors able to apply to a mix of Government and private organisations which offer them throughout the country. Literary prizes are not generally administered directly by Government, but by a mix of private and semi-Government bodies.

Instead, French Government literary policy concentrates on the underpinnings of the industry, focussing on such things as the protection of copyright, including moral rights, the protection of the bookshop scene by the "prix unique" or fixed price (on which more below), and a strong commitment to French literary heritage, with the Government not hesitating to intervene if it feels it is under threat.

As part of the image, tradition and continuing history of France, it is felt to be as important as its built or natural heritage - and whilst from an Anglophone point of view, used to a "hands-off approach", that might seem stifling, in practice it means not only that French politicians are expected to have an actual understanding of literature and the concerns of the industry, but that they do not adopt a "top-down" approach in the working out of solutions to literary issues, preferring to consult fully with stakeholders before policy is created.

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About the Author

Born in Indonesia of French parents, Sophie Masson came to Australia at the age of five, and spent her childhood in both Australia and France. She is the author of more than 30 novels, for adults, young adults and children, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, both print and online, all over the world. Sophie Masson's latest novels are The Phar Lap Mystery (Scholastic Press) and The Hunt for Ned Kelly (Scholastic Press). She is a regular blogger at Writer Unboxed.

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