Let’s not get away from ourselves: writing is a privilege. To pursue it as a vocation is a choice — a fiscally tough choice — but a choice, still. So let’s not whine too loudly about funding bodies, or our life choices.
Still, I’m going to whine about a funding body, a bit.
Currently the Australia Council is calling for applicants for emerging and established artists fellowships. They are offering a not-inconsiderable amount of money. It would be in fact, for anyone who received it, a pretty life-changing amount of money. The idea being that it can be used to line up mentorships, to attend workshops here and overseas and to fund your practice over a two year period. To get some time set aside during which you could quit your day job to see a project through. Only idiots would not apply for it.
Looking into what the literature board classifies as “emerging”, it comes under this definition:
You are a contender as an early career artist if you have some achievements under your belt as a professional. This means you can highlight some key achievements that demonstrate a professional outcome for your art. For example, this could be having a book or play published.
So here, quietly, is the definition of ‘emerging writer’: it’s no longer your publication history in peer reviewed journals and national/international magazines, it is already having a book published.
On the one hand, it is obvious why grants awarded to writers would go to those with proven track records of publication. In fact what I was told over the phone by the council that so many writers apply (last year over 450) that a way to thin them out now is to define emerging as ‘having published a book,’ and that in many cases those were the successful applicants in the first place.
However, this provides a clear rock and a hard place bind for emerging writers: how are you to fund the completion of that first book when you are not eligible to apply for any funding? Having a book contract or long form commission of significant length signed off on doesn’t put you in an eligible category either.
And further to this, there is no category which specifically recognises long form reporting as a literary art — though you could paint it as creative non-fiction in order to make long form journalism eligible: the sort of journalism which is time-consuming and resource-heavy to undertake and produce. If you were a broadcaster having written non-fiction works for television, radio, print and online, you might think that would classify you as an ‘interdisciplinary artist’, but it doesn’t, and therefore you are ineligible also for that category. (‘That’s more for mixed-media artists. People who say, mix science and music,’ I was told, interestingly. I have a patent here for a auto-playing Bunsen burner I’ve been trying to get into production.)
Some might argue that it is not the job of the country’s premier arts body to fund journalism — not even the literary, creative non-fiction kind — because it pales next to fiction as a literary art. I would disagree with that, obviously, as I am not a fiction writer. But funding for that kind of journalism hardly comes from within the journalism industry itself, awash with commercial publications that pay pitiful amounts ‘per page’ and online outlets which pay $50 ‘per post’ regardless of length, or far more frequently which don’t pay anything at all.
At some point or other most writers have written for free, or do so judiciously in return for the freedom to write what they are most passionate about, to support a publication they believe in or for the ‘visibility’ it brings (try paying the rent with visibility.) Again, this is a choice: as a vocation it has always been a tough nut to crack. Advertising has always been the writer’s great patron, and it is not an industry where work is soon to dry up. However, it would be ideal to be at least eligible for the opportunity to secure funding enough to stop writing guff for banner ads most people have blocked from their browser in the first place, and to instead devote everything to producing something meaningful. An endeavour that will always take fully-focussed energy — and more crucially, time — to do justice.
Elmo Keep lives in Ballarat, Victoria.
02 Dec 11 at 11:08
I’m pleased that your comments give me an opportunity to talk about the changes we have reluctantly made to our Emerging Writers grants category. When I arrived at the Australia Council three years ago the Literature Board was receiving approximately 450 eligible grants ayear to its various categories. This has now risen to almost 700 and was obviously going to continue in that direction. From the annual (unchanging) allocation to the Literature Board of $4.75m, we support writers, publishers, writers’ festivals, service organisations, international promotional activities and translations into other languages. There is an argument that it’s futile to fund writers if there is no publishing industry and no means of promoting their work.
The fastest growing area of applications was the Emerging category, to such an extent that the success rate for those grants was dropping to below 8% of applications; so we were forced to disappoint many writers, many of them totally deserving of support. The Board noted that the successful writers in this category were nearly always writers who had published one book or had one play performed. We all know that very few writers in this country make a living wage and probably need assistance at any or all stages of their writing careers.
At the same time as application numbers were rising, successive government efficiency dividends to the Australia Council’s administrative funding had led to Literature losing .75 of a staff position and no increases to Board membership. I think it’s fair to say that both staff and board are now working at unacceptably high stress levels.
For all these reasons, the Board decided to limit the eligibility to our Emerging Writers grants category. This was not done lightly and if ever our funding situation improves, we will happily reverse this decision in order to assist writers at an earlier stage of their career.
We have also discussed areas which we do not currently fund, such as bloggers and journalists. To do so would, of necessity dilute funding to other areas of the sector. We have already quarantined %60,000 from our New Work grants for cross-media writing, a new field we simply cannot ignore.
If anyone could suggest which areas of our current funding programs could be cut (or abolished) in order to provide more funds to writers, I would certainly be interested to hear all opinions. The Literature Board meets for its annual policy meeting in April 2012 in Brisbane and once again we will be discussing the allocation of our $4.75m. Your suggestions will help the Board formulate funding for 2013 and beyond.
02 Dec 11 at 12:14
Susan writes: “The Board noted that the successful writers in this category were nearly always writers who had published one book or had one play performed.”
Elmo writes: “[H]ere, quietly, is the definition of ‘emerging writer’: it’s no longer your publication history in peer reviewed journals and national/international magazines, it is already having a book published.”
What Elmo is getting at, and what Susan hasn’t addressed, is the question of why emerging writers are being defined as such on the basis of a single book publication rather than on the basis of a broad body of work, distributed piecemeal across a range of publication venues, which, when taken in its entirety, would be at least equivalent to a book in terms of volume and range. Shouldn’t emerging writers be defined on the basis of their overall publication history however diverse it may be, as Elmo suggests, instead of the single benchmark criterion of a book publication — a criterion that warps the definition from one that says less about the value of what a writer actually writes than about the medium in which her writing happens to appear?
It’s telling, too, that Susan writes that “the successful writers in [the ‘emerging writer’] category were nearly always writers who had published one book…” Here are the telling words: “nearly always.” NEARLY always? So, in other words, some previous recipients of funding hadn’t published a book? And the Board doesn’t think that, by now defining emerging writers as those who have published a book, the definition alone might cast a chilling effect over potential applicants who work across a range of different media, or in a range of different venues in a single medium? And this, even though “nearly always” would suggest that those sorts of applicants, without books under their belts, WERE deemed worthy of funding in previous years?
02 Dec 11 at 13:24
As far as I can see, the old mainstay New Work: Literature grants are still open to emerging writers without a book – refer to http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/grants/grants/new_work–literature/eligibility_and_selection
Achievements acceptable in lieu of a book are: – 10 short works of fiction or literary non-fiction (minimum 1000 words) published in professional literary journals, edited anthologies, major newspapers or general national magazines – 25 poems published in professional literary journals, edited anthologies, major newspapers or general national magazines – Two children’s picture books or two children’s books under 20,000 words – Three comic books, three issues in a comic book series, or three zines published by a professional publisher or self published with national distribution – Two full length plays professionally work-shopped or two short plays(10 – 49 minutes each) professionally performed – Two works for radio between 15 to 24 minutes, or six works for radio between 3 to 14 minutes nationally broadcast.
02 Dec 11 at 13:25
PS sorry about weird formatting.
02 Dec 11 at 13:56
I find it hard to understand why the Australia Council redefined the “Emerging” category to be exclusively awarded to those with a first book publication at the when they knew that at the same time they would be announcing a second book initiative separate to the Emerging category? (http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/grants/grants/creative_australia_book2). Book2 is an excellent opportunity for the writers newly inducted into the Emerging category to gain further funding, while those without single book publication are cut off again.
The fact is that Australia Council grants are not just about paying living costs, they are also, right or wrong, a legitimization of creative practice through government body and something to take into an increasingly reluctant publishing market to prove that your work has been considered a valuable investment. Those who already have a single book publication are less in need of this side of the grant process, than those truly emergent authors without.
02 Dec 11 at 15:30
I think one of the more important things that Elmo Keep brings up here is the prioritization of fiction over non-fiction in the eyes of the Australia Council. This year only two Emerging Writers grants were awarded to writers who elected to work in non-fiction, as compared to ten who had elected to work in fiction.
The Australia Council went some way to repair this imbalance in its eligibility criteria this year, making non-fiction works equal in value to works of fiction, whereas previously, from memory, you were required to provide proof of fifteen non-fiction publications as compared to ten works of fiction. Of course, this rebalance seems to be of little significance if the Australia Council repositions the emerging category as coming after the publication of a first book.
The lack of commitment to longform creative non-fiction then is interesting. Do we really need another over-researched historical novel? Or do we, as an engaged switched-on culture, need something closer to Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Helen Garner’s The First Stone? Even as a writer of fiction, I would suggest the latter. It is hard to deny that book length creative non-fiction of this kind bears more costs on the author – including for travel and research – than fiction.
Whatever Elmo was planning to put forward to OzCo as a project [someone really needs to write a piece on Elmo’s incredible contribution to the way we write and distribute non-fiction in online spaces… srsly] and Matthew Clayfield’s proposed books on Mexico and Russia, with, I believe, a focus on the dangers for journalists in those countries, seem to me to be able to offer a more significant addition to our culture than most novels will be capable of. Both Keep and Clayfield’s background in magazine and newspaper journalism, mean they have a far larger publication history, name recognition and body of work than most novelists with a first book out, and yet it seems unlikely they would receive the same kind of support in the form of institutional funding.
It’s interesting to note then that both Keep and Clayfield have recently – and successfully – experimented with crowd funding [you still have something like four hours to contribute to Matthew’s cause over at IndieGoGo]. Some people out there are obviously willing to pay for this sort of work.
02 Dec 11 at 16:56
I echo Sam Twyford-Moore’s comments about the balance of fiction and non-fiction. It is excellent to see the criteria adjusted so that works of both types are valued equally. I remain highly skeptical however that this rebalance will result in a more equal distribution of grants to emerging writers of both fiction and non-fiction. From my perspective, the Australia Council has always valued works of literary fiction, often sadly of varying quality, over all other forms of literature in their remit. A more even balance is needed.
12 Dec 11 at 16:30
I’m interested to hear the comments about our fiction/non-fiction balance; so much so that I checked out the statistics and found that they match James’ and Sam’s perceptions. In fact I didn’t really need to check the figures as the staff here have been aware of the problem and we have done our best over the past couple of years to ensure that we have strong non-fiction peer advisors at our New Work assessment meetings. In the end it always comes down to the quality of the individual applications, no matter what genre, and the support material provided by applicants. There are no quotas in the assessment procedures. It has simply been the case that we get stronger applications from fiction writers.
12 Dec 11 at 17:33
Another thing to consider is that the Australia Council Write In Your Face creative grants to young artists have been discontinued also, decreasing even further opportunities for emerging writers.
05 Feb 12 at 17:07
James, do you want technical books to be given Australia Council grants? Or you defending other writers? Why the snide remarks re literary fiction?
05 Feb 12 at 17:10
Correction of above post – should read: Or are you defending other writers?
Also, why do you say the grant recipients are “sadly, of varying quality”? Do you have more expertise than the panel members?
14 Mar 12 at 4:37
Dorrance pulishing has offer to publish my book and I need some sort of grant to ‘stay afloat’ if you get my drift.