25 Oct 2013

What do Australians read?

In the time I lived here I’ve perceived that there’s a strong interest in Australian-written fiction. Competitions encourage submissions from Australian writers and literary magazines tend to feature stories in Australian settings or the tribulations of Australians abroad.
The Difficult Lesson by W. Bouguereau

Why this focus? Is it that there’s a strong push to promote creativity across the country? If so, and I suspect there’s an element of that, it’s commendable. Could it be that people struggle to relate to stories with foreign protagonists or settings? I get the impression there’s some truth in that as well and I think this is a shame.

There are two elements to bear in mind. One is the approach of literary magazines and competitions and the other one is the way publishing companies work. It’s no mystery that there’s a lot of literature written in English and that a book needs to be particularly successful in its homeland to then be translated to other languages.

I’ve read comments by successful Spanish authors on how impenetrable the English book publishing world is and I imagine it may be similar for authors who write in other languages. From a business point of view I can understand that, if there are lots of books written in English and there are people who want to read them, why would publishers bother translating other works? The books that end up getting translated tend to be best-sellers or master pieces.

While I think it’s positive to encourage stories by those who often don’t have an opportunity to be heard and I think governments have a duty to promote this, as a reader, I’m interested in the quality of the book.

Does the setting matter that much?’ I know it shapes who we are and it can provide a unique insight into the lives of people we can identify as our neighbours, family and friends but then, what’s more interesting, reading about the lives of people like us or reading about those who live completely different lives? My view is that, although it’s nice to find that one’s home place has been “put on the map” by appearing in a story, you can find as much connection or even more with characters in a story set in a completely different land. In fact, the best literature is universal in that you can read a work by a writer from a different place and time and still identify with the characters and situations portrayed.

In my case, I read a lot of Russian literature from the early 20th century as a teenager and loved it. Have you ever felt a connection to a book character from a place and/or time very different from your own?