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Contemporary Australian Literary Culture

Summary and Keywords

Contemporary Australian literary culture is formed through networks of institutions that support writing and reading. This infrastructure, itself shaped by Australia’s history as a former British colony and its current status as a medium-sized market in a global book industry, creates specific conditions for the production and reception of Australian literature. Institutions do not comprise the whole of Australian literary culture, and many individuals and groups position themselves as outsiders, or as members of counter-networks. Nonetheless, the work done by literary organizations enables significant acts of writing, access to reading, and debates about the role of literature in contemporary Australian society.

Six networks are key to Australia’s literary culture. First, publishing in Australia is structured by a mix of local offices of multinational companies and independent presses, whose list building—and consequent effects on Australian authors and readers—is influenced by their market position and capacity for digital innovation. Distribution of books in contemporary Australia occurs through libraries and bookshops; book retail is predominantly a mix of online bookshops, independent bookstores, and discount department stores, following the closure of many Australian big-box bookshops and chain stores in 2011. Australia has a growing network of literary festivals, including flagship events that attract tens of thousands of readers as well as focused events that nurture particular genres or groups of writers. Australia’s calendar of literary prizes also supports writers, builds canons, and maintains the visibility of literary culture. These expansive networks are complemented by the smaller, though influential, readerships of Australian literary magazines, which foster new writing and drive cultural debates. Finally, schools and universities institutionalize Australian writing through their curricula and increasingly provide training and employment for writers. Together, these active networks provide an outline for the form of contemporary Australian literary culture.

Keywords: Australian authors, literary culture, publishing, book festivals, literary awards, education, literary journals

What Is Australia’s Literary Culture?

Contemporary Australian literary culture is an assemblage of texts, people, organizations, and practices: the quiet work of writing and reading; the activity of publishers and booksellers; the conversations between members of a book club, Instagrammers using the hashtag #LoveOzYA, students in a classroom and audience members at a writers’ festival. These activities, with all their variety and distinctiveness, nonetheless tend toward a common idea: that books and writers are important to Australian society.

This “shared belief” undergirds the controversies that ripple through Australian literary culture, as participants reflect on the status and definition of Australian literature.1 Debates spotlight gender, racial and class discrimination, the influence of commerce on culture, and the relative status of genres. In addition, many of the questions animating Australian literary culture return to an invoked crisis of national identity. As a British colony, Australia’s Anglophone literary culture developed in the shadow of the United Kingdom; this subordinated position has also characterized our interactions with the commercially powerful United States. Australian intellectuals have long wrestled with “cultural cringe,” a sense of inferiority that has driven advocacy for a national literature and for its support and protection by government.2 Australian debates over the relationship between literature and national identity bring to mind Pascale Casanova’s description of late-emerging countries within the world republic of letters; in line with her observations, the link between nationalism and literature has weakened somewhat as Australian culture develops a depth of cultural resources.3 Yet the link is still present. Australia’s status as a medium player in a large Anglophone market still inspires anxiety and shapes literary debates. These days, controversy may center on consolidation within the global publishing industry and what this means for new Australian literature,4 on the dearth of Australian literature courses being taught in universities,5 or on the effects for local editions of removing parallel importation restrictions.6

All of these important discussions take place through networks of organizations and institutions, which provide platforms for different individuals to speak and write, and which make connections between agents and sectors of the field.7 At a fundamental and practical level, the activities of institutions such as publishers, festivals, and magazines establish the conditions for the creation and reception of Australian books. Contemporary Australian literary culture can be traced by focusing on its institutions, an approach informed by the sociology of literature. While “sociology of literature” is not a term with a great deal of institutional traction, it points to several clusters of significant scholarly investigations into the social contexts of books and literary culture.8 Sociologically-informed research on contemporary book cultures includes work on publishers,9 bookshops,10 and cross-media adaptations,11 as well as readers and the reading industry that supports them.12 Such research offers information about processes and forms of power that can be obscured: taken for granted by those “in the know” and somewhat inaccessible or mysterious to everyone else. Examination of literary institutions also reveals cross-currents at work—while media articles sometimes engender a sense of crisis about the death of books, for example, many writers’ festivals have growing audiences. Institutions in no way definitively constitute literary culture, and many individual writers or readers may consider themselves as outsiders, or see institutions as hampering their creativity.13 Nonetheless, these institutions provide social and economic networks that support literary production and consumption and frame its reception; they catalyze and animate literary culture.

Institutions and Australian Literary Culture

This focus on cultural infrastructure is probably influenced by the fact that this article was written in Melbourne, where literary institutions have been particularly visible since the city’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. This led to the opening of the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in 2010, a building attached to the State Library of Victoria that provides a venue for regular literary events and office space for dozens of literary organizations, from Australian Poetry to the youth-oriented Express Media. The concentration of literary resources in Melbourne recalls Casanova’s description of the “designation of new national literary capitals” as a strategy for emerging literary spaces.14 Capital carries a double meaning here, as a kind of asset and a central place, and Melbourne as a City of Literature claims both. In general, Australian cultural institutions and infrastructure tend to be concentrated in its two most populous cities, Sydney and Melbourne, although festivals and writers’ centers reach out to the regions, and there are significant regional publishers such as Magabala Books and Fremantle Press. In addition, almost all contemporary Australian literary institutions have developed online presences that open up participation and extend influence across Australia and internationally. Many of Australia’s literary institutions operate both nationally and globally: from writers’ festivals that are stops on an international promotional circuit for authors, to independent publishers that negotiate rights sales at Frankfurt Book Fair. Studying institutions offers insights into the routes by which Australian writers and books reach international markets, and vice versa.

To study institutional networks is also a way to follow the money. Books are commodities produced by publishers and sold by booksellers, as discussed below, but in many cases they are also cultural artifacts supported by the state. As Stuart Glover puts it in his detailed account of Australian publishing and the state, “The contemporary book and contemporary publishing are in the yoke of a range of policy instruments ranging in age from 300 years (copyright) to only a few years.”15 Government funding is a component of many Australian literary institutions, generally in the form of short-term grants. Australian literature first received federal government funding through the Commonwealth Literary Fund, established by then–prime minister Alfred Deakin in 1908; from 1967 literature has been funded as one of the boards of the Australia Council for the Arts (known generally as the Australia Council). The Literature Board administers grants to writers, publishers, literary magazines, and journals, administered through a system of peer review. These grants have been significant in enabling the creation, publication, and dissemination of new literary works, yet literature funding has also been vulnerable to political maneuvering. For example, in 2014 a new Book Council was announced, to be funded by $6 million removed from the Australia Council budget, but the abandonment of this plan in 2015 produced an uncertain status for literature funding. The regular restructuring and reshaping of arts funding has consequences that reverberate through the different networks of literary culture.

One of the difficulties with an institution-oriented approach is the multiplicity of literary networks that stretch across Australia. For example, there is a network comprising professional associations, which represent their members in public debates and policy reviews: these include the Australian Publishers Association, the Australian Booksellers Association, the Australian Literary Agents Association, the Australian Society of Authors, and the Australian Writers Guild, as well as the Copyright Agency, which collects royalties from government and educational institutions on behalf of authors and publishers. Another network is formed by each Australian state and territory’s writers’ organizations, which are linked under the rubric of the National Writers Centre Network, and which have offices in state-capital cities but include activities directed at regional writers.16 Writers’ organizations not only provide services such as manuscript assessments and professional development workshops for writers, but also organize festivals and administer prizes. This article analyses six large networks that cut across literary culture in multiple dimensions and feature key types of institutions and their changing roles in contemporary Australian literary culture: publishers, bookshops, prizes, festivals, literary journals, and educational institutions.

Publishers and Publishing

Publishing is the industry that produces the texts of literary culture; it influences Australian literary culture by making books available to readers, and fostering the careers of Australian authors. As with publishing globally, Australian publishers have had to contend with ebook innovation. There are no definitive aggregated statistics for Australian publishers, but ebook sales are estimated to have now stabilized at around 15 percent of sales by volume, which is about equivalent to the United Kingdom and a somewhat smaller proportion than the United States.17 As in those markets, the uptake of ebooks in Australia varies by sector, with mass-market genre titles more successful in digital formats than children’s books, for example.

In his recent account of Australian publishing, David Carter describes Australia as a “a medium-sized player, both importer and exporter, within a globalised industry and a transnational market,” a big enough market to attract the interest of multinational publishers with a local industry that can export some titles as well as have an impact on the local market.18 There are two main categories of Australian publishers: local offices of multinational publishing houses, and independent publishers. Each of the global “big 5” publishers—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins—has an Australian office located in Sydney or Melbourne, indicating a concentration of literary capital in these major cities. The multinational companies are invested in Australia as both a market and a source of content, although recent research suggests that the local lists of these large publishers may be diminishing. Mark Davis’s analysis shows that Penguin Books dropped their Australian poetry and midlist authors across the 1990s, for example,19 while Katherine Bode’s research indicates that multinational publishers played a significant role in publishing Australian work in the 1980s and 1990s, but that their local publishing activity has declined slightly over the 21st century.20 Carter, though, emphasizes that multinationals are still the “major publishers of Australian books produced for the local market,” dominating “in both the more profitable and the more prestigious forms of publishing.”21

One of the changes to book publishing in Australia that has particularly affected large publishers has been the arrival of Nielsen BookScan, launched in Australia in 2001, which has contributed to the datafication of Australian publishing and literary culture by collecting point-of-sale information on books.22 According to BookScan, its data covers around 90 percent of print book purchases, including those from discount department stores such as Kmart and Big W as well as chain and independent bookshops. In an opinion piece titled “BookScan and the Death of the Australian Novelist,” written a few years after the arrival of BookScan in Australia, Malcolm Knox reflected on the difference between the new data available to publishers, and the previous, less exact, sales figures produced by the sale-or-return policies extended to booksellers: “The old order—a game of bluff—was massaged by publishers, and agents, to help their authors. The new order—precision—is used by number crunchers to help publishers’ bottom lines.”23 His argument that data-driven publishing decisions will increasingly support commercial work rather than, say, poetry or midlist fiction harmonizes with the scholarly work done by Davis and Bode. In addition to enabling data-driven justifications for such publishing decisions, Nielsen BookScan has also affected the way bestsellers are reported in the media. Previously, bestseller lists had been based on reports from (often independent) booksellers, and skewed toward literary fiction. With the introduction of point-of-sales data, bestseller lists became more likely to include cookbooks, coloring books, erotica, and so on, with effects on the perception of Australian literary culture.

If bestseller lists and multinational publishers have hewed towards the mainstream, then independent publishers have to some extent fostered other kinds of literary production. One of the features of Australian literary culture is its successful independent publishers. Allen & Unwin, Australia’s largest independent publisher, publishes a similar number of Australian titles as the multinationals. It was established in 1976 as a subsidiary of the British press George Allen & Unwin, but was bought out by management in 1990 when the British firm was acquired by HarperCollins. Another important independent publisher, Text Publishing, was formed in 1993 by Eric Beecher and Diane Gribble, formerly publisher at another independent, McPhee Gribble. Text has had a particularly influential role, not only publishing literary bestsellers but also importing significant translated works by authors such as Elena Ferrante and Patrick Modiano.

There are many other independent Australian publishers, including Scribe, Affirm, Transit Lounge, Sleepers, Editia, Ginninderra Press, and Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest Indigenous independent publishing house. University presses in Australia often publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, and include the University of Queensland Press, which published Peter Carey’s early novels and other notable Australian works, and Melbourne University Publishing, which has taken a role in Australian public discourse through developing a list of political memoirs. These independent publishers are located across Australia, although again there is a concentration in Melbourne. Melbourne is also the base for the Small Press Network, an industry association of independent publishers.

The role of small publishers is particularly significant when it comes to certain types of literary work. Emmett Stinson’s research suggests that single-author short-story collections, poetry collections, and literary fiction by midlist (that is, established but not bestselling) authors are almost exclusively published by small presses, while large houses concentrate on well-known literary authors who are likely to win prizes, and emerging writers “who work in defined, commercial niches or have a compelling personal story that is easy to sell.”24 These small publishers are often also more likely to publish in print than digital, partly because they face more administrative hurdles in formatting and distributing digital titles.25

The network of Australian publishers increasingly incorporates literary agents, who mediate relationships between editors and authors. In Australia, literary agents may work in local offices of large international agencies, such as Curtis Brown; established national agencies, such as Jenny Darling & Associaties, Selwa Anthony Author Management, and Jacinta di Mase Management; or newer companies such as The Author People and Zeitgeist Media Group. Literary agents, however, do not offer the only route to publication. Some independent publishers accept unagented submissions and may act (as Text Publishing sometimes does) as agents themselves in negotiating international deals for authors. Other publishers look to new digital platforms for manuscripts: Echo Publishing, an imprint of Five Mile Press established in 2015, regularly scans self-publishing and crowdfunding sites, and contracted one author after seeing her post on Kickstarter.26 In Australia as elsewhere, the popularity of self-publishing platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing and Wattpad, particularly for fiction, is driving innovation in the industry.


Australia’s publishing industry plays the key role in producing the texts of Australian literature, but distributing those texts has historically been a challenge, given Australia’s large geographical area and the great distances between its cities. One form of distribution has occurred through a network of libraries, ranging from the National Library of Australia in Canberra with its historic collections and digitization project, Trove, to the State Libraries with their archives and administration of multiple events and programs, to branches of local libraries and their provision of a wide range of reading material and events.

Australia’s literary culture is also fostered by its bookshops. The development of bookshops in Australia has followed a similar pattern to that of other Western, Anglophone nations, with the rise of chain bookstores such as Angus & Robertson, Collins, and Dymocks in the 20th century, followed by the arrival of the big-box super-bookstore, Borders, in 2003.27 Bookselling experienced a further evolution through the growth of online book purchasing through Amazon and the Book Depository, with the latter’s offer of free postage to Australia a major incentive for customers. 2011 marked a radical change in Australian bookselling, when the RED Group, which had acquired Borders’s Australian stores as well as the Angus & Robertson chain, collapsed. This led to the closure of around 20 percent of Australia’s book retail outlets, creating significant difficulties for Australian publishers in distributing books to the Australian population. It was a collapse of the middle of the book-retailing sector: for a time this had a polarizing effect, as books had to be either literary enough for the independent bookshops or commercial enough for the discount department stores in order to secure a retail home.

Yet several years on, the sector has adapted. One consequence has been the expansion of some independent bookstores. With the disappearance of the superstores, the role of independent bookshops in fostering culture has been more apparent. Readings, a bookstore originally based in inner-city Carlton, has expanded to a network of six Melbourne stores, with plans recently announced for two more. Similarly, the independent Berkelouw Books chain, which sells both new and secondhand books, has expanded to eight stores across three states. The Avid Reader bookshop in Brisbane, Gleebooks and Abbey Books in Sydney, and Muse in Canberra are examples of independent bookstores that serve as prominent gathering points for literary events. The development of the Australian online bookstore Booktopia as a competitor for Amazon and the Book Depository also enables distribution of books across Australia, particularly outside urban areas. Dymocks, the remaining Australian chain store, has large stores in several cities, while the Australian outlet of Japanese chain store Kinokuniya continues to operate in Sydney, and bestsellers and commercial fiction remain available through discount department stores.


As in the rest of the world, the Australian literary prize field has dramatically expanded in recent years to become a significant funding source for writers and to shape literary culture through building a canon of prize winners. Carter notes that state government support for prizes in Australia is worth about $1.5 million per year.28 Prizes also provide regular literary news—the announcements of longlists, shortlists, and winners—spread across the calendar year in a recurring pattern. They thus rally together literary culture for regular conversations both online and offline, while providing a readily comprehensible narrative of competition and winning that can be picked up by the media, giving exposure to books, writers, and Australian literary culture broadly. Often, prizes provoke the expression of contrary opinions: controversies can spring from all aspects of a prize, from the selection of winners, shortlisted titles, and judges, to the terms of eligibility. These controversies stimulate debates about the fundamental qualities of literary culture, such as the definition of “literary”; Ivor Indyk, for example, has argued that Australia’s literary prizes are middlebrow institutions that only recognize works with popular appeal.29

Australia’s oldest literary prize—and thus one with significant accumulated prestige—is the Miles Franklin Literary Award, established in 1957 through a bequest in the will of the writer Stella Miles Franklin. The award is part of the legacy from an earlier nation-building moment in Australian literary culture. Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career (the title is ironic) is an Australian classic, but she struggled to find publication opportunities and recognition throughout her life. As the Miles Franklin Award website explains,

Miles Franklin had first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer and was herself the beneficiary of two literary prizes. She was also extremely conscious of the importance of fostering a uniquely Australian literature. She wrote, “Without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil.” Accordingly, the Award is presented each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.30

This restriction—that works must portray Australian life—has been controversial because it has led to the exclusion of works by some of Australia’s prestigious internationally minded literary writers, such as Frank Moorhouse.31 The Patrick White Award is another, less restrictive but also less well-known, literary prize established by a writer. White set this up with the money from his Nobel Prize win, and it has been awarded since 1974 to a writer who has already made a significant contribution to Australian literature, with a view to encouraging them to keep writing.32

Alongside the national prizes, a number of state-based Premier’s Literary Awards have run for several decades. Individual awards have often been named to honor writers and other literary figures—the Christina Stead Award for Fiction, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and so on—reinforcing the sense of a continuous literary tradition. The most established awards, with the most prize money and categories, are from the largest states. The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were the first, established in 1979, and are administered by the State Library of New South Wales. The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were established in 1985. They were originally administered through the Melbourne Writers Festival, and are now run by the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. Both have large cash prizes: in Victoria, category winners receive $25,000, and one overall winner receives a further $100,000, while in New South Wales the annual prize pool is over $200,000. The biennial Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, founded in 1986 and managed through Arts SA, are also financially significant with a combined value of around $160,000.

Awards in other states and territories are less firmly established, as seen in moments that reveal their precarity. The creation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 1999, for example, was part of a wave of cultural rejuvenation for that state and its capital, Brisbane.33 Its suite of prizes included the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer, an important form of support that had existed since 1988. However, in 2012 the awards were abolished by the incoming conservative premier, Campbell Newman, a move widely perceived as an attack on the arts.34 The awards were restarted by volunteers and funded through a crowdsourcing campaign before funding was restored with a change of government in 2015.35 Showing a similar vulnerability to political budgets, the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards had their funding halved in 2015 and became biennial. Responses from local writers to these cuts demonstrate the prizes’ importance as sources of funding and legitimation. Another aspect of these prizes is highlighted by the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards. While many states and territories have an award category that focuses on their particular region, all categories of the Tasmanian awards are limited to works with an explicitly regional connection—they must be either about Tasmania, written by a Tasmanian writer, or released by a Tasmanian publisher. This indicates a commitment to building specifically local literary capital through the prizes.

A number of state-based awards go to unpublished manuscripts, and these are particularly significant in helping establish the careers of new writers. They are often talent-spotting mechanisms that trigger bidding wars between publishers and create advance buzz for a title. In addition to the state-based unpublished manuscript awards, the national Vogel-Australian Award (formerly sponsored by health food company Vogel and now by The Australian newspaper) is awarded for an unpublished manuscript by an author under the age of thirty-five. It has run since 1979, making it one of Australia’s oldest prizes, and is noteworthy for having first consecrated a number of authors who went on to become notable national figures, including Kate Grenville and Tim Winton.

Two major new Australian literary prizes are the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, established in 2008, and the Stella Prize, established in 2013. The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards includes the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, which is currently Australia’s richest single prize for a single work, at $80,000. The specifically nation-building quality of this prize was made clear in the inaugural ceremony, when then–prime minister Kevin Rudd told writers and publishers that “we honour what you do—you’re part of the sinew and soul of our nation.”36 The award rules specify that it goes to the novel judged to be of the “highest literary merit.”37 A panel of judges makes a recommendation to the prime minister, who has the final decision. Since its inauguration there have been three new prime ministers and several arts ministers—the prize has often seemed insecure as its timetable varied significantly from one year to the next. Yet it has registered some public attention, most notably in 2014 when then prime minister Tony Abbott exercised his ability to intervene in the prize. Steven Carroll was the judges’ choice, but Abbott insisted that Richard Flanagan—who had won the Man Booker Prize that year—be named as a joint winner.38

Gender discrimination in the literary field has always been visible in the prize system. In Britain, this was spotlighted by the creation of the (then) Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction in the 1990s. In Australia, the first major literary prize for writing by women was created in 2013, following several consecutive years of all-male shortlists for the Miles Franklin Award (similar to the all-male Booker shortlists that inspired the creation of the Orange). The Stella Prize—Stella was Miles Franklin’s real name—is open to writers of fiction and nonfiction (but not poetry or, in practice, to genre fiction). Its role in literary culture goes beyond the consecration of its winners. The Stella Prize’s commitment to raising the visibility of women’s writing in Australia includes the provision of a schools program, book-club resources, and regular events.

Other Australian prizes that foster and influence Australian literary culture include the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, awarded by academics, the Melbourne Prize for a body of work (awarded to a writer every three years), and the Pascall Prize for literary criticism. There are genre-based awards such as the Aurealis for speculative fiction and the Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction, and awards run by bookshops, such as the Readings Prize for a second novel and the Independent Booksellers Award. These local and national prizes intersect with the global literary prize field, which has authority in Australia. The international award with the most impact in Australia is the Man Booker Prize. Other prizes secure attention when Australians are shortlisted or win: for example, when Sonya Hartnett won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, when Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize, or when Helen Garner won the Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize. When an Australian wins the Booker—as with Richard Flanagan in 2014—the attention is significant.


Visitors to the Australian Government’s website who follow the menu prompts “About Australia” and then “Australian Story” will be led to a page on writers’ festivals.39 This prominence indicates the proliferation and growing importance of literary festivals as cultural tourism events. Festivals are also stages where literary debates are aired, as seen in the responses to Lionel Shriver’s speech about cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016.40 Writers’ festivals emerged in Australia in the latter half of the 20th century. Adelaide Writers’ Week, established in 1960, was one of the first in the world, and originally concentrated heavily on promoting Australian writers.41 It was followed by the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1986, established as a joint initiative of the City of Melbourne and the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. The Sydney Writers’ Festival was founded in 1997 and enjoys significant support from the state government. These festivals are major events: over 50,000 people attend the Melbourne Writers Festival each year, while the Sydney Writers’ Festival is the third largest in the world, with attendances in 2015 of over 85,000.

Other key festivals in Australia’s festival circuit include the Brisbane Writers Festival, which emerged from the community Warana Festival and was launched in 1996. It currently has an attendance of around 34,000, with a further 5,000–6,000 involved through regional outreach programs. The Perth Writers Festival is held on the grounds of the University of Western Australia. It was established in 2008 as part of the longer Perth International Arts Festival. The Byron Bay Writers Festival is held in August each year, under white marquee tents in the beautiful hinterland behind this coastal town.

Byron Bay Writers Festival underscores the importance of location to many festivals; the anchoring of festivals to physical places runs in counterpoint to the migration of literary culture online. Another example is the biennial Eye of the Storm festival, held biennially among the red mulgas and mallees of the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens near Alice Springs. Indigenous writers and storytellers feature in this festival, which is supported by the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Territory Writers Centre. A distinctive setting is also key to Clunes Booktown, a village in regional Victoria whose streets are lined with heritage buildings from the 19th-century gold rush. Clunes’ residents campaigned for the village to become Australia’s first booktown in 2007 and joined the International Organisation of Booktowns in 2012.42 The town now holds an annual festival, attended by around 20,000 people, featuring secondhand bookstalls, events, and writers’ talks. As with booktowns in Europe, Clunes combines its regional, historic location with the appeal of print books in a specific form of 21st-century cultural tourism.

At the same time, Australia also hosts a Digital Writers’ Festival that only exists online. Other festivals are less strongly attached to place than to a sector of Australian literary culture. The Blak and Bright Festival launched in 2016, for example, programs Indigenous writers. The Emerging Writers’ Festival features speakers, as well as audiences, who are at the beginning of their writing careers. Its ten-day Melbourne festival is regularly attended by around 10,000 people, and organizers run a calendar of events across Australia as well as maintaining an active digital presence. Other festivals focus on particular genres—some of these feature sessions on professional development, such as the Romance Writers of Australia convention, and others, such as the Australian National Speculative Fiction Convention (NatCon), also incorporate fan engagement.

Literary Journals

Festivals highlight the sociality of Australian literary culture, regularly staging face-to-face and digital encounters among writers, readers, and cultural workers. This sociality is also present, if less immediately visible, in Australia’s literary journals and magazines. These publications have for over a century assembled groups of writers and editors and produced exchanges of ideas across publications. Many of Australia’s literary journals are based in Melbourne and Sydney, but significant journals are also published from regional areas, including Westerly and Island. The writers, critics, academics, and editors associated with literary journals often become tastemakers in Australian literary culture, while the journals themselves are venues for influential debates on the state of Australian literature—including self-reflexive pieces about the role of literary journals.43

Most Australian literary journals are affected by precarious funding bases. While some established journals have affiliations with universities, the majority, and especially the newest, exist on small grants, subscriptions (generally low in number), fundraising, voluntary labor, and support from likeminded organizations. In his book on Australian literary journals, Philip Edmonds recounts the support offered by independent booksellers to literary journals in the 1970s, and then the contracting of support following market reforms of the 1980s.44 The contemporary consolidation of the publishing industry and the dominance of multinational companies have created challenging financial conditions for small journal publishing, which have been further exacerbated by recent cuts to Australia Council funding for arts organizations. Nevertheless, agile and well-connected journals still make a significant impact on the cultural landscape.

Economic fragility has always been linked with a kind of creative freedom that is the birthright of the literary journal. Many Australian journals were founded on manifestos and acted as sites for writers to express their aspirations for literary culture. Meanjin, founded by Clem Christesen in Brisbane in 1940, aimed “to encourage free expression and intelligent criticism, to put forward ‘advance guard’ material, develop contacts abroad.”45 This cosmopolitanism existed alongside Meanjin’s commitment to debates about national culture; in 1959, for example, they published poet and critic Vincent Buckley’s article “Towards an Australian Literature.”46 Overland, another longstanding journal, developed from The Realist Writer, a publication sponsored by the Communist Party.47

These journals pursued both cultural and political questions with a passion that influenced the development of Australian literary culture.48 This is notwithstanding the fairly small readerships of journals, which can create the appearance of insularity. As Patrick Allington points out, Frank Moorhouse’s quip that Meanjin is an “Aboriginal word meaning ‘rejected from the New Yorker’” is “an in-joke” only comprehensible to those who understand both publications, but also speaks to the ongoing attempts of Australian literary figures to situate themselves in a national and international cultural sphere. The position of journals outside the mainstream and in pursuit of cultural and political goals is an active legacy, and their debates continue. Allington, who calls for journals to remain “sites of dissent,” describes them as “wonderfully equipped to tackle and to mess with, in a myriad of constructive-because-complicating ways, the cultural and political meaning of terms such as ‘patriotic’ and ‘in the national interest.’”49 There is a feeling of both diversity and similarity across these literary journals: they are platforms for a plurality of voices to contribute to Australia’s cultural debates, even as they share stylistic features and pursue some of the same goals.

These commitments include a dedication to publishing new writing, so that contemporary Australian journals act as incubators for talent. Many also bring visibility to underappreciated writers, as seen in the Tasmanian journal Island’s serial publication of out-of-print novels by David Ireland. A commitment to reviewing and discussing new Australian writing is evident in the long-running Australian Book Review magazine, as well as in the book sections of newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Australian.50

Australian journals also have an increasing focus on and reputation for publishing nonfiction: for example, The Lifted Brow won the 2015 international Stack Award for “best original non-fiction.” Nonfiction pieces integrate especially well with social media, increasing their power as cultural interventions. For example, as Stinson notes, Overland’s early commitment to publishing diverse perspectives is honored in current editor Jacinda Woodhead’s regular open calls for nonfiction pitches, which “democratiz[e] editorial practices.”51 These calls are publicized on social media, contributing to the formation of an online community of like-minded readers and writers. The circles created by journals’ digital engagement widen when they publish articles that spark online controversies. Provocative essays are shared, liked, and commented upon on Facebook and Twitter; prompt longform responses published in other journals; and lead to discussion across Australian book blogs.

Australia’s literary journals have capitalized on the potential of the digital sphere, but they also experiment in ways that show the appeal of material artifacts and live events. Seizure, for example, publishes print-on-demand novellas in addition to its digital-only journal. The design affordances of other online journals nod toward the experience of reading a print object: the Sydney Review of Books has no comments threads below its reviews, but does publish correspondence. Live events, such as launches, have also become important. As Alice Grundy, editor-in-chief of Seizure, explains, launches (unlike emails) “provide a place for the community to gather, to meet in person.”52 The Lifted Brow, one of Australia’s most successful new journals and now a book publisher, was built on a model of launches featuring live music or entertainment, with the cover charge including an issue of the journal. This financially pragmatic, community-building practice is mirrored in the content of the journal: as Grundy points out, The Lifted Brow features far more contributors in each issue than most journals (typically over forty), which contributes to the high attendance at its launches.53

One of the effects of this synergy between the literary journal and the live event is that editors are increasingly, in Grundy’s phrase, “also acting as ambassadors, educators and advocates for writers and writing in Australia” including by running writing courses and hosting events at writers’ festivals. Literary journal editors and contributors frequently know one another and other key people at literary institutions. The multiple links between journals and other literary organizations means they can serve as training grounds for careers in the arts. As Stinson explains, many founders and editors of literary journals go on to important industry roles: he suggests that it is “unclear, any longer, whether the literary magazine is a genuine site of idealism, or just another form of bourgeois Bildung—a pathway to one kind of literary career for ambitious, risk-takers operating on the fringes of more established institutions.”54 Stinson’s focus on what happens after involvement in a literary journal is complemented by Grundy’s analysis of the institutional contexts from which they arise: many literary journal editors have university degrees in publishing studies, while many of the authors are from university creative-writing programs. For Grundy, journals’ “central concern is with developing audiences, seeking out funding opportunities and new ways of operating,” so they provide not only literary works but also training spaces for entrepreneurialism and innovation.55

Literary journals remain less high profile than prizes, festivals, and bookshops, with less infrastructural support than many other literary organizations. They nonetheless serve vital functions in contemporary Australian literary culture, in terms of the work that they publish, the skills they foster, and the communities they bring together.

The Education System

No account of literary institutions in Australia would be complete without consideration of the educational system. Following Bourdieu, the educational system can be considered as a mechanism for consecration of texts, determining which texts are worth reading and how they are to be read.56 When schools set Australian literary works on curricula, they make a claim for the importance of these texts, writers, and publishers. At the most pragmatic level, a syllabus can ensure ongoing sales for a work—for some books, it can be the difference between staying in print or not. Less tangibly, schools generate and guide discussion about Australian literature that affects how each text is understood and situated within a national canon. Current text lists for senior high school students include work by the Australian authors Tim Winton, Hannah Kent, Jack Davis, Gwen Harwood, Anna Funder, Kate Grenville, Mudrooroo, Tara June Winch, Henry Lawson, Amanda Lohrey, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Alice Pung, Jessica Anderson, David Malouf, Les Murray, Bobbi Sykes, and Judith Wright, among others. These selections include Indigenous and Asian-Australian writers, poets and playwrights, and people working in different time periods and regions of Australia, indicating the development of a diverse canon.

Beyond high school, routes to discovering Australian literature are offered by adult education initiatives, such as the Centre for Advanced Education in Victoria, or through the support offered by local libraries for reading groups. Australian universities have offered courses studying Australian literature since the middle of the 20th century, with these becoming more established by the 1980s. A Chair of Australian Literature was established at James Cook University in 1966 (although it has since been renamed); another was founded at the University of Sydney in 1990, and there are now also senior positions in Australian literature at the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australian, and the University of Melbourne. Perhaps even more than secondary schools, university professorships and dedicated subjects increase the prestige of Australian literature.

The most striking recent university intervention in contemporary Australian literary culture has been the growth in creative-writing programs. These produce many of Australia’s newly published authors, as well as providing writers with income from teaching. Undertaking a doctorate in creative writing on a government postgraduate scholarship can function as a de facto writing grant. The burgeoning of creative-writing programs has led to debates about the professionalization of literary culture: academic Scott Brook quotes Frank Moorhouse: “Now the joke goes that when someone says they’re a writer, the next question is, “where do you teach?”57 Brook links the growth in these programs to the “promotion of new economy rhetoric on the rise of a ‘creative class’ and the benefits of creativity for an innovation economy.” Changes wrought through the higher-education system may thus be shifting the justificatory framework of Australian literary culture, so that it is appreciated in economic terms as well as (or instead of) nationalist terms.

The Networks of Australian Literary Culture

Australia’s literary culture is created collectively. The often solitary activities of reading and writing are framed and enabled by multiple, overlapping networks. Almost every literary text is embedded in these institutional systems. The paths traced by Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet, one of Australia’s most celebrated recent books, illustrate this interconnection.58 Cloudstreet was originally published by the independent publisher McPhee Gribble in the midst of that company’s takeover by Penguin; recent editions are published by Penguin Books Australia. Cloudstreet won the Miles Franklin Award in 1992, was adapted for the stage in 2001 then television in 2010 and opera in 2016, and remains a frequently set text for high school students across the country. Winton has received funding from the Australia Council, appeared at festivals, and been discussed in journals, and his name regularly appears on bestseller lists. These connections, along with the appeal of the text itself, ensure that Cloudstreet remains in print and read. They support Winton to continue writing, and build a shared belief in Winton and Cloudstreet as central to Australia’s cultural identity.

Multilayered literary networks are not unique to Australia; they operate in other regions and nations, as well as transnationally and globally. At the same time, Australia remains a distinctive literary cultural space, marked by a challenging mix of concentrated and dispersed populations, a colonial history, and diverse contemporary links with the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Asia Pacific region. It is through Australia’s specific literary institutional networks—its beachside and urban festivals, its local and multinational publishing offices, its journal launches and politically fraught prizes, its independent bookshops and creative-writing programs—that the conditions for the creation and reception of Australian literature are produced. This web of interconnected organizations and institutions foster significant, large debates: on the importance of immigrant and Indigenous writing, on the need for greater government support for literature, and on many other topics.59 The flows and counter-flows of these debates—the people who speak, write, listen, read, agree and resist—continue to animate and progressively shape Australian literary culture.

Further Reading

Bode, Katherine. “Publishing and Australian Literature: Crisis, Decline or Transformation?” Cultural Studies Review 16.2 (2010): 24–48.Find this resource:

    Brook, Scott. “Creative Writing, Cultural Capital and the Labour Market.” Australian Humanities Review 53 (2012).Find this resource:

      Carter, David, and Anne Galligan, eds. Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007.Find this resource:

        Carter, David. “The Literary Field and Contemporary Trade-Book Publishing in Australia: Literary and Genre Fiction.” Media International Australia 158.1 (February 1, 2016): 48–57.Find this resource:

          Davis, Mark. “The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing.” Heat 12 (2006).Find this resource:

            Driscoll, Beth. The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.Find this resource:

              Edmonds, Phillip. Tilting at Windmills: The Literary Magazine in Australia, 1968–2012. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                Grundy, Alice. “Nimble Innovators.” Sydney Review of Books, March 21, 2014.Find this resource:

                  Munro, Craig, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, eds. Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946–2005. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                    Murray, Simone. “Charting the Digital Literary Sphere.” Contemporary Literature 56.2 (2015): 311–339.Find this resource:

                      Nolan, Sybil, and Matthew Ricketson. “Parallel Fates: Structural Challenges in Newspaper Publishing and Their Consequences for the Book Industry.” Sydney Review of Books, February 22, 2012.Find this resource:

                        Ommundsen, Wenche. “Literary Festivals and Cultural Consumption.” Australian Literary Studies 24.1 (2009): 19–34.Find this resource:

                          Rooney, Brigid. Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                            Stinson, Emmett. “Quiet Conversations in a Very Noisy Room.” Sydney Review of Books, October 13, 2015.Find this resource:

                              Zwar, Jan. “Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry: Case Studies of Trade and Education Publishers.” Macquarie University, 2016.Find this resource:


                                (1.) Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

                                (2.) A. A. Phillips, “The Cultural Cringe,” Meanjin 9.4 (Summer 1950): 299–302.

                                (3.) Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004).

                                (4.) for example, Mark Davis, “The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing,” Heat 12 (2006).

                                (5.) for example, Michael Heyward, “Classics Going to Waste,” The Age (January 22, 2012).

                                (6.) For example, Peter Donoughue, “Parallel Importation and Australian Book Publishing: Here We Go Again,” The Conversation; and Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, and Tom Keneally, “An Open Letter to PM Malcolm Turnbull,” Brisbane Times.

                                (7.) I use the term network in its everyday sense, rather than as part of a specific theoretical model.

                                (8.) Wendy Griswold, “Recent Moves in the Sociology of Literature”, Annual Review of Sociology 19 (1993): 455–467; and James English, “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Sociology of Literature After ‘The Sociology of Literature’”, New Literary History 41.2 (2010): xv–xxiii.

                                (9.) Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016); Claire Squires, Marketing Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); John B. Thompson Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2010); and By the Book: Contemporary Publishing in Australia ed. Emmett Stinson (Clayton: Monash University Press, 2013).

                                (10.) Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), Julie Rak, “Genre and the Marketplace: The Scene of Bookselling in Canada”, From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 2012), and David Wright, “Commodifying Respectability Distinctions at Work in the Bookshop”, Journal of Consumer Culture 5.3 (2005): 295–314.

                                (11.) Simone Murray, The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation (New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012).

                                (12.) Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo, Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture (New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013); see also Ken Gelder, Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of A Literary Field (New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004).

                                (13.) See, for example, Luke Carman, “Getting Square in a Jerking Circle,” Meanjin (Autumn 2016).

                                (14.) Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, 223.

                                (15.) Stuart Glover, “Publishing and the State” in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing, eds. David Carter and Anne Galligan, (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007), 95.

                                (16.) Writers Victoria, the New South Wales Writers Centre, the Queensland Writers Centre, the SA Writers Centre, Writing WA, the ACT Writers Centre, the Northern Territory Writers Centre, and the Tasmanian Writers Centre.

                                (17.) Rosemary Neill, “Undercover Operative,” The Australian (November 21, 2015). See also Jan Zwar, Disruption and Innovation in the Book Publishing Industry (Macquarie University, 2016).

                                (18.) David Carter, “The Literary Field and Contemporary Trade-Book Publishing in Australia: Literary and Genre Fiction,” Media International Australia 158.1 (February 1, 2016): 48–57.

                                (19.) Davis “The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing,” 94.

                                (20.) Katherine Bode, “Publishing and Australian Literature: Crisis, Decline or Transformation?,” Cultural Studies Review 16.2 (2010): 24–48.

                                (21.) Carter, “The Literary Field and Contemporary Trade-Book Publishing in Australia.”

                                (22.) For a detailed description and historical account of BookScan, see Michael Webster, “Collecting, Measuring and Analysing Book Sales Information,” in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing, eds. David Carter and Anne Galligan (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007), 198–206.

                                (23.) Malcolm Knox, “The Ex Factor: BookScan and the Death of the Australian Novelist,” The Monthly (May 2005).

                                (24.) Emmett Stinson, “Small Publishers and the Emerging Network of Australian Literary Prosumption,” Australian Humanities Review 59 (April 2016).

                                (25.) Emmett Stinson, “Aggregating the Digital Distribution of Australian Small Publishers, 2010–13,” The International Journal of the Book.

                                (26.) Alexandra Back, “From Kickstarter to Book Deal: The Story of Canberra’s Dr Elizabeth Pimms,” The Canberra Times (November 13, 2015).

                                (27.) Laura Miller, Reluctant Capitalists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

                                (28.) Carter, “The Literary Field and Contemporary Trade-Book Publishing in Australia.”

                                (29.) Ivor Indyk, “The Cult of the Middlebrow,” Sydney Review of Books (September 4, 2015); see also the analysis of Australian an international literary prizes in Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

                                (31.) See “Miles Franklin Literary Award 2001: Frank Moorhouse,” and Peter Craven, “Tunnel Vision May Constrict Those with Eyes on the Prize—Opinion,” The Age (April 23, 2007).

                                (32.) David Carter, “Patrick White to the Rescue,” Australian Book Review (December 2012–January 2013).

                                (33.) Stuart Glover and Stuart Cunningham, “The New Brisbane,” Artlink Magazine.

                                (34.) Nance Haxton, “Writers Angry after Newman Axes Literary Awards,” ABC News (April 4, 2012).

                                (35.) Amy Remeikis, “Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards Revived,” Brisbane Times.

                                (36.) Siobhain Ryan, “Rudd and Writers Get First Time Glow with Literary Awards” The Australian (September 13, 2008).

                                (38.) Stephen Romei, “Tony Abbott Overruled Panel to Insist Critic Richard Flanagan Shared Award,” The Australian, December 10, 2014.

                                (39.) Digital Transformation Office, “Writers Festivals”.

                                (40.) Rod Norland, “Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers’ Festival,” The New York Times, September 12, 2016.

                                (41.) Ruth Starke, Writers, Readers and Rebels: Upfront and Backstage at Australia’s Top Literary Festival (Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 1998).

                                (43.) Patrick Allington, “Australian Literary Magazines as Sites of Dissent,” Logos: Journal of the World Publishing Community 27.1 (2016): 53–62; James Bradley, “Growing Content”; Alice Grundy, “Nimble Innovators,” Sydney Review of Books (March 21, 2014); Emmett Stinson, “Quiet Conversations in a Very Noisy Room,” Sydney Review of Books (October 13, 2015).

                                (44.) Phillip Edmonds, Tilting at Windmills: The Literary Magazine in Australia, 1968–2012 (Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2015).

                                (46.) Vincent Buckley, “Towards an Australian Literature,” Meanjin 18.1 (1959): 59–68.

                                (48.) For more on the history of Australian periodicals, see David Carter and Roger Osborn, “Case-Study: Periodicals,” in Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia1946–2005, eds. Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 239–257.

                                (49.) Allington, “Australian Literary Magazines as Sites of Dissent,” 55.

                                (50.) For recent changes to book reviewing in Australian newspapers, see Sybil Nolan and Matthew Ricketson, “Parallel Fates: Structural Challenges in Newspaper Publishing and Their Consequences for the Book Industry,” Sydney Review of Books (February 22, 2012).

                                (51.) Emmett Stinson, “Quiet Conversations in a Very Noisy Room.”

                                (52.) Alice Grundy, “Nimble Innovators.”

                                (53.) Alice Grundy, “Nimble Innovators.”

                                (54.) Emmett Stinson, “Quiet Conversations in a Very Noisy Room.”

                                (55.) Alice Grundy, “Nimble Innovators.”

                                (56.) Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

                                (57.) Scott Brook, “Creative Writing, Cultural Capital and the Labour Market,” Australian Humanities Review 53 (November 2012).

                                (58.) For a similar analysis that also includes textual analysis, see Robert Dixon, “Tim Winton, Cloudstreet and the field of Australian Literature” Westerly 50 (November 2005): 240–260.

                                (59.) See, for example, the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network; independent publisher Affirm Press’ collection of stories about emigration to Australia, Joyful Strains eds. Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer (South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2013), and notes 6, 14 and 16 above.