These days, digital publishing is a given talking point at writers’ festivals and literary conferences. After years of debate between publishers, writers, critics and readers over the question of whether print publishing could survive the digital age, it seems the industry has largely accepted – for now at least – that both forms have a place in the literary culture and, furthermore, that both have the potential to be profitable. Conversations are now moving – somewhat belatedly, one might argue – to how publishers and writers can best exploit digital technology to capitalise on the narrative, creative and marketing potential of digital forms.
At the London Book Fair in April, Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, warned that simply ‘turning a book into a PDF’ was not enough to capture a market whose expectations are shaped by a long history of online experiences and gaming culture. Innovation, Mollett warned, was key to remaining viable in an industry where ‘stagnation is death’. This weekend, the quest for innovation takes centre stage again in London at the ‘Writing a Digital Age’ conference (13-15 June), while later this year San Francisco, New York and London will be among the cities to host the touring Digital Publishing Innovation Summit.
In Australia, digital publishing and writing have also proved to be hot conversational topics. Over the last few years the Sydney Writers’ Festival has included digital content and vigorous panel sessions about the future of the book. Perhaps my favourite SWF ‘digital moment’ was in 2013, when American writer and former McSweeney’s editor Eli Horowitz talked about The Silent History – a serialized electronic novel produced with a group of collaborators. Not surprisingly, given its demographic of young up-and-coming writers, the Emerging Writers’ Festival has also tended to highlight digital writing and publishing. In February this year, EWF hosted its first Digital Writers Festival, which featured over 90 artists and attracted more than 10,000 unique visitors.
There is a strong interest in digital writing projects in Australia. if:book continues to produce research and creative projects that contribute to what it calls ‘book futures’ and the ‘intersection of technology and publishing’. Last week, digital poet Jason Nelson was selected for the second Digital Writer in Residence fellowship at The Cube as part of a funding program supported by the Queensland University of Technology and the Australia Council for the Arts Literature Board. As part of his residency, Nelson will be required to produce a new literary project purpose-designed for the digital display environment of The Cube.
It is in this context that I was excited this week to come across Ellen van Neervan’s new edited collection Writing Black: New Indigenous Writing From Australia – a work that has emerged from the national Indigenous writing project black&write! Van Neervan won last year’s David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Writer at the Queensland Literary Awards. More recently, she has appeared on writers’ festival panels, including at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, to warn editors and publishers about the importance of preserving the integrity and authenticity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in the nation’s literary culture.
Writing Black is a stellar example of how this might be done. Published in digital format only, and available for free through iTunes, the collection showcases some of the best writing and design from the country’s leading and emerging Indigenous writers and artists. Importantly, it also provides a platform for experimentation with digital technology. Audio, video and images mesh to produce works that exploit the narrative potential of the digital format. Siv Parker’s tweetyarn ‘Maisie May’ (a work that was livetweeted on 26 January), appears alongside Sylvia Nakachi’s audio-visual ‘story of home’, set in the Torres Strait Islands. Other featured writers include Bruce Pascoe, Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Steven Oliver and Tony Birch. It is a collection that is worth downloading.
Tony Birch was also one of three Australian writers to be longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Worth €25 000 (AU $36 318), the award is presented annually to a collection either published in English or translated into English. Previous winners include Jhumpa Lahiri, David Constantine and Haruki Murakami. The Australians longlisted this year are Birch for The Promise, Catherine McNamara for Pelt and Other Stories, and Ben Peek for Dead Americans. The shortlist of six will be announced in coming days. Next week, Sydney Review of Books will feature a subtantial essay by Eve Vincent on Tony Birch’s work, including the new short story collection that has earned Birch his place on the longlist.
This week, however, we feature a review-essay by poet and critic Felicity Plunkett. ‘Second Murders’ reviews Paul Auster’s intimate memoir Report From the Interior in light of Auster’s oeuvre and the difficult issues raised by biographical and autobiographical writing. Central to Plunkett’s analysis is the way these related genres generate ethical and emotional complexities, the way any attempt to write a life entails a form of violation.
Our second essay is by Australian poetry editor, reviewer and publisher Martin Duwell. It considers Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas’ new book Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey – an edited collection of reviews, interviews, essays and biographical material. In his essay, ‘Inward Illumination: On Antigone Kefala’, Duwell reflects upon how such a collection might enhance the appreciation of Kefala’s work, particularly in light of the ‘trans-lingual or trans-cultural poetics’ which have tended to shape her critical reception over several decades. Duwell takes note of Karalis and Nickas’ decision to allow Kefala into the book, and considers how such a decision asks the reader to ‘face the fact that what a writer finds worth saying about her work is not always the same as what the critical community does’.
From the Archive picks up on some of the key issues in this week’s essays. ‘What we talk about when we talk about Australian literature’ is Kerryn Goldsworthy’s insightful analysis of the cultural politics that shape the concept of Australian Literature. Picking up on Plunkett’s interest in life writing, we also feature Lucy Sussex’s review of Helen Trinca’s biography Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John. Sussex’s essay provides an excellent introduction to St John, an Australian writer who was scarcely known to the Australian reading public until she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997
Finally, don’t forget that next Monday, 16 June, is Bloomsday. In preparation for this, and in light of this week’s WiR interest in the digital, Joyceans might like to look at ‘He liked thick word soup’, a new free app that allows the user to ‘literally wrestle’ with Ulysses.