Demand for books increased during the pandemic with locked-down Australians turning to reading for solace, but government financial support for literature continued to dwindle. It remains at a fraction of other major art forms and small publishers in particular are under pressure.
Since the Australia Council’s dedicated funding stream through the Literature Board was abolished, less than 3 per cent of its funding pool goes to literature – and the ratio is similar in the arts grants of other levels of government. Meanwhile – with an average annual income of $18,200 – the abysmal economics of being a writer in this country continue to worsen. Just look to Anwen Crawford’s latest zine, Decorum Serves the Rich – downloadable from Crawford’s website – for a forensic dissection of the situation.
Surrounded by this shitshow, with miniscule marketing budgets and without the safety net of bestsellers to buffer their bottom line, Australian small press publishers take risks on new, emerging and experimental writers year after year, rendering our bookshelves less beige and our reading more adventurous. Here’s a brief tour of my highlights from 2022.
This year I immersed myself in speculative realities – universes just like our own, transmuted by witches and magic, dreams and ghosts, science and technology. It’s probably not surprising in times of crisis that writers should invent new worlds to process loss and grief and to hold up a mirror to contemporary life. Humans are flawed. The future is both terrifying and precious. The authors of the books I most relished this year acknowledge these conditions, yet persist with hope, generosity and empathy.
In Jane Rawson’s historical caper, A History of Dreams (Brio Books, 320pp, $29.99), we meet a precocious group of four young witches in 1930s Adelaide. These spirited women have good old-fashioned feminist rage and the ability to conjure dreams in other people’s minds, which they exploit for good, emancipating the oppressed and toppling the powerful.
Two debut short story collections – Andrew Roff’s Teeth of a Slow Machine (Wakefield Press, 216 pp, $29.99) and Ben Walter’s What Fear Was (Puncher and Wattmann, 176pp, $29.95) – bring the off-kilter, gently melancholy surrealism of these writers to a broader audience. While stylistically distinct, the experimental prose of Roff’s and Walter’s inventive collections skewer capitalism, colonialism and the disregard for human impacts on the environment. Both writers bend reality and play up the absurd, recalling the short fiction of Wayne Macauley, Ryan O’Neill and Peter Carey.
Capitalism and climate are also preoccupations in Angela Meyer’s queer, genre-bending Moon Sugar (Transit Lounge, 256pp, $29.99), where the ghosts of celebrities, philosophers and inventors coalesce with drug-taking, magic and desire. Meyer’s story centres on finding truth and connection as two people attempt to untangle the mysterious death of their friend, Josh. From ever-decadent Berlin they make their way through Europe, while Meyer games the reader’s expectations of genre in a satisfying follow-up to her debut novel, A Superior Spectre.
Another writer who plucks out a historical figure to explore contemporary life is Adam Ouston, whose novel Waypoints (Puncher and Wattman, 192pp, $29.95) was recently shortlisted for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award. Ouston’s novel mashes up the story of illusionist Harry Houdini’s attempt to be the first person to fly a plane in Australia with the life of his protagonist. Bernard Cripp is attempting to restage Houdini’s failed flight as a way to process the grief of losing his wife and child on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Fever dream meets doomscroll, Ousten’s wild debut unpicks the unfathomable, from the trickery of capitalism and the dystopia of our information-overloaded age to the opacity of grief, with captivating storytelling and a perfect dose of humour to balance out the gloom.
In Grace Chan’s debut novel Every Version of You (Affirm Press, 288pp, $32.99), it’s the 2080s. Most people live in a virtual reality world called Gaia, while their ageing bodies are abandoned in the ruined physical world. Real experience is replicated by code. Chan asks hard questions about the choices we make about how we live in the world and what the concept of “self” really means, grappling with the politics and ethics of hyper-consumerism and of lives lived online, where the boundary between the physical and digital blurs. In this digital “utopia”, the poor are left behind, locked out of the technological panacea to inherit climate disaster.
Switching to nonfiction, Chokepoint Capitalism by local writer and academic Rebecca Giblin and Canadian/British activist and author Cory Doctorow (Scribe, 320pp, $32.99), bares the unequivocal subtitle How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labour Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back. Giblin and Doctorow explain how companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook – and the big publishers – use their anti-competitive market powers to exploit creators, consumers and employees. The authors argue for collective action and minimum wages for creatives as some possible solutions to unblock the “chokepoints”.
Local small press books that are still waiting on my towering bedside table pile: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text, 240pp, $32.99), Hydra by Adriane Howell (Transit Lounge, 256pp, $29.99), big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press, 304pp, $35.00) and Desire: A Reckoning by Jessie Cole (Text, 272pp, $34.99). This year isn’t over yet!
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "The best books of 2022".
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