Sydney and Melbourne are fighting again.
Australiaâ€™s writing community loves nothing more than talking about itself and, in recent days, it has been transfixed by an incendiary article published in this quarterâ€™s Meanjin. In Getting Square in a Jerking Circle, the Sydney writer Luke Carman delivers an extended jeremiad against the Melbourne literary scene.
In tones of considerable venom, Carman excoriates arts administrators in general and Melbourneâ€™s City of Literature pretensions in particular. His targets are â€œthe social climbers of the artsâ€: arts administrators at creative institutions â€“ journals, festivals, funding bodies and hubs â€“ working in that most notorious cosa nostra, â€œthe Melbourne literati mafiaâ€.
These godfathers (often godmothers) of the Melbourne â€œlit-mobâ€, he says, are â€œanti-artistsâ€, in it only for the allure of literary power. Carman writes that these â€œMelbourne-centred lit-scene mobstersâ€ are â€œa cultish cabal holding the countryâ€™s literary â€˜stakeholdersâ€™ to ransomâ€, who are corrupting â€œthe consciousness of young Australian writersâ€.
If you read Carmanâ€™s essay aloud in the right voice â€“ perhaps at a writersâ€™ festival event â€“ this all becomes hysterically funny. The delicious image of a group of hipster dons assassinating their literary enemies from a special table at the Wheeler Centreâ€™s Moat bar is luridly evocative.
Unsurprisingly, the essay has got tongues wagging in Australiaâ€™s tight-knit writing community. Some, like the Newcastle writer Emmett Stinson, have argued that the sensitive reaction to Carmanâ€™s essay in the Melbourne literary scene unintentionally proves his point about a cabal of glad-handing self-congratulators.
Others are more concerned about the bomb-throwing nature of Carmanâ€™s provocation. In a thoughtful response to the essay, Jessica Friedmann points out that Carmanâ€™s sidelong reference in the essay to mental illness â€“ â€œWant someone to stand in as a borderline personality spokesperson? Speak to their agent,â€ he writes â€“ is â€œbreathtakingly callousâ€, given the very serious issues posed by mental illness in the artistic world.
The Melbourne writer Ellena Savage responded more generously, arguing that Carman â€œbrashly articulates the simmering rage felt by many, if not most, working artists in Australiaâ€. Artists must endure low pay and precarious conditions, and arts administrators are often the conduits of this insecurity.
But the most common reaction has been head-scratching. Ironically, Carmanâ€™s article has confused many of the people he might have been thought to be attacking.
Thatâ€™s not to say Carman is completely off-beam. He argues that â€œthe literary arts in this country have been abandoned to cultural guerrillas who seek nothing but to further their interestsâ€ â€“ and itâ€™s true that the interests of festival curators and writers donâ€™t always align. Industry politics and strings-attached patronage have always been a distasteful part of cultural endeavour, as Balzac lamented in his masterpiece Lost Illusions.
As Savage notes, there are also genuine labour market issues afflicting the cultural industries. For all the rhetoric of â€œpaying the writersâ€, fees for published work in Australia remain depressed and large masses of poorly paid writers and artists compete in a cut-throat freelance market. Only a lucky few can earn enough income from their writing to pay the rent in a big Australian city, so itâ€™s easy to see why hostility runs hot against the salaried arts administrator with a steady income. Itâ€™s a doleful situation and Carman is right to be angry.
Nor is Australiaâ€™s critical scene particularly healthy. Newspapers are publishing less criticism and fewer reviews; the web provides writing opportunities but not income. Genuine, thoughtful discussion about Australian culture is getting harder to find.
And Carman is surely justified in calling out the defensive and incestuous nature of the literary scene. In a small industry it doesnâ€™t pay to make enemies, so many reviewers pull their punches. Cliques do form. A small number of influential gatekeepers do wield significant power. This is hardly news. In an industry where nearly everyone really is a critic, itâ€™s not surprising there are criticisms.
But someone has to do the job of producing an event: choosing the speakers, setting up the venue, cleaning up afterwards. The majority of arts workers are paid barely more than the minimum wage. Mid-level producers and curators from the smaller arts organisations have been among those fighting hardest to roll back the funding cuts.
I emailed Carman on Tuesday in an attempt to better understand what he was getting at. He told me he hadnâ€™t set out to write a deliberately confusing or outrageous essay. â€œI did not write this article in an attempt to get some kind of click-bait, shock-jock style â€˜reactionâ€™,â€ Carman maintained.
But he does seem to have a particular loathing for the directors of writersâ€™ festivals. â€œThe anti-artist takes on the directorship of some literary event, pours their ego into it, then acts as though they climbed up on a cross and died for the nationâ€™s sins,â€ he wrote in the email.
Most industry insiders would argue the truth is more boring. Far from exercising mafia-like power over the Australian literary scene, the majority of writing organisations are barely keeping their head above water. Arts administrators are scrambling to keep the doors open as a slew of funding cuts flows through the sector from George Brandisâ€™ raid on the Australia Councilâ€™s funding.
On this analysis, the real threat to Australian culture is not the mafia-like power of arts administrators â€“ itâ€™s the Coalition government, which has slashed more than $160m of federal arts funding since 2013.
But while Carman gets plenty wrong, in some crucial respects he is right.
There is truth to the accusation that the salaries of festival and gallery directors are way out of line with the reality of ordinary artistsâ€™ earnings. While artists and writers struggle, superstars like the Art Gallery of New South Walesâ€™ Michael Brand are earning $500,000 a year. Itâ€™s a problem across many artforms: just ask the visual artists, or the musicians.
If Carman helps us focus on these inequalities, his provocation is useful. But if the article just leads to another round of arts industry infighting â€¦ well, that really would be a circle jerk.