Bringing Compassion to the World: Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Perle Besserman

You have spent much of the last several years in Australia. Can you say something about the environment for writers there? How does it compare to the state of publishing in the U.S.?

Perle Besserman
© Alex Pavlou

My experience as an American writer, in Australia, has been welcoming, on the one hand, and exclusionary, on the other. RMIT University, where my husband holds a professorship in Global Studies, is located in Melbourne, our second home for the past eight years. Designated as one of the world’s “cities of literature” by UNESCO, Melbourne hosts one of the most important international literary arts festivals. But it’s not the only city in Australia that loves and rewards its writers: the entire country blooms with creative writing programs, writing centers, literary fellowships and residencies. Australians treat writers like celebrities, lavishing them with constant media attention in direct proportion to the way Americans ignore their writers. But this literary love-fest is very insular and self-protective. Australians still suffer from what they themselves call “the cultural cringe” in the face of their parent country, the UK, and now, perhaps even more so, the U.S. Which is why they’ll invite American or British writers — usually the most famous ones — to give an occasional keynote speech or offer a university creative writing seminar, but, as an American writer actually living there, I’m regarded as a privileged intruder. My stories have appeared in several excellent Australian literary journals, and I’ve given readings and led a few workshops and creative writing seminars at a couple of universities — but I’ve been given the cold shoulder by publishers and agents, and, most importantly, the movers and shakers in the media. My few limited inroads came mostly through generous writers who’ve become close friends, but these haven’t resulted in any of my books being published or even sold in the country’s major independent bookstores.

This leads me into the second part of your question, which I’ve interpreted as “the state of publishing today.” A huge topic more suited to a book (and there are already several tackling the subject) than a quick answer. But I’ll try, using my own thirty-year publishing experience as an example. It’s clear that the new technologies have drastically changed the literary paradigm that you and I and just about every writer, bookseller, librarian, literary agent, and publisher have all grown up with. First thing that comes to mind is when I switched from writing longhand on yellow foolscap to using the computer. I resisted with all my might, but, in the end, I had to give in — or editors wouldn’t even look at my proposals, no less undertake the laborious process of blue-penciling my manuscripts! Even an interview, like the one we’re engaging in right now, required a tape recorder (my first used reel-to-reel tapes, so that tells you how long ago it took place!), and the two Canadian documentary films about my work on the Kabbalah required cameras, and lighting, and a whole slew of paraphernalia made obsolescent by e-mail, YouTube, and any number of devices I can’t even name. Literary agents have given up on working with any writer who can’t guarantee six-figure advances, which leaves writers of “mid-list” and “literary” fiction, not to speak of poets, to “do-it-yourself” publishing. And DIY publishing has become the name of the game in our blogosphere. Giants like Amazon and Google and Apple stalk the land, swallowing up, and spitting out, publishers, writers, musicians, anyone and anything that can be construed as “creative.” So, yes, I’d say the old paradigm is dead — and, while I’ve comfortably joined the new electronically-driven literary world of the future, I’m still not breaking out the champagne and celebrating the demise of the printing press.

My last word on the subject is, I’d trade my entire Kindle virtual library for a first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

— This interview took place in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, in October 2012.

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