Senior Editor Ruby Ashby-Orr recently ducked over to New York City on a work trip. Here, she shares just some of the publishing insights she learnt in America’s cultural capital.
On my five-year anniversary with Affirm Press, Keiran and Martin decided that I’d proofed enough proofs and talked enough authors back from the brink to earn some kind of reward. I thought the idea of a long-service award was lovely, but I’ll admit, when they first brought it up I expected maybe a nice pen – certainly not the chance to spend a working week anywhere in the world for a professional development experience.
In the end, after a lot of googling, I settled on a week in New York attending the PEN World Voices literary festival. PEN America campaigns for freedom of expression around the world, advocating for writers and journalists who are jailed or otherwise threatened because of their work. There’s an urgency to that mission that I suspected would make for a fascinating festival, and I’ve always appreciated learning about other countries and cultures through their literature – plus, New York is New York.
While I always enjoy literary festivals, I’ve found that brilliance on the page doesn’t always translate to a brilliant interview or panel discussion. So possibly the most impressive thing about the events I attended in New York was how compelling they were, whether or not I’d read any of the writer’s work (mostly I hadn’t).
One standout was ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’, where dissident writers from around the world read passages about their homelands in their original languages, with the translation written up behind them. Chinese-born Ma Jian, whose books are banned in China, summed up the gist of the discussion beautifully when he said, ‘Tyrants always call writers the enemies of the people, but sincere dissent is rooted in love.’ With the state of politics and journalism in the US, this felt particularly poignant.
Another top event was called ‘It Happened to Me’. Six writers read out pieces about their traumatic experiences, and I cried during every single reading. It probably sounds a bit dark, but the courage, flashes of humour and straight-up talent of these writers made these stories of abuse and genocide somehow incredibly engaging, and hopeful. Hands-down the most moving literary event I’ve ever attended.
It was all a reminder of the difference a powerful personal story can make to a potential reader – naturally, when it was time to visit the book sales table, I always picked the ones whose authors had impressed me the most.
The Arthur Miller Lecture, the final event of the festival, was given by the charismatic Arundhati Roy at the legendary Apollo Theatre. I knew of Roy’s novels but nothing about her clear-eyed non-fiction, which has caused her problems in India, rated the fifth-most dangerous country for journalists. If you want something to put a fire under you, have a read of the lecture here.
I also met up with Catherine Richards from Minotaur Books (an imprint of St Martin’s Press), and Matthew Lore and Batya Rosenblum from The Experiment, who generously gave me insights into the US publishing industry. The sheer size of the country presents such different challenges and opportunities to what I’m used to. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the niche markets that can be found there. (Did you know they have dedicated ‘survivalist stores’ where nature-focused books can take off?) It also left me pretty proud of the way Australian readers and booksellers really get behind our local authors, making it possible for new writers and smaller publishers to find their audience, even without a huge population.
I went home with an addiction to everything bagels with cream cheese (they’re just not the same here), and a lot to consider. When I heard the speakers at those PEN events I had so many ‘Everybody should hear these stories’ moments. But while the events were all respectably filled, they weren’t exactly booked out. Again, it got me thinking about how the huge population of a city like New York must create very different advantages and challenges for arts organisations. There’s just so much to do there that even with a huge literary culture, getting your share of attention must be extremely difficult – especially when many of the writers you’re promoting could be considered ‘obscure’. PEN did a wonderful job, but it would have cost a lot of money and resources.
Sadly, that made me suspect that this kind of festival wouldn’t be feasible in Australia (though it feels like we could use it). Still, it was timely a reminder of the opportunity we have in Australia to publish writing that looks at our country and culture in honest and sometimes challenging ways. We’re pretty lucky that way.