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Recommended Reading

‘We read to know we are not alone’: Annie Condon

by Estelle Tang , November 29, 201013 Comments

Annie Condon’s ‘Nothing Broken’ was published in Issue Three. A fiction writer and reviewer, Annie lives in Melbourne, and her stories have been published in Kill Your Darlings (Issue 3), Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and various anthologies. Killings asked her to share her recommended reading.

Many years ago I had an ‘aha moment’ when I encountered the CS Lewis quote, ‘We read to know we are not alone’. Reading has always been a highlight in my life, and was the sole reason I bounded into the local primary school at age five, desperate to decode for myself the books my parents had read to me.

I was an only child, and inevitably that means a lot of time alone. So characters in books became my companions. Even in my earliest Enid Blyton phase, I preferred human characters to animals or fairy folk. That is, Darrell and Sally from the Malory Towers boarding school series got the thumbs up, whereas Mr Pinkwhistle was relegated to ‘one read only’ status.

To this day, I remain a realist. The fiction I read portrays people pushed to the brink. And the more contemporary the setting, the better. Favourite authors include, Curtis Sittenfeld; Tom Perrotta; MJ Hyland; Alice Munro; Ethan Canin; Dan Chaon; Andrea Goldsmith; Julie Orringer; ZZ Packer and Cate Kennedy.

I love burying myself in a novel, but equally I love the sharp intake of breath an effective short story can produce in a reader. I’m reading New Australian Stories 2 (Scribe) at the moment and dipping in to the myriad worlds of others has a satisfying and voyeuristic thrill. My writing teachers at RMIT always suggested ‘dive right in to the action’ when you write a short story, and the pull of explosive dialogue or a character’s unenviable position has me, as a reader, right on the edge of my seat. With this collection, I sometimes have to close my eyes because I don’t want to face what I think will occur next.

I’ve always had a fascination for American culture and writing, so I try to keep up with the US book and short story market. I purchase books not available here from Amazon (apologies to all local independent bookstores) and keep a close eye on The New Yorker. I also subscribe to the brilliant One Story, a non-profit literary magazine that mails one short story to subscribers every three weeks. This year I’ve had significant reading mileage out of The New Yorker’s ’20 under 40’, which in their own words, ‘features twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction’. Some of these writers are already household names (Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Wells Tower) but the discovery of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum led me to her book of interconnected stories about a young middle-school English teacher titled Ms Hempel Chronicles. The wisdom and pathos in these pages puts it into my top three this year. My other belated discovery was the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li. I was fortunate to be able to review her outstanding book of short stories Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for Readings Monthly, and her writing is absorbing and beautiful as she charts the lives of people coming to terms with the modern age in China.

I find a lot to be excited about in Australian publishing. Literary journals seem to be flourishing, and small presses such as Sleepers and Affirm Press are on the rise. More writers are focusing on the ‘city’ as a location for their characters, which I enjoy. Interestingly, novels seem to becoming shorter and short stories longer. I like the fact that journals are making room for stories up to 5000 words. And that both traditional publishers and small presses are publishing my current favourite form – collections of interlinked short stories. In the past two years I’ve read some brilliant examples of these. Patrick Cullen’s What Came Between and more recently Gretchen Shirm’s Having Cried Wolf.





  • martin

    Sorry Annie, but I have to demur re: your buying habits. Sure, lots of US titles aren’t sitting on Australian bookshops shelves. But a half-decent shop can get you what ever title you want – by airmail, at a competitive price. An even better shop might have even second-guessed your object of interest and have it on the shelf already!

    And the more business you choose to send offshore, the less the Australian small publishers and suchlike – which indeed are doing such exciting things – will struggle to survive as their main path to market – the independent bookshop – struggles. Buy local then, and support our literary culture!

  • Leia

    I doubt that a bookshop could be that competitive. I just bought Nicole Krauss’s new book for $19 from Book Depository which offers free shipping because I can’t afford the $32.95 that it retails at in Australian bookshops. If it was an Australian author, published by an Australian publisher I’d save up and buy from a bookshop here or purchase from the publisher’s website but if it’s published overseas by a multi-national publisher I have no problem buying online.

    Small publishers could quite easily survive. Savvy internet marketing and use of website/blogs are excellent tools to get customers to purchase direct and there’s no trade discount to factor in. Booksellers could one day become a thing of the past.

    • martin

      And have you considered the carbon cost of your purchase at all Leia? And all that packaging – as BD can only ship individual items? Not to mention that no GST is involved in your transaction – hence the country gains no revenue (which pays for your education and health and infrastructure etc.) I guess it just depends on what sort of a society you want to live in…

      And I’m sure the small press community are thrilled to hear that they can “quite easily” survive. I’ve yet to encounter one myself who is in any way prospering…with even the savviest social media skills. They need bookseller support – particularly from our larger chains – not their demise!

      I’m with you though that books can and should be cheaper in this country – the traditional “pricing for the market model” just doesn’t work anymore with when you have online retailers who are able to ignore territorial copyright etc. That battle is I can assure you being fought – and most publishers are recognising this and re-examining their pricing strategies.

      Anyway, I know what future I’d like – and it certainly isn’t yours.

  • Jo Case

    A declaration: Martin and I are (independent) booksellers, so this is where we’re coming from. But, that said, I wholeheartedly agree with him that it’s important to support bookshops – particularly your local independent. (And yes, we may be biased, but the reason we work in independent bookselling is *because* we’re passionate about it. No one does it for the money!) The survival of independent bookselling is crucial to the survival of those independent and small publishers.

    Small publishers may be able to market and sell their product online, but they still rely on knowing that bookshops will buy in, support and sell the bulk (or at least half, at a conservative estimate) of their print runs. And independent bookshops are the biggest supporters of independent publishers. The demise of independent bookshops would see publishers much less able to take risks with what they publish, as they wouldn’t be able to factor in that percentage of the print run as taken on by those bookshops.

    Buying your mass market books – say, a Penguin book, for instance, as in the Nicole Krauss example – from an o/s internet bookseller may seem harmless for the local publishing scene, but it’s not. Leaving aside the impact on the bookshop you might have been supporting, the money you pay Penguin UK or US rather than Penguin Australia takes away from the money that goes into their local publishing program, which published the likes of Nam Le’s The Boat and Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man. (Both seen as risky, for different reasons, when commissioned – both huge contributions to our literary culture.) And it’s not going to be the cookbooks that won’t be published if their funds are down.

    I understand why people make these buying decisions, as consumers thinking purely about money, but if you care about making ethical buying decisions (and have the funds to do so), you should at least understand that Amazon and Book Depository are the Nike rather than the Fair Trade option.

    PS. Ironically, I happen to know that Annie, whose comment started this discussion, is an enthusiastic supporter of independent bookshops (and publishers) here, so this is in no way meant as an attack on her occasional stray to Amazon! I’m playing the issue, not the individual.

  • Sebastian

    Carbon Footprint? This argument is ridiculous. An independent bookstore with its heating and lighting and hundreds of customers driving to and from the store compared to a warehouse and an optimised distribution centre – Martin please send me your carbon footprint calculations. I’d love to see them . You are obviously a big fan of ebooks – think of the forests that will be saved!

    I am prepared to pay a premium for purchasing a book from an independent bookstore but $32 compared to $19? Sorry I am not prepared to do it. I’d rather spend the remaining $13 on another book or zine, and support another author rather than propping up an inefficient distribution system.

    We are all free to make our own purchasing decisions balancing costs and benefits to various stakeholders. Accusations that online purchasing is morally bankrupt is pathetic… Sounds like the last gasp of a dead cat bouncing

    Leia is also correct that the future of small publishers is online. I am not suggesting it is easy but it offers far more opportunities in the medium term. Aren’t Sleepers publishing their next Almanac as an e book? Aren’t we having this debate online?

    Anyway, my future is with Leia – a world full of great literature at reasonable prices, a vibrant online literacy scene and no patronising independent bookstore employees.

  • martin

    I can only refer you to the following article Sebastian re: Amazon

    http://www.bostonreview.net/BR35.6/roychoudhuri.php

    It’s your idea of utopia – it doesn’t happen to be mine.

  • Jo Case

    I’d be very curious to hear about any small or independent publishers who’d prefer a future based on online sales, as an alternative to keeping our vibrant independent bookselling scene – one of the world’s best – alive. Or any small publisher who thinks that they’d do better out of such an arrangement. As an associate editor of KYD, I’m well aware that huge support from independent booksellers across the country who have ordered us, talked about us to customers, and displayed the journal in shops, has been key to our success, even though we have also done well online and through events, etc.

    The best-case-scenario future of publishing is online sales and content that complements traditional print publications, rather than replaces them. Publications like Overland and Meanjin (and KYD) have benefited from online engagement because it’s a conversation that all interested parties can join, which makes readers part of a community and thus more likely to engage with the print publications. The print and online components are generally co-dependent, not mutually exclusive. An online-only literary scene would look very different and would likely be mostly staffed by hobbyists (not a slur – some of them likely very, very good, if not renumerated for their trouble), as no one has found a way to make online publishing pay, at least not here in Australia. This would inevitably have an effect on the quality of work published, as people generally need to eat, meaning time & effort spent polishing and curating work inevitably depends to some degree on resources.(And Sleepers may be publishing their Almanacs as e-books, but their novels will still be books sold in bookshops, so they’re not exactly turning their backs on the world of print. And yes we’re having this conversation online – on the website of a print journal.)

    You can of course make your own purchasing decisions and balance costs and benefits to various stakeholders. All I’m doing here is pointing out that these costs and benefits do exist, and do have consequences. If your choice is – as you say – that you’d prefer a world without independent booksellers, then go ahead and follow that choice. As you say, totally up to you.

    (And I never said anyone is ‘morally bankrupt’ for buying books online and o/s, just as I wouldn’t call someone morally bankrupt for wearing clothes manufactured in dubiously run factories in Vietnam or China. Most of us do it to some degree; I know I do, unfortunately. It doesn’t mean there are no ethics or repercussions involved.)

  • Sebastian

    Apologies for my somewhat mean spirited last post – I was responding to Martin’s previous posts which I felt were a bit extreme. I was not directing my comments to you Jo

    That said I am grateful for the link. It appears the problem with Amazon is not so much that they are online, rather they are exerting monopoly power and screwing everyone. This is something I don’t support and it will affect my buying habits. It will not stop me buying online but I will certainly factor this in. Thanks for the link

    A few additional thoughts re online publishing
    - Joe you are correct that at the moment the best model is a hybrid between online and offline
    - I much prefer reading in hard copy, however it is difficult to deny that the web allows you to access a massive audience at virtually no distribution cost (ie no need for Amazon). I also suspect that the iPad is a bit of a game changer with respect to ebooks. (It may not be but the thing is insanely popular)
    - Your hobbyist comment is also correct. Separating yourself from the mass of droll published online is a massive challenge. At the moment hardcopy publishing and stocking and promotion by an independent bookstore gives a book a much needed stamp of approval, however the small publishers who creatively address these challenges will be the ones that thrive
    - Ironically I think ebooks in the medium term represent the best opportunity for breaking Amazon’s monopoly. I now understand that in the short term their buying power means they have the industry by the throat however I suspect in the medium term they wont be the dominant player in ebooks and hopefully they wont be replaced by another monopolist

    I don’t support the demise of independent bookstores. I do support healthy debate so thanks for your posts

  • Annie

    This discussion, and the link (thanks Martin) has been really enlightening to me. Perhaps, given the ferocity of the arguments, this issue could be something KYD has an article about in the next (print) publication? Martin is certainly very well read on the issue and I would never have found the Boston Review article on my own.

  • Jo Case

    Hi Sebastian – thanks for your comment and your reasoned arguments/thoughts. I too welcome healthy debate, and this discussion here has helped me tease out my thoughts and led me to research the topic more (and of course has led me, via Martin, to that excellent article), so I’m very pleased we’ve been having it.

    There are many challenges ahead for independent booksellers and publishers, and you’re right that the internet, approached creatively and thoughtfully, will be part of the solution as well as part of the problem now.

  • Simonr

    The other major issue with online bookshops is that some tend to be union-busting scumbag employers. I believe that “pricing for the global market” is a euphemism for screw the workforce.

    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/retailing/article5337770.ece

    There is a lot of evidence on Amazon going back many years. I could imagine that many others treat staff the same way. How do you think they charge those low, low prices? The only one I know of that seems to be worker and union friendly, and was even recommended by Eric Lee at Laborstart.org, is http://www.powells.com/. But Powells is a real bookshop in a city of readers.

  • Pingback: Reading is overrated

  • Rileyt

    Very inspiring essay. Hope to hear form you again

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