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A paler world: book culture in a jiffy bag?

by Kill Your Darlings , January 19, 201116 Comments

One of the most depressing days of my bookselling career came in late December of 2010, deep in the Christmas gift trade. It wasn’t that sales were lousy or the weather was extreme or any of the other typical retailer gripes during silly season. No, it was that Chris Flynn, one of the most enthusiastic literary types in the town – former publisher of a literary journal, host of a popular literary salon, and short-story writer in his own right – ran a piece called ‘Book Depository vs Book Stores’ on his blog, Falcon vs Monkey, which suggested readers were lemmings to be buying books from local bookshops: ‘Only a fool would believe the public will rush to spend 2-3 times as much for their product in order to sustain book stores just because they’re nice’ and that overseas titles (although anecdotally I believe a lot of locally originated books are also being sourced this way) were available more cheaply and efficiently from abroad. A UK company, the Book Depository – registered I believe in Guernsey, on the UK Channel Islands, no doubt for tax reasons – which holds no physical stock whatsoever at its mainland warehouse and only supplies order to order, was held up for special praise.

Responses to this post were mostly favourable amongst the online community, who excitedly shared that they too had found the literary Promised Land, where you never had to pay full price. Meanwhile the Harvey Norman GST campaign has been keeping the issue bubbling away in our media into the New Year. Books – as consumer commodities that are often available across a number of world markets – are popular products for those who just love comparing, in all their permutations, prices in terrestrial and online shops, both here and abroad.

Enter Michelle Griffin to the discussion in The Age on January 8, in a column entitled ‘Provocateur’. What first caught my eye was her sub-editor’s (presumably) choice of phrase: the headline ‘Forced on to the internet’, and the byline that read in part ‘we (buyers) know what we want and we want it now’.

Now, I thought that one of the commonplaces of the role of the bookshop in our cultural fabric is that it is, at its best, a place of discovery. Sometimes you enter with a particular purchase in mind, sometimes you just want to be stimulated by what you see on display or what your bookseller personally recommends. So that could be a new US novel composed of nothing but a series of questions, for instance (Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood). Or, for that matter, a French novel composed of only one sentence (albeit a very extended one!) (Mathias Énard’s Zone). Or the collected stories of one of Australia’s prose masters – published by a small local press that depends on the bookshop’s support to give its writers a modicum of exposure in a media world that often has little time for small press publishing (Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories). My point is that often you do not know what you want, and online sites, as much as they invest enormous sums into software that will suggest products you might like, cannot match the experience.

On the other hand I am with Flynn and Griffin that the Oz publishing industry needs to respond with greater vigour to the unparalleled environment it now finds itself in. The weakness of the pound and the US dollar for a considerable time now, and increasingly aggressive online merchants in the Australian marketplace (abetted in part by the price comparison site booko.com.au, which derives its revenue from commissions paid by some of the vendors it features) threaten to cannibalise all the efforts that have historically been put into bringing to market – in far-flung Oz – the wider world of English-language publishing. I quite share the frustrations sometimes experienced by book buyers regarding supply and/or price that occur in our book market. But I’m not across all the whys and wherefores – and I do not doubt that there are a raft of them! – as the sales directors of our major publishers may be. Just in the last week the blog Literary Life, in a laudable series on the topic of book pricing, has managed to attract at least some initial comment from members of the publishing community.

How I can respond to the likes of Flynn and Griffin and other discontents is that your bookshop, if it has any integrity, will be sharing these concerns with their suppliers, the publishers, on a regular and consistent basis, and probably has been for some time now. The results aren’t necessarily ones you will hear about (good news outcomes being rarely reported after all) – but I can attest that progress has and does result in a myriad of ways (if still not to the extent that I might like).

What is more, if your bookshop has any genuine belief in its cultural role it will be making available exactly those books from abroad you read about in various international forums in a timely and cost-effective fashion. Griffin mentions the non-release of a Commonwealth edition of Bolaño’s epic 2066 a couple of years back. I couldn’t agree more! An absolute travesty – an example of the dismal rights management of a multinational publisher that left our market completely out of the picture. They heard as much from me at the time, I can assure you! But it was also piled high, on import, in my store from the get-go – and I’m sure in a good number of other quality bookshops around the country too. Ditto the recent Jennifer Egan novel A Visit from the Goon Squad from June 2010, to turn to one of Griffin’s other examples (although the UK publisher, Constable and Robinson, is considerably smaller in this instance than in the former example, and they also have – in contrast to Bolaño – a living author on their hands, so presumably they are timing their April 2011 publication for a UK author tour). Griffin’s contention that Franzen’s Freedom was not released in Australia for a month after the US and UK? Wholly wrong – it was released simultaneously in all markets, and I’m sure HarperCollins Australia were grossly offended by this remark about a title that they had made a significant investment in.

And special order titles, where customers are being quoted a wait of six or more weeks? This is becoming less and less usual, thank goodness; booksellers bringing pressure to bear on suppliers has improved supply, as has the ever improving range of international wholesalers that provide booksellers with alternative sources.

But obviously, we as booksellers can’t be across everything, there will always be recidivists (a small minority, thankfully!) amongst our suppliers, and there is also no way we will usually be the cheapest option on a particular title in the crudest economic sense. To my mind hats off to the Book Depository in some ways – they recognised that the ‘stopper’ for so much e-commerce in books was the freight component. Obviously with a war chest behind them, they rapidly built up their business to the sort of volume that has reduced their freight expenses to a level way below those accessible to those most publishers and booksellers, let alone individuals.

But one thing the Book Depository or Amazon can’t provide is the experience of a physical, community-based bookshop: its committed staff, whose vocation bookselling is; the community of writers and readers that forms around it; and the genuine commitment to the life of words that it represents.

All this puts me in mind of an image of Pablo Neruda’s, who remarked that those readers who had not yet read Julio Cortázar were like someone who has never tasted peaches:

Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder, noticeably paler and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair. I don’t want those things to happen to me…

I wonder then where Chris Flynn expects to launch a book of his own? Okay, I guess a bar would do. But what sort of message is he sending out to young writers, who possibly consider him an authority on all things literary, and who, in his new role as ABR fiction editor, could be the one who provides a helping hand to their careers? That Australian bookshops are about screwing the public and making big profits at their expense? There are indeed folk out there saying that not just the bookshop will be bypassed in the future, but also the publisher – such is the perceived power of social media as a potent tool for sales and marketing. But I predict that such a scenario will continue to be the absolute exception, and that the surest way to market for a young writer will be to have the backing of their agent, their editor, their publisher and, dare I say it, often the first consumer of the book (in the form of an advance proof) the bookseller.

To be sure, it’s fun to get packages in the mail – it’s just like getting a present, just as long as you keep your credit card bill out of mind! But I would feel empty if there wasn’t a good bookshop to drop into (we only need to look at the impoverishment in this regard in most US and UK cities to see a possible future; and conversely the cheerier picture in a fixed-price book market like Germany, where the level playing field enables bookshops both large and small to thrive). I love going to a book launch of an evening to celebrate an author’s achievement, to be moved by just how much they (and their publisher) have put into creating the book I am holding in my hands. Do I sometimes have to pay a few more dollars that is partly a result of the very complicated factors sketched above, but partly also to underwrite a physical space, people engaged in the profession of bookselling, and a business that not just pays its taxes, but serves its community like almost nothing else can in the more intangible realm of the provision of ‘culture’?

No guesses as to where my consumer decision falls, of course. It would really be a much paler world. But don’t get me wrong, either. As an ardent bibliophile, my company’s mailroom is regularly receiving packages for me from all around the world – usually secondhand or rare books, it must be said; sometimes signed copies of new books that really take my fancy. The net is a fantastic resource for book nerds, obviously!

So my hopes out of the current discussion? Consumers simply become more mindful of their buying choices (I haven’t even begun to discuss some of the more sinister sides of some of those big online retailers – see my contribution to the earlier discussion around this topic at Killings); booksellers (the good ones*) strive to impress upon their patrons that they’re on their side in terms of providing the best possible range, quality and value; and publishers, particularly the multinational ones, go back to their head offices in NYC and London and negotiate better terms that allow them to remain competitive in today’s ever more transparent global book market. For a lot of them, distributing their parent company’s books is the trade that underwrites their locally originated publishing, and god knows that’s a fragile ecosystem at the best of times, so we need them to stay strong! However, it’s no joy to have been reading the UK trade press over the last year or two and to learn that export receipts are the only growth area in their own stagnant market – ours has been flatlining too, so someone’s making some money somewhere! And, finally, that people that profess a passion for writing and the arts are more conscious of the implications of their words when they talk about the ‘best’ place for readers to buy their books.

* I have already commented in another forum (last year’s Australian Book Industry Awards) about the tragic effect of ‘up-pricing’ by some of Australia’s larger chains on the repute of the bookselling sector as a whole.

Martin Shaw is Books Division Manager of Readings, a large independent bookshop in Melbourne, and an editorial advisor at Kill Your Darlings.




16 thoughts on “A paler world: book culture in a jiffy bag?

  1. Martin, I am sorry that my December post depressed you so much but surely this is not news to you and the open discussion about the startling difference in prices between ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers and online retailers has been raging for some time. One of the most telling comments on my post was by someone called anzlitlovers, an excerpt of which follows:

    “I buy the BD books when I’m *online* and this is what local booksellers do not understand. There is a vast army of readers out there chatting away about books on blogs and social networking sites and when my favourite bloggers recommend a book I buy it there and then (or less often in futile moments of economy add it to my wishlist). Most often these are books that local booksellers do not have, and are not interested in e.g. African writing (Kinna Reads), Canadian writing (Kevin from Canada), less-well-known British writers (A Common Reader and Reading Matters).

    So why do I still buy most of my books from my favourite indie bookshops? Because I like the atmosphere, they’ve displayed books that intrigue me, and I have a friendly relationship with them. (They talk to me about books and reading). They have a loyalty program that rings up on the till when I give them my name and gives me a free book every now and again (not some annoying voucher). They sponsor my favourite literary festivals, they host author events and most important of all they stock new releases of Australian literary fiction and a good backlist of OzLit as well.”

    This to me indicates the dichotomy we face as book-buying readers (not to be confused with writers) – to drive, catch a train or tram into town in order to browse books new and old and experience the flavour of a bookstore with all its associated atmosphere and interactions, that sense of community booksellers like yourself are so very fond of championing, or to open our browser in order to discover titles by tapping into a much larger community, that although it is not physical, is just as valid. Sad as it may be for bookstores (and indeed many other retailers – music, film, clothing etc), the location of the community has changed. You ask where I expect to launch a book. One could argue that bookstores often prove to be very poor venues for launches, and why indeed would I require a physical location at all for a launch, given the power of social media, online communities and ebook formats?

    Your assertion that “My point is that often you do not know what you want, and online sites, as much as they invest enormous sums into software that will suggest products you might like, cannot match the experience.” is disingenuous and patronising. Readers don’t know what they want and need to wander into your bookstore in order for wisdom to be passed down from on high? Careful, Martin. It is this underestimation of the public’s ability to inform themselves via the net that is causing such an outpouring of (admittedly horrible) bile against major retailers in the press. People do know what they want, and what they like, and how much money they have to spend. They do not rely solely on Amazon’s recommendations based on their previous purchases (though I have personally found these to be often totally on the money) and will spend hours reading blogs and review sites informing themselves and creating wishlists, as anzlitlovers states above.

    Will bookstores become a relic of the past because of all this? I don’t know. Probably not (though Borders US are closing 200 stores this month alone). I seem to have fallen into the role of devil’s advocate on this issue, odd given I worked in a bookstore for 6 years. But the fact remains I just don’t visit them as much anymore and I no longer rely upon them as a source of information or as a place of community. Sorry Martin, but like many, I have found those experiences to be richer elsewhere.

  2. For me a bookstore is more than just about getting a book that I’ve already decided that I want at the cheapest price possible. Sure, if someone already has a certain product in mind that they can get considerably cheaper online, then by all means go for it. But, more often than not, when I go to a bookstore, I may purchase something that I’ve had in mind, but I also spend considerable time browsing or purchasing other books that I would not have thought about or encountered had I merely purchased the one title that I’d originally had in mind. The time I spend at a bookstore is a time of enjoyment and discovery. To me, it’s analogous to eating a meal in a restaurant, as opposed to having the same meal as take-away or delivered to your door. It’s the same reason that I prefer to do out for a decent strong flat white rather than purchase an espresso machine for my own home.

    From my experiences, most of the books that I wish to purchase or have an interest in are competitively priced in comparison to what I could get online. At Readings I never have trouble in finding the books that I’m interested in either.

    I also see it from the perspective, as an educator and proponent of improved literacy in society, that bookstores are a place where people can encounter a diverse collection of literature when they otherwise might not. Browsing a website to select a book with a child to encourage their engagement with literacy is nowhere near as engaging as the actual physical experience of going to a bookstore or library and selecting or reading a book. Likewise, for adults, whether encouraging a friend to read a book or for an adult who might not normally spend time reading, the place of the bookstore providing a point of discovery and accessibility is not going to be effectively replaced by online retailers.

    I suppose equating paying a few dollars more for a book to the benefit of the enjoyment, accessibility and discovery offered by bookstores might seem an indirect link, but for me it’s fairly relative when considering the needs of the local retailer to make a profit.

  3. The ‘few dollars more’ line I often see is disingenous.

    A mass market paperback type book from the Book Depository: $8
    From a shop here : $20

    A trade paperback book from the Book Depository: $12
    From a shop here : $35

    In no one’s language except someone involved with publishing or bookselling is double to triple the price ‘a few dollars more’.

    A few dollars is a handful, 3-4-5-6 maybe.

    So the MMPB would be $12 here and the trade paperback $18 if that was the case.

    But it isn’t.

    Plus, of course, the 10 dollars in parking or 6 bucks on the bus or whatever to get to the bookshop if you have to make a trip just for that purpose.

  4. Assuming of course that we all live in the fabulous inner cities of Melbourne and Sydney where independent bookshops serve latte and cake. We don’t, dear. Another point is that often those ‘nice’ bookshops lack some service ie ‘I’m really a writer…’

    For many of us the alternative is a large chain bookshop, and I’ve never found occasion to ask a staff member for a book recommendation; I keep up to date with book releases and know what books I’d like to buy.

    Finally, it is difficult to browse a bookshop with a toddler. I enjoy the one independent bookshop in my city as it has a wonderful array of cards etc, but for most of us, the afternoon in the small bookshop sipping coffee and paying top dollar for a book available at a much, much cheaper price online is for the rich unfortunately!

  5. Hi everyone,

    It’s great to be having this debate at this time – and these comments are all food for thought. What strikes me as interesting in this conversation is the rather polarising focus on the economics of the issue at hand, rather than the threat (and it is a genuine threat) to the diversity of our bookselling and publishing industries. This debate is not just about the savings we make as individuals (because if it was, sure: we’d all shop online, but remember your money is going straight into the coffers of off-shore corporations).). It’s about the kind of literary culture we seek to maintain and grow. If you wanted to expand on this model of economic rationalism, wouldn’t you start buying everything online (food, clothes, cars)? But we have ethical and environmental imperatives these days about we purchase our clothing and our food – why shouldn’t we extend this same philosophy to where we buy our books?

    Independent booksellers are, hands down, the largest and most enthusiastic supporters of new Australian writers and publishing ventures. For decades, they have supported unknown Australian writers, built audiences, hosted events, created grassroots literary communities; they are the foundation upon which the great publishing houses were built.

    The nature of bookselling is changing, and everyone needs to adapt to this in different ways (bookstores, writers, publishers and consumers). But what kind of bookselling we want is the looming question. It’d be nice to have the choice between shopping online and buying at the indie stores – but there is a danger that we’ll lose these great culture institutions in the years to come if we value these small savings we are making today.

    We’re publishing an extended article on this subject in the April issue – it promises to be a goodie.

  6. I think the danger of what we could lose is probably the most interesting thing to focus on, and I would love to read an extended article that examines the hows, whens, whethers, and ifs of that danger in a really fabulously measured way – maybe a piece that is written by someone who lacks investment in our industry?

    Otherwise, isn’t the truth probably just that some people like bookstores (for reasons more involved than just the ambiance), and some people like online shopping (for reasons more involved than just the price), but most people enjoy a bunch of things about both?

  7. I enjoyed this post, and while I agree completely that a world without bookstores – particularly independent bookstores – would be a much poorer world indeed, I do have some criticisms.

    Before that, in the interests of full disclosure I should state that I work for LibraryThing – one of those companies who “invest enormous sums into software that will suggest products you might like” – however these comments are entirely my own.

    I love my local bookstores. I love the people who work there, and value their knowledge and experience. I love that the staff in my favourite bookstores know me by name, can remember what sort of things I like, and can make intelligent suggestions the moment I walk in the door. I spend money in my local independent bookstores whenever I can, and over the past decade that’s often been around a couple of thousand dollars a year.

    However, if you think that supporting your local bookstore means only having to pay “a few more dollars”, then you’ve not conducted the kind of experiment that Chris did in his post. Paying half the price online is routine – paying three to four times as much for a single book on the shelf locally is not at all uncommon. When I buy something locally the choice is often to buy a trade or even mass-market paperback for more than it would cost me to have the hardcover shipped overseas.

    With that sort of difference in price it doesn’t really matter how hard you or I might try to keep our local bookstores in business. People such as you or I will pay more for the service that we receive, or even just out of moral support or for the feeling of belonging to a community. Most people though just want to buy a book, and if they know exactly which book they intend to buy it’s pretty hard to argue that they should pay double to buy it down the road rather than having it mailed to their door.

    You imply that Booko is abetting the cannibalisation of years of effort by Australian publishers, while mentioning in an aside with faintly sinister undertones that they receive commissions from some of the sellers. From my perspective Booko provides a free service to users, and it lists far more local sellers than the handful of overseas vendors. Booko – which is a service produced by one bloke working alone – should be lauded for its efforts in bringing some transparency to the pricing debate. Booksellers should be hammering publishers and distributors over the head with search results showing them that we are not talking about a couple of dollars difference here and there.

    Publishers need to get their heads out of the sand and get creative; sure, we have a smaller population spread over a huge landmass and we’re on the far side of the english-speaking literary world. We want to support the development of Australian literature. That’s all well and good, but it’s all irrelevant if the local industry “protects” itself into the ground. The market will not support a difference of two to four times the cost per book – especially when the consumers involved are generally well-educated and internet-savvy.

    The most disturbing thing to me about this whole debate is the way in which it’s so frequently framed as “online vs independents”. Most independents have a very poor online presence, and there’s just no excuse for that when it’s now over fifteen years since Amazon proved that people want to be able to buy books online. Why is it not only cheaper, but *easier* for me to buy a book online? Why can’t I tell whether or not the book I want is in stock down the road? Even the best indies need to do some work; a search on Readings (which *does* have a good site) for “Stephenson” shows me Neal Stephenson’s 2009 Hugo shortlisted “Anathem” as the first result – but clicking through to the book I’m told it’s currently unavailable, with no estimate of future availability and no option to order a copy if I’m prepared to wait.

    I would love it if the Australian book-selling, book-publishing and book-buying communities could start working together on solving the very real threats to the industry. We need to do something about the price of books in this country – to ignore the problem is folly. We need to do it in a way which allows us to continue to support Australian literature, and a vibrant community of booksellers and readers. We need to do it in a way which recognises the unavoidable constraints of population and geography but treats these as challenges to be solved using new approaches and technology, rather than as insurmountable barriers requiring legislated protectionism. We need to recognise the challenges and opportunities that eBooks are bringing, and ensure that we do all we can to prevent a world where *all* of our books are sold to us from overseas, on terms dictated by a handful of distributors.

    So please, fight the good fight – but recognise that we should all be fighting on the same side.

  8. If we’re going to be factoring in costs such as “travel and parking” into the equation, then it’s also worth mentioning that if someone is to purchase a book over the internet, they will not only need a computer, but also internet access. Last time I checked, both of these things cost money as well…. (before anyone says it, I’d regard the “oh but everyone has internet access these days” argument as being fairly disingenuous myself, as would those people who simply can’t afford that sort of commitment!). For what it’s worth, I’ve never paid any amount of money for “parking” to purchase a book!

    However, I think that Rebecca hit the nail on the head here, when she mentioned that it’s not merely about looking at the issue from an economic rationalist point of view as a consumer, but rather about the sort of literary culture that we want to have existing and growing within society.

  9. The reason that this debate often returns, as Rebecca points out, to the “polarising focus on economics” is because no-one has yet really given any force to the argument that physical bookstores are somehow essential to a good literary culture.

    Even this article, which is certainly better than many I’ve read on the topic, leaves us only with a vague suggestion that the ambience of bookstores is better than online, and a thoroughly unproven and frankly dubious argument that bookstores are somehow ethically good. Clearly, on the economics front, the physical bookstores have no argument to make. Independent booksellers have no lesser wish to make money than these villainous offshore corporations, “abetted” in their activity by one-man projects like booko. The online sellers are simply doing it better at the moment; speaking only to economics makes the physical booksellers look rather like sour grapes and puts them in the same boat as other industries whose reliable business model was undercut by the internet.

    It is up to these bookstores, then, to convince customers that a 50-200% subsidy (and not, as this article puts it, “a few dollars”) is worth it in order for them to continue providing whatever service it is they supposedly provide to culture that already is not better provided by institutions like Universities, The Wheeler Centre, Libraries and online blogs and magazines. Can they convincingly make that argument? Can they adapt their business models to a world where the physical no longer holds any inherent advantage?

  10. “Can they adapt their business models to a world where the physical no longer holds any inherent advantage?”

    It isn’t necessarily true that the physical has no advantage. Wine is cheaper online, but wine stores are still doing just fine, because customers like to browse the physical shops. Some bookstores will be lost to online sales, but this doesn’t mean that bookstores will disappear altogether or that they don’t “add” anything to literary culture, either.

    The big and obvious difference between Readings (a local indie) and Book Depository (a global multinational) is this: both sell books, but only one has an investment (literal and financial) in Australian books and Australian culture. Hint: it’s not Book Depository.

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Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

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Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

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David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

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Carody Culver

Charmless lives: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief and Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune

How do narrative non-fiction writers who dare to dissect the darker aspects of humanity keep their readers engaged, rather than simply horrified? Read more »

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Carody Culver

‘As if the top of my head were taken off’: The digital possibilities of poetry

‘When Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I can’t help but think she would be stupefied by the possibilities of digital literature.’ Read more »

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S.A. Jones

‘Fool the Axis, Use Prophylaxis’: World War II’s anti-venereal disease posters

Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II gives a fascinating insight into one of the ways the United States ‘managed’ servicemen’s sexuality: through poster art. Read more »

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Julia Tulloh

The celebrity spokesperson phenomenon

What should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is not a full-time activist, but if she inspires young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Read more »

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Julia Tulloh

Doctor Who’s gender dynamics: a mid-season evaluation

In some ways, Peter Capaldi was a problematic choice for the newest regeneration of Doctor Who. How on earth were the producers going to pull off a successful friendship between a middle-aged man and a twenty-something woman, without it seeming at best patriarchal and at worst creepy? Read more »

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Julia Tulloh

From the outside in: the beauty vlogger phenomenon

A current cohort of beauty bloggers are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like. Read more »

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Rochelle Siemienowicz

Marital Crises: Gone Girl and Force Majeure

You can share your body, your bed, your bank account, and even your toothbrush, with another human being. But each mind contains a private world that can never be fully understood or examined, let alone shared with another. Read more »

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Rochelle Siemienowicz

Suicide, Laughter and The Skeleton Twins

Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track. Read more »

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Anthony Morris

Let’s Dance: unapologetic repetition and Step Up: All In

A franchise of movies based entirely around good-looking people performing unlikely and oddly aggressive dance moves wouldn’t seem to require heavy continuity – or any continuity at all – but Step Up: All In is surprisingly effective. Read more »

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Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

Ello’s manifesto is the key to understanding its relative success, and how it has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set. Read more »

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Connor Tomas O'Brien

Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly “remixed” images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Read more »

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Connor Tomas O'Brien

Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex. Read more »

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Danielle Binks

Race, growing up and Nona and Me

Nona & Me beautifully explores female friendship amid cultural and political upheaval. It’s a tender portrayal of two girls who have so much in common, but are worlds apart. Read more »

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Danielle Binks

‘YA-bashing’: sexism meets elitism

Another month, another critic who doesn’t read YA literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy. Read more »

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Danielle Binks

Beyond ableism and ignorance: disability and fiction

Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice. So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class? Read more »

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Chad Parkhill

The music of exhaustion

The War on Drugs new album Lost in the Dream is the startling sound of exhaustion – both a personal exhaustion and a broader cultural exhaustion – transformed into art that is thrillingly and paradoxically vital. Read more »

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Chad Parkhill

The Perpetual Undeath of Rock

 ‘Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die.’ Depending on your own tastes and cognitive biases, Neil Young’s famous lyric will now seem more prophetic than ever before – or profoundly misguided. Last week saw the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in what Apple … Read more »

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Chad Parkhill

Calling out of context: The perennial appeal of Arthur Russell

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of forty, he did so in relative obscurity, having released four commercially unsuccessful albums and granted a single print interview: not exactly a promising oeuvre on which to build a legacy. Read more »

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Stephanie Van Schilt

Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman

In addition to both being really funny, two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’. Read more »

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Stephanie Van Schilt

How To Talk Australians and the rise of web series

How To Talk Australians has deservedly garnered widespread praise both locally and internationally. With close to two million views worldwide, it could be deemed our first truly successful locally-produced web series. Read more »

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Stephanie Van Schilt

Mental illness and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me

While the jury is still out on the success of Please Like Me’s efforts to address ideas around mental health, the discussions both its seasons have provoked and continue to encourage are incredibly important. That, I definitely like. Read more »