By PHIL FITZPATRICK – 28 September 2014, Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude
THE halcyon days of Papua New Guinean literature just prior to independence were dependent upon three factors: the emergence of talented writers; an atmosphere that nourished their aspirations; and the availability of mainly Australian publishing houses.
When PNG achieved independence, Australian interest in it began to wane. It was similar to what happens when a beloved child reaches adulthood and strikes out on its own. The fondness remained but the support structure fell away.
The same happened to PNG’s writers: their support structure disappeared virtually overnight and there was nothing available to replace it. They were cast adrift to look after themselves.
As Australian interest waned so did the interest of its publishing houses. It was the beginning of a great drought in Papua New Guinean literature that lasted for more than 30 years.
Thanks to the rapid development of digital technology, the vexed question of finding a publisher in PNG has now been solved. Salvation is at hand.
Electronic publishing and print-on-demand technology means that anyone with access to the Internet can publish their own book.
It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, or how poorly it is edited and presented. The process also costs little money.
Vanity publishers were once the mainstay of determined Papua New Guinean writers. Now as technology advances they are losing their appeal. Their high costs are the main factor. Companies like Createspace and Lightning Source are pricing them out of the market.
However, the advances in publishing technologies have brought their own unique problems for aspiring writers. Among these is the fact that the labour of publishing as well as writing has dramatically shifted to the writer’s side of the ledger.
Nowadays a writer has to do all the work, including editing, formatting and cover design. The days of sending off a manuscript and waiting for a galley proof to arrive are fading.
So while modern technology has virtually solved the problems of printing and distribution, it has not solved the problem of quality control.
This was a topic discussed at the recent Crocodile Prize Writer’s Workshop in Port Moresby. Of particular concern to writers was how to get their work edited. Every writer needs an editor. If your first language is not English this is doubly important.
Our guest writer, Trevor Shearston, explained how he has a couple of writer friends who help him with editing and he does the same thing for them.
When he has finished a manuscript he sends it to one of his writer friends and asks them to critique it. This can involve advice about typos, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes as well as inconsistencies in the narrative and suggestions for improvement, addition and deletion.
When he explained this to the room full of Papua New Guinean writers there were some puzzled looks. Imelda Yabara voiced everyone’s concern when she explained that criticising someone in PNG is not really culturally and socially appropriate.
Imelda said it would be extremely hard for a Papua New Guinean to criticise a friend’s work.
Writers in PNG have to overcome this natural reluctance about constructively evaluating each other’s work if the new publishing opportunities are to flourish. Without criticism and evaluation, excellence will be hard to achieve
Writers will have to form networks of like-minded people and work together and support each other. Skilled writers will need to mentor less experienced peers.
A culture of being able to accept constructive criticism from close associates and friends will have to develop. Pride will need to be swallowed and ego suppressed.
Men will have to learn to take advice from more experienced women. Women will need to take advice from men. It will take time, but it is the only way forward.
The writers at the workshop acknowledged these needs. They have collected a list of each other’s contact details so they can stay in touch. They know that editing is hard work and they know that their writer friends will be unable to pay them.
As Trevor Shearston pointed out, it works in Australia even among well-established and celebrated writers like himself. Whether it will work in Papua New Guinea is anyone’s guess.