It’s a debate or argument or concern that’s been had in any country with a national or local prize for creative art. What makes an Australian (or American or Japanese or British) writer (or artist or singer or actress or scientist)? Within the Australian book publishing industry and general readership, things get more confused. It’s pretty well known that internationally most – and I say most because there’s always an exception or two – crime and genre fiction set in Australia does not fare very well. If we only included fiction set in the country, we’d be excluding some of our best writers and books, ones that really deserve recognition.
We can’t simply count any book published in Australia for two reasons: firstly, there’s a good chunk of American and British and translated novels being published locally. Secondly, many Australian authors who have set their books in fantastical settings or more global locations can find their agents and publishers outside of Australia, and often their true nationality escapes the notice of readers and publishers.
There isn’t an algorithm to define whether citizenship or residency or birth defines “Australian” for the purposes of publishers, readers or writers concerns. The waters are muddied by expats and short-term visitors of other nationalities sometimes including Australiana in their writing and of the added veracity a claim on Australian cultural identity can bring to an ‘about the author’ section in these books.
But in my mind, the real measure of a book and its worth and cultural value is not the author’s background. It is the book’s content. If a book is set in Australia or about Australia, it counts as fiction about Australia. And by quite reasonably clear definition if a book is published in Australia and written by an Australian resident or citizen, it is viable for a number of awards that internationally sourced books are not. I’ve never thought it needed more debate than this; there are heaps of culturally biased and insensitive books out there in the world, after all. It is just as likely that a native or resident writer will produce fiction offensive to or unrepresentative of Australian culture as it is that such content comes from overseas writers.
I suspect that many readers, especially of popular fiction and dust-jacket blurbs, have learnt somehow to confuse cultural context and a sense of veracity and quality with geography. ‘Australian writer’ arguably does not mean anything more than that the writer is or has been in possession of an Australian passport, birth certificate or residency visa. But there’s a lot more to the quality, accuracy and flavour of Australian-based literature that can lie outside those legal lines, and getting caught up in arguments over it all is more likely through waste of time to deprive individuals of good reading time than it is to ever result in a satisfying definition of ‘Australian’. Unless you’re judging an annual and geographically specific award, little else should matter.