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Journalist Spotlight | Interview with Jane Sullivan, Literary Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

28 February, 2024

Today, Medianet is proud to feature Jane Sullivan, Literary Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. As an avid reader, Jane shares her insight on the ever-shifting literary landscape and the importance of reading from - and cultivating - the Australian literary sphere. Screenshot 2024-02-29 101753


What were the books that made you a reader and what were those that made you a writer?

The books that made me a reader are all ones I read when I was a child. I’ve written about them extensively in my book Storytime (Ventura Press). Books such as The Wind in the Willows, The Magic Pudding, the Narnia chronicles and the works of Enid Blyton were gates to a different world that filled me with wonder, excitement and occasional horror. These were also the books that made me a writer.

You are both a literary journalist and a fiction writer. How have these different writing practices/mediums influenced both your reportage and your narratives? 

Becoming a fiction writer somewhat late in life has given me a great respect and admiration for authors because I know how hard a job it is – a completely different way of writing, and in my view, much harder than journalism. 

As a literary journalist, it’s my job to know about things such as new trends, the publishing industry and markets and sales. But until I get to the point where I’m trying to sell a book, these concerns don’t affect my fiction writing, which remains a very private search for the best way to write a story, or even to discover what my story is in the first place. 

Journalism uses the analytical side of my brain while fiction writing uses the intuitive and creative side.


How has your career as a literary journalist evolved and adapted, particularly in the advent of social media platforms/influencers who seem to dominate the book recommendation/review culture?

When I worked as literary editor for The Age and when I started to write about books, print was still the main avenue for reviews, and the small army of reviewers were seen - rightly or wrongly - as wise and well informed. Now it’s all over the place and I can barely keep up: everyone can be a reviewer. It’s affected me in that now many more people follow my column online than in print!

Emotional reaction is prized more than critical analysis. The benefit of this is that younger people following BookTok, for example, may well become keen book readers. But while it’s nice to see democracy in action, the quality of reviewing and recommending varies wildly. I’m not on the whole a fan of Goodreads reviews, for example. I think readers should seek out thoughtful and informed reviewers that they trust, whether that’s in print or on social media platforms. And it’s fine to be witty and entertaining: book talk doesn’t always have to be serious.


Is it more difficult to foster an Australian literary tradition/culture now?

Well they do read local when the book is a bestseller. Writers such as Trent Dalton and Pip Williams are doing pretty well. So are some children’s writers such as Andy Griffith or whoever is behind the Bluey books. But these are in a very small minority. 

What I’d like to see is more attention to many other excellent books by Australian writers that tend to fly below the radar, sometimes even if they win literary prizes. Though there’s not the same cultural cringe as in the past, when we thought every good book had to be English or American, I think we still consistently underestimate how good our own writers are. For a small population we are punching well above our weight.


Who are some of your favourite Australian writers and how have they influenced you?

Oh, far too many to mention! I grew up in England and only came to Australia when I was 30, so I had a crash course in Ozlit. I devoured the works of  Peter Carey, Christina Stead, Kate Grenville, Gerald Murnane, Tim Winton, Charlotte Wood, Christos Tsiolkas, Richard Flanagan, Les Murray, Helen Garner and many more… and now a new generation of writers coming up with even more challenging and exciting books. One thing I’m sure of: there’s no shortage of talent.

I suppose they have all influenced me but I can’t identify any particular trait. I think we all write from a mix of influences but it all boils down eventually to something that is uniquely our own voice.


What are some of the biggest changes within the Australian literary and/or publishing industry? What else do you hope to see change regarding it?

The downside is that it’s getting harder and harder for good work to get published. The big publishers - and there are fewer of them - are understandably conservative in the current economic climate and we have to rely on small publishers to fill the gaps. Fortunately many are keen to take a punt, but I do wonder about what we might be missing. I’d like to see more government-level initiatives to support writing: most writers have no hope of earning a living wage just from writing books.

The most exciting development I’ve seen is the new diversity of voices, especially First Nations writing. Fantastic writers such as Alexis Wright, Melissa Lukashenko, Tony Birch… and again, a great new generation of writers telling stories only they can tell. And it’s across the board, in fiction, nonfiction, memoir and poetry. Adult and children’s books. Everyone should read some of these books to better understand this country and the people who have lived here for thousands of years. 


And lastly, what do you look for in content pitching?

The most important thing is that pitches should be targeted. Pitchers should have a good knowledge of my Turning Pages column and what interests me, and they can get that by reading it regularly. 

Please note I don’t usually review books: I write about them, which is not quite the same thing. I also have quite long lead times so I can’t cover specific events unless I get plenty of notice. 

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