Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review: 'Funemployed' by Justin Heazlewood (No 3: Non Fiction)

Justin Heazlewood admits himself in 'Funemployed' that the actors, artists, writers, comedians and musicians he interviewed often declared that discussing their experience of earning a living in the Australia arts industry with him was a 'bit depressing'. Indeed, reading about it is too, but only in the sense that as the reader I wished that every artist involved could win a big fat Powerball payout and never have to worry about paying the mortgage or rent again. Oh, what an amazing arts scene we could have then!
But don't let this put you off reading this great collection of thoughts and interviews, just as Heazlewood was not put off completing this project: it's an important examination of the pros and cons of working in a small national industry, and an absolute eye opener for those outside the sphere or for those hoping to enter it.
Funemployed - Justin HeazlewoodHeazlewood is a musician, comedian and writer, a 'mid career artist': after twelve years working professionally in the arts industry he has had some critical success, been on Triple J, made some royalties, but has never garnered a mainstream audience (he argues tongue in cheek that he is a 'share-household name'). He is the perfect person to write this book, having had a taste of commercial success but also knowing the depths of despair in negotiating Centrelink, losing money on self funded tours, struggling to find his niche, and pitching himself endlessly in the increasingly 'artist platform' driven industry. This is the great quandry upon which 'Funemployed' centres it focus: do you keep pumping away at something you are passionate about, not caring about commercial trends or marketing yourself as the next big thing, or do you just audition for X Factor. And teasing out that quandry, are you any good anyway, or should you just give up if you haven't made it by thirty and teach art or music to primary school kids (because that undoubtedly was what your loving but worried parents said should be your 'Plan B').
Heazlewood has access to the thoughts of well known artists such as Clare Bowditch, Tim Rogers, Benjamin Law, Lou Sanz, John Safran, Goyte, Tony Martin - as well as up and coming artists or less commercially successful artists who offer honest and fascinating insights into the trials and tribulations of taking the creative path. I was pleased to learn some new names and will do some research to find out more about their works - I hope other readers of Heazlewood's book will do the same, as if anything is to be learnt from 'Funemployed', support for our local artists is absolutely vital. He also interviews those that provide the business side of the industry such as publicists, managers and agents - they all offer valuable insights, particularly for those entering the business.
'Funemployed' had several chapters that really interested me: firstly, I found Heazlewood's personal account of what he termed the 'black cat', the envy of other artists getting ahead or seemingly having all the luck, very honest and relatable. Of course, any profession can relate to this somewhat, but unsurprisingly, many artists feel this envy deeply since success is so hard come by in the competitive field: 'In 2010 my bitterness hit new depths. My black cat dwelled on the injustices I was encountering - the parts of the industry that were intentionally shutting me out. There were always peers above me, clearly the 'chosen ones'.' This willingness to articulate what is on much of many minds is refreshing and should be encouraged more in public writing. Another interesting exploration was the Australian way of not big-noting oneself, thus hampering success at home, and certainly in the international market. Heazlewood argues that artists should be able to speak positively of their work and achievements, without fear of the tall poppy syndrome, but of course, as he quotes his fellow artists, it's a cultural more that is very hard to fight: 'Artists lie in fear of crossing the invisible line from'doing well' to 'doing too well'.' And on the dwindling support of arts in Australia, with only a few platforms to find coverage, I was astounded to read that the ABC received a dozen or so pitches A WEEK for comedy shows - but only have the funds to make one show a year (presumably it was Josh Thomas' turn last  year). As was noted by one interviewee in the book, in the small television industry with firmly entrenched 'star performers' you really have to wait for someone to die to get a spot. Bert Newton, you are  on notice...
Heazlewood has decided to make writing a focus for the time being and he has a very engaging style: a straightforward approach, personal without being cloying, and darkly humorous ('Artists are a clusterfuck of insecurities. When we're not trashing our own abilities, we're despairing what other people might think of us').
Two things I'll take away from 'Funemployed': stop feeling embarrassed by the measly royalty check from my novel, as I'm not Robinson Crusoe in that department. And, try to avoid being too consumed by what Heazlewood described as 'middle brow arts'. Once upon a time I went to small art gallery exhibitions and saw local bands playing at pubs, and read books by little known writers, and went early to see the support comic before the big name act. Yep, as we age we tend to veer towards the known quantity, to be conservative in our tastes. Guilty as charged. I'm inspired by Heazlewood to go back to the old ways and be shocked by the new and controversial once again.

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