Louisa May Alcott, Transcendental Wild Oats & Little Women at the Memoir Club Classics night

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women

I am delighted to have been asked to choose a ‘classic memoir’ text to discuss at the Sydney Memoir Club in Randwick on Tuesday the 28th July – to which you are all invited.

I’ve chosen Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 humorous essay ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ and would like to talk about this in the context of the immensely popular Little Women series for which she is best known.

When I was a child Little Women and Good Wives (together in one big red volume) was one of the few books we had, and the character Jo March was enormously influential for me as for many others.

‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ — regarding the year when she was ten and her family joined an extremely idealistic utopian community — gives, however, a very different picture from the ‘shabby gentility’ of the Marches.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott

Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a well known Transcendentalist philosopher, and the family were friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and other New England intellectuals. However Bronson Alcott chose to concentrate on his philosophy to such an extent that the task of breadwinner often fell to Louisa’s mother, Abby, and later to Louisa herself, at a time when it was extremely difficult for a ‘genteel’ woman, especially a married one, to find paid work.

For one season, for instance, they lived on a diet of bread, apples and water. And as you’ll read in ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ the Alcotts (which Louisa sometimes referred to as ‘The Pathetic Family’) were way more eccentric than the Marches and went through some extreme challenges that are glossed over in the fiction.

Abigail (Abba) Alcott

Abigail (Abba) Alcott

Which of course would be fine — there is a big difference between fiction and memoir, after all — except that for many of her biographers Little Women is ‘Louisa’s own story just as it happened’, ‘truer than true’, told ‘without artifice,’ ‘written from the heart exactly as it occurred’.

Indeed Louisa encouraged this blurring of the boundaries and in later life actively participated in the creation of this mythology.

For in Little Women she created a version of her upbringing that rescued her family and made them respectable (neatly dispatching Mr March off to war, for instance, so Marmee Little Women n Good Wivescould legitimately run the show). The popularity of the books also provided her, in a time when spinsters were generally looked down upon and silenced, with a safe and authoritative persona as ‘Aunt Jo’ (married and a mother by the third book) while allowing Louisa herself to nevertheless remain unmarried and ‘paddle her own canoe’.

The Little Women series also provided the framework for her more controversial and troubling works — such as her ‘lost’ novel Moods (written when she was in her late 20s and roundly criticised by reviewers for its questioning attitude to marriage) and her blood & thunder stories written under a pseudonym — to be attributed to the young inexperienced ‘Jo’ and ignored by most of the biographers as juvenilia.

transcendental-wild-oats‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ is a curious piece of writing, because it sits in a way in a crack between the disavowed works (which often question marriage as providing emotional safety for women) and the canonised ones (with the famous dictum, ’to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a women’).

Her voice is ‘humorous’, but underneath is a biting criticism of a world ruled by men, even when those men are some of the most ‘enlightened’ of their time.

‘Transcendental Wild Oats’ is available for download at http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/engl368/transoats.pdf

Little Women & Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys are all available for free at Project Gutenberg where you can download them as pdf, mobi (for kindle) or ePub versions. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/102

The Sydney Memoir Club for Writers and Readers meets on the last Tuesday of every month in the Norm Hoffman Memorial Hall of The Randwick Literary Institute at 60 Clovelly Road, Randwick, NSW, from 6-9pm.

Donation: $15 at the door for hall hire, refreshments and speakers.

Food: $15 for a plate of delicious vegetarian finger food (different each meeting). Ring or text to book a plate: 0450 907 422.

Thank you to Beth Yahp, Barbara Brooks and Alison Lyssa for organising this. More info here at Beth Yahp’s blog.

This talk will be partly based on my research and ideas from my thesis ‘Louisa May Alcott: the Lost Work, the Later Work, and the Life’ (Sydney University, 1982). I read nine biographies for that thesis (and most of her books and much else). However there has been a whole new batch of biographies since then… Will have to do some quick catch up reading! Louisa May Alcott is a fascinating subject.

Hope to see you there.

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Why I think funding for Literature and the Arts in Australia is a smart investment

Well here’s my submission to the Senate enquiry into Arts funding which is due in tonight by midnight. Posting it here as it expresses some of my thoughts on funding and writing. Thank you to everyone who sent in their thoughts to the Senate. Let’s hope they get inspired and motivated by our enthusiasm for the arts to *increase* the funding not just restore it!

Submission to Senate Inquiry
into the 2014 and 2015 Arts Budgets


Submission to Senate Inquiry by Beth Spencer
17th July 2015


  • Why I think funding is crucial to support Literary production in Australia
  • Why I think funding needs to be peer-reviewed, transparent, accountable and arms-length
  • My personal experience as a writer and author

Why I think funding is crucial to support Literature in Australia:

In Australia, writers and publishers have the disadvantage of a relatively small market, vast geographical distances and high postage rates for books, at the same time as we are also competing for attention with writers from every English speaking nation in the world.

For instance, we have 23 million people in Australia, compared to 213 million in the US, and 64 million in the UK.

A US book that arrives in Australia has already received the attention and marketing budget to service their vastly larger population, and much of that publicity is freely available to Australian readers, booksellers, festival organisers and review editors via the internet.

An Australian author has to try to get reader’s attention in this already saturated space, and often with a low or even zero publicity budget, especially if they are a new author or in a genre that is not expected to reach a mass audience. Australian publishers simply cannot afford to spend much when the market is so small.

As such, publishing subsidies have been crucial to levelling this playing field a little, and allowing Australian authors to get a foothold and some momentum going for their work. It has even enabled a small few to get published overseas and a remarkable number of those have won major prizes.

If we want Australian writers to continue to write as Australians and about Australian experiences then we need to support their efforts with financial aid at strategic moments in the writing and publishing process.

Otherwise Australian writers — in a bid to make their work more appealing to overseas markets in order to survive — will increasingly be driven to self-censor aspects of their work (slang, places, historical references) that have vivid meaning to other Australians but are unintelligible to overseas audiences.

If we want a literature that engages in international cultural conversation but with our own voice, and by speaking to each other first and foremost — exploring and expanding our views of ourselves as Australians — I feel it is vitally important that this cultural production receive careful and sufficient government subsidies.

A work does not need to have mass-appeal to be extremely influential over time as innovative work and ideas tend to have a trickle-down effect. If those who read or experience the work are also cultural producers, journalists, academics, teachers, politicians, scientists, thinkers, policy makers… then the size of the audience is less important than the nature of the audience.

The small to medium organisations, magazines, event organisers, performance spaces, publishers, artists and writers are the ones who create the soil and provide the seeds out of which future cultural production can occur and from which a percentage of creators and products will go on to reach mass audiences.

But without that rich and diverse and constantly fertilised soil, the cultural products will become stunted, derivative, fail to thrive or see the light of day, or those who produce them will move offshore to where conditions are better.

At a time when we are becoming known internationally for ‘punching above our weight’ in the arts, and when our vibrant art culture is a part of our attraction as a tourist destination and our influence as an international political force, it seems madness to cut off or reduce these relatively small but crucial subsidies.

Indeed I would argue this is an excellent time to increase arts funding, to capitalize on the increasing international interest in Australian cultural products, and to capitalize even more the energy and vitality and the willingness of so many artists and writers to donate so much of their time and money to making their work the best it can be,


I also feel it is of the utmost importance that this funding continue to be peer-reviewed and arms length.

I am extremely dismayed at the savage cuts to federal arts funding through the Australia Council in the 2014 and 2015 budgets, and the removal of such a significant amount of funding to be administered by the National Program for Excellence in the Arts through the Minister’s office.

Anyone who has ever been on an assessment panel at the Literature Board will always say how difficult the decisions were as there are always many more excellent and worthy applications than money to fund them. So these programs are already cut to the bone, and to ask the Australia Council to take further cuts in the name of ‘efficiency’ seems mendacious and bound to be unproductive.

It also seems utterly inefficient to then seek to replicate a peer-review process in the Minister’s department, when the Australia Council already has such a process and has spent decades honing and refining it, creating transparency and accountability, seeking out diversity, assisting access, and nurturing wide networks.

It is also disturbing that the draft proposal for the National Program for Excellence in the Arts suggests that the grant process there does not need to always be transparent and thus accountable, unlike that at the Australia Council. This seems to me to be a recipe for potential corruption.

I am also concerned that as this is not arms-length funding, that it will become politicised and return us to the old days of the Commonwealth Writers Fund when many of Australia’s finest and (now recognised as some of our most enduringly important) writers never received a cent due to their political beliefs.

Writing work that is honest and deep takes courage and time, and it also requires an environment in which writers feel safe to explore without fear that their work will not get vital funding at key moments if it happens to clash with the political aims and sensitivities of a particular government or Minister.

Strategic funding support is crucial and a great investment; peer-review seems to be the best system especially if it involves a constant re-invigoration with new panel members and networks; transarency and accountability are necessary for the arts community to have any faith in this system; and arms-length funding is vital.

My personal experience:

I am an award winning author of four books (poetry, fiction and memoir), I also publish occasional non-fiction pieces in newspapers and on ABC Radio, and I have been writing and publishing for over 30 years.

For an example of the kind of feedback I receive about my work, here is an email sent to me by a reader (someone I have never met who sent this via my contact page on my website):

How grateful I am to have just read Vagabondage! I couldn’t help but race through it in an hour, but I know it will rest, dog-eared and well-thumbed, on my bedside table for many years to come.
What a special talent you have – to make people feel less lonely, to bring forth tears of recognition and relief.
Thanks again. I wish you every happiness and success.

I have received dozens of messages and emails like this for Vagabondage and have a long list of glowing reviews that are at my website (www.bethspencer.com/vagabondage). Two reviewers nominated it as their best book for 2014. You’ll also find in the front of my book a similar long list of extracts from glowing reviews for my previous books.

However Vagabondage is a verse memoir (poetry) and as such it takes a lot to get readers to give it a go. It takes time and commitment on my part, my publisher’s and booksellers, and it takes a whole culture of small magazines and reviewers to build an audience for it.

(And by the way, please don’t measure the value of those magazines by their subscriber base. Being able to share on Facebook and tweet the reviews makes their impact go far beyond those loyal subscribers.)

So, having a book that is critically acclaimed but with a small readership because of the type of book it is, unfortunately my expenses in relation to creating and publicising Vagabondage (including travel, website, launches, office expenses, etc) have so far exceeded my income from it. And this is not even taking into account the years I spent writing, revising editing and devising promotional material for the book in the first place, and despite having an excellent and reputable publisher (University of WA Publishing).

I know that I am not alone or even unusual in this experience. Unless a literary work wins a prize, the financial proceeds can be very small indeed.

As such it is my experience that the greatest subsidisers of the arts in Australia are the writers and artists themselves — in the countless hours we contribute for little or no pay, in lost income, in the money we put into developing our craft, in travel, expenses, and much more.

An injection of funds from a body such as the Literature Board of the Australia Council can be an absolute life-saver. It can make all the difference between being able to finish a project to the highest standard possible, and all the difference to having the strength and courage to persist as a writer given the many obstacles, the long hours of solitary work, the enormously competitive marketplace, and the unpredictable rewards.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had three Literature Board grants. However I would like to point out that before receiving these I had seven years worth of rejections, and I had spent over fifteen years developing my craft without any funding assistance.

Nevertheless, even without being the direct recipient of funding, just knowing that such funding was possible, that there was something to aim towards, that *some* people achieved this, and that the act of writing was valued enough for such a body as the Literature Board to exist, made a huge difference to me.

Indeed even the time-consuming and soul-stretching process of filling in the applications each year contributed to my development and sense of myself as a writer. It also gave me the excuse and impetus to contact editors who had published my work in magazines (those little magazines again — without which I would never have had the confidence to continue) and ask for letters of support (a requirement of submitting an application).

So even when I failed to get a grant in the extremely highly competitive funding rounds (usually only about 10% of applications – already whittled down by the application requirements – ever got funded) — the comments in those letters of support gave me the courage and determination to persist.

And when I did get the grants — financially it was a life-saver, and allowed me to create a better physical and emotional environment in which to work. Psychologically — to have that backing from a panel of expert writers and editors — was of immeasurable importance. Together the financial and emotional support helped me to move to a whole new level of confidence, physical and psychological safety, and hence achievement.

If you look in the back of literary works by Australian authors over the past few decades, you will find that a very large proportion of them include in their acknowledgements words similar to that in the back of (for instance) Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (now made into a major tv series in conjunction with the BBC)

‘This book would not have been possible without support from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.’

We don’t write those words just because it sounds good, we write it because it’s true.

I hope to continue to write books. And I hope to increasingly build the trust of a readership and even to write books that earn me money and expand my possibilties as a writer and cultural contributor.

(I always remind myself, for instance, that The Grapes of Wrath was John Steinbeck’s tenth novel. Sometimes important work just takes time.)

But even if I’m not the one to write the far-reaching and important book (the one with the mass audience, and that brings in money and employment to my publisher, to booksellers, to all the people involved in producing and distributing books), I remind myself that I am contributing to that soil out of which such a book might arise.

I commend the Senate for conducting this inquiry.

Thank you so much for reading this.


Beth Spencer.


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Please consider sending your thoughts on new work & Arts Funding cuts and changes to the Senate Enquiry

Just getting together my submission which you can read here
to the Senate Enquiry into the
Impact of the 2014 and 2015
Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts
which closes at midnight tonight…
and wondered if you might  like to send them your thoughts too.

What would it take for us to flood them with submissions?

*-– Even one sentence will help as, while the content matters, the sheer number of submissions will also have an impact.

Here’s some background on this issue:

a piece (“Arts Captain’s Calls”) that I wrote about it for Arts Hub

–the list of small to medium organisations that will have their funding threatened by Arts Minister Brandis’s decision to hijack a big block of funding away from the Australia Council to a special fund administered by his office (with much less accountability and only available to organisations to apply for — no individual artists or writers; and bodies that have left-leaning attitudes or are critical of current government policies probably need not apply)

–and here’s a piece by Ben Eltham in Crikey about how the slashed arts budget will affect the wider economy.

In response, the Greens, the ALP and some cross-benchers have called for a Senate Enquiry.

At the moment the Senate enquiry’s website is only showing 91 submissions — what, only 91?

But when I rang them I was told there are heaps more but it will take a while for them to be registered on the website. So join in and let them know that we do care about new Australian writing, art, performance, literary magazines, and community organisations.

If the ‘upload submission’ button on the left hand side doesn’t work for you (because we’re all madly sending them our opinions), you can email your submission directly to them at <legcon.sen@aph.gov.au> (but must be in by midnight tonight – Friday 17th July 2015).

So even if it’s just one line to say you enjoy reading new Australian books and seeing new Australian art and are very happy to have it funded — please take a moment to send them an email.

Remember that it will be new art and writing and performance  that will be hardest hit by the cuts, so if you value innovation and experiment and new work (rather than just high cost productions of older work), please says so.

And if you value questioning and critical art and writing, and the importance of being able to produce art regardless of whether it might upset a current government… say that too and thus why funding needs to be ‘arms length’ (imagine the ‘blacklist’ at Minister Brandis’s office already!).

earth without art

If you feel like writing more, check out my submission for some ideas, or here’s some suggestions:

— You could toss in some examples of work you’ve read/seen/enjoyed recently that was produced by small to medium companies or individuals that you feel has been enriching for you … (eg were you glad to have the Secret River on ABC? – That came from a book that was made possible by arms length, peer-reviewed arts funding. etc etc.)

—If you’ve found out about a book or writer from a lit or arts magazine or regular event – let them know how important that was for you. The small-scale, community based, seed culture is so important but can be so easily underestimated in its value.

— perhaps your education was enriched by Australian works on the curriculum or in the library? or by a visiting Australian artist, performer or writer

–If you are a creator, tell them a bit about your achievements and dreams and any support you have had from funding bodies, or from magazines, events, and so on. Or how it has inspired or impacted on your output, or ability to continue, in any way.

—But most of all, if you value the principle of arms-length and peer-reviewed funding, let them know!

Here are the terms of the enquiry – if you can link your comments to any of these, that would be great. (But if not, don’t worry, main thing is just to get it done and send it in.)

  1. the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts; and
  2. the suitability and appropriateness of the establishment of a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, to be administered by the Ministry for the Arts, with particular reference to:
    1. the effect on funding arrangements for:
      1. small to medium arts organisations,
      2. individual artists,
      3. young and emerging artists,
      4. the Australia Council,
      5. private sector funding of the arts, and
      6. state and territory programs of support to the arts,
    2. protection of freedom of artistic expression and prevention of political influence,
    3. access to a diversity of quality arts and cultural experiences,
    4. the funding criteria and implementation processes to be applied to the program,
    5. implications of any duplication of administration and resourcing, and
    6. any related matter.

Here’s the info about the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts (notice no provision in it for literature at all, and it’s possible for them to fund bodies without having to reveal who they gave the funds to).

And if you want an example of a submission  — here’s one sent in yesterday by writer and critic Alison Croggan (which contains some interesting facts and figures).

A huge thank you to every one who has taken the time to send in an email (here’s the address again —<legcon.sen@aph.gov.au> — or submit through the website: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Arts_Funding

Please feel free to share this post or any info here on FB or tweet it or send it to anyone you think might be interested.

Arts funding is highly competitive in Australia at the moment. There are always way more excellent and worthy applications than funding spots available. But an injection of funds at just the right time can make all the difference — to a project, and to whether as an artist or writer you continue to hang in there and produce and refine and put out new work.

Writers and artists are themselves the biggest subsidisers of the arts in Australia (in time and lost income), and the cultural sector contributes enormously to the economy, to export revenue, to tourism and to employment.

These new measures not only reduce funding to the arts (the ‘efficiency cuts’ plus a mysterious amount that has disappeared from the budgets) but also hands a crucial chunk of this diminishing budget over to a government office to administer – in a way that duplicates assessment resources, and without stringent accountability.

If you want to say something about this, today is a good time.





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