Australia’s love affair with the outback has been the stuff of storytelling since Europeans first arrived. It captures our imagination – its harshness, its beauty, its riches and its challenges.
All of this is ingrained in the Australian psyche.
It is a part of our collective memory and has inspired tale peddlers from Banjo Paterson, D’Arcy Niland to Elyne Mitchell—The Man From Snowy River, The Shiralee and The Silver Brumby. A part of the history of our nation is preserved in the writings of Aeneas Gunn’s autobiographical We of the Never-Never, Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles and Ion L. Idriess The Cattle King.
There are generations of children who grew up with the Gumnut Babies, The Magic Pudding and Dot the Kangaroo.
We love this stuff, we always have and we probably always will. Witness the recent resurgence of rural fiction. Some thought it was a fad that would soon pass – but it hasn’t.
In fact, rural fiction, and particularly rural romance, is selling like the proverbial batch of hot scones at the CWA tent—and there’s no indication that this trend will end any time soon.
Authenticity is the key to the success of rural fiction.
Rebecca Brown, a high school librarian by day and a reviewer and blogger by night, has been a long term fan of the genre. “I love Australian rural fiction because they are writing about real places, places I have actually heard about,” she says, “they don’t ‘romanticize’ rural life—it’s all there; droughts, floods, fire, hard work.”
Haylee Nash, who heads Booktopia’s Romance division and is a former Publishing Manager at Harlequin agrees. “Regardless of the sub-genre, be it rural romantic suspense, rural romance or rural fiction, readers are looking for a voice, characters and settings that ring true.”
The women who write rural fiction are doing so in their ‘spare’ time. By day they are farmers, graziers, members of the volunteer bush fire brigades, or like Rachael Johns, they run the local supermarket in the small Western Australian town of Goomalling an hour and a half east of Perth. Author of Man Drought and Outback Dreams, Rachael describes herself as a ‘converted country gal’ who loves “writing and reading about the complex dynamics of life in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else.”
Unlike other styles of fiction, where novice writers are warned by more experienced hands not to talk about landscape, in rural fiction landscape is a central character. “There’s something amazing about Australian land,” says Kate Cuthbert, managing editor of Escape Publishing, “whether it’s the rich red of the soil, the big sky, the sheer stubbornness of the trees that survive. To live in that setting is to lend yourself to a romantic mindset.”
Nikki Logan, President of Romance Writers of Australia, agrees. “A fabulous rural setting full of interesting, complex characters is as new and exciting to us as a weekend in the country.”
For city dwellers, there is also the element of the sea or tree change. Part of us hankers for the rural idyll, imagining a slower pace of life, room to move, exchanging the pressure cooker of city life for a bucolic pastoral life.
Definitive figures are hard to come by says Sue Brockhoff, publisher at Harlequin (pictured right), the biggest publisher of romance in this country, but Fiona McCallum and Rachael Treasure were in the top ten overall Australian Fiction bestsellers for the last fiscal year—as rated by the independent Neilsen Bookscan.
Sue says, “We had two authors in the Get Reading 50 Books You Can’t Put Down promotion this year: Rachael Johns and Tricia Stringer.” In 2012, Booktopia asked Australia who it’s favourite homegrown authors were. The list, published in January this year, included 6 rural fiction writers out of a final list of 50, with Rachael Johns ranking the highest at number 10.
And it’s not just Australians who tap into this form of escapism. Rural fiction is sustained by its universal appeal. Readers in Germany, England and Italy love it.
The reason why, says Sue Brockhoff is that “Rural titles combine an interesting story with issues but also warmth, humour and community spirit.” Haylee Nash adds that in Australia “romance is more gritty—Australian authors aren’t afraid to tackle tough themes such as drought, bushfire, depression, miscarriage and infertility.”
Kate Cuthbert talks about the immediacy of Australian rural fiction. “The dangers of the rural setting are immediate, physical and catastrophic. So often now, an emergency is a client missing a deadline, or a laptop battery dying at an inopportune moment. But an emergency in a rural setting can often be life or death. That kind of adrenaline rush, that real battle to survive is fundamental—and connects to a fundamental part in all of us.”
Nikki Logan thinks that because the international perception of Australia is dominated by our cities, beaches and the outback, Australian small-town stories are something readers from other countries can relate to. They add the “zing of the exotic—because our dust and sheep and sheer isolation is exotic to the rest of the world.”
On authenticity, the romantic landscape and the gritty real-life stories, it seems everyone agrees. The question is, what next? Is the surge in popularity of rural fiction a blip or is it a stayer?
Hayley Nash says that whilst in one way she is surprised that the success of rural romance has lasted so long, she thinks the key to that success lies in the broader appeal of rural romance over the core romance group.
John Purcell, Head of Marketing at Booktopia agrees. “2012 was the blip year in romance thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Prior to and post-2012, rural romance is a stronger seller than erotic romance.” Purcell should know as he is the first to say that Booktopia was built on the back of the romance market.
Readers of this genre were not well served by bricks and mortar bookstores, says Purcell, most of whom did not have a romance section of any note so readers were forced to shop online.
And this ties in neatly to a point Nikki Logan makes. She argues that the advent of e-books has changed the game forever. Without the massive overheads of print production, publishers are in a position to take more risks with stories. That’s the reason, Logan feels, that Australian rural romance is enjoying increased traction with international readers.
Those writers now have greater access to offshore markets. As both a writer and an industry representative Logan is an optimist. “The romance industry is one big rolling wave of change,” she says adding, that whilst the market may ease off it will never disappear.
“There is something especially appealing about characters that busy themselves with the fundamental things like feeding the country or raising livestock or living off the land. It’s the earthiness that translates very well into characters of both sexes—grounded, rugged men and resilient earthy women.”
Sue Brockhoff agrees. “I think it is a stayer. People love reading about rural communities and the issues that they face. There are so many great stories—I haven’t read one yet that I thought was similar to another and that will help the longevity of the genre.”
Which brings us back to where we started. Australia has always had a love affair with the outback. Writing about that passion will always be at the heart of what makes us who we are.