Melbourne might be known for its arty laneways, monochrome fashion sense and love of coffee, but the city has one other thing it trades in abundance – words. The people of Melbourne consume more books, magazines and newspapers per capita than any other city in Australia, and the city is home to a smorgasbord of bookshops, book clubs, libraries, literary events, organisations and festivals – not to mention writers of every stripe.
In 2007 the Victorian State Government launched a bid for Melbourne to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Literature. Founded in 2004, the Creative Cities Network connects places where creativity is a driving force in economic and cultural life, with cities named for their strength in crafts and folk arts, media arts, film, design, gastronomy, literature and music.
Melbourne’s status as a City of Literature was granted in late 2008 – only the second City of Literature after Edinburgh, and the first Creative City in Australia. (Sydney was recognised as a City of Film in 2010, Adelaide as a City of Music in 2015, and Geelong as a City of Design in 2017.) This year marks the 10th anniversary of Melbourne achieving City of Literature status.
Michael Williams, director of the Wheeler Centre, says that while Edinburgh’s bid was about heritage, Melbourne’s was about the diversity of activity in our literary scene.
“It’s about the independent booksellers, it’s about libraries, it’s about the small publishers, about the zines, and the book clubs and the number of writers and readers who live in the city,” he says. “But it’s also about the different ways in which being lovers of books permeates life in this state.”
“I think it’s our communities that truly make us a City of Literature,” says David Ryding, director of the Melbourne City of Literature Office. “From CW Coles original desire to link all Melbourne’s bookshops through to The Stellas, 100 Story Building, Melbourne Spoken Word, Books on the Rail, The Lonely Company, LoveOzYA through to the upcoming Speculate festival, we constantly see individuals getting together to solve problems and create opportunities.”
The opening of the Wheeler Centre was a landmark achievement in the last ten years of Melbourne’s literary culture, and it was closely tied to the UNESCO bid. Part of a $20m State Government initiative that included the City of Literature bid along with increasing the profile of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and revamping the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Wheeler Centre opened in 2010 in the southern wing of the State Library of Victoria.
In addition to hosting over 1,000 events each year across an incredibly wide range of subject matter, the Wheeler Centre is also the physical home of a number of Victoria’s key literary organisations. Writer’s Victoria, the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Small Press Network, Express Media, Australian Poetry, the Melbourne PEN Centre and the City of Literature Office all operate out of the Wheeler Centre, and have been instrumental in making the space a genuine hub for literary activity in Melbourne.
Rather than taking a programming role, the purpose of the City of Literature Office is to help forge connections between literary organisations and projects in Melbourne, as well as with the other 27 Cities of Literature around the world. However, a number of exciting initiatives have emerged from the Office nonetheless. In 2015, a dedicated travel fund provided 46 literary workers up to $3,000 each to further their careers through travel within Australia and around the world. The Known Bookshops Fund supported bookshops across Victoria to engage with working artists through performance and visual art.
And this year, to celebrate the anniversary, the Office is producing two projects: Reading Victoria, a weekly writing series delivered by email, with each week themed around a different suburb or Victorian town; and a ‘Walking the City of Literature’ app, which will feature a series of three self-guided walking tours created by local writers.
Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature status has connected the city to an international network, creating new opportunities for literary professional at home and overseas. Melbourne author Liam Pieper was a beneficiary of these new connections, as he was selected from a pool of international applicants for the inaugural Prague City of Literature Residency in 2015. During his two-month stay Liam worked on his novel The Toymaker, which was published by Penguin in 2016 and has since been translated into Russian, Italian and Czech.
“It was amazing to get the chance to submerge myself in the literary culture of Prague, a city that really, really seems to dig writing,” Liam says. “It changed everything for the better. Not only did I get the resources I needed to write the book, but I was privileged to work alongside some astonishing people and make connections that made me a better writer, opened my eyes to a much wider world, and helped bring a very Melbourne story to an international audience.”
Melbourne’s literary landscape has continued to grow and develop, despite the challenges that have arisen from digital disruption. In Melbourne, where a rich culture thrives around the written word, the UNESCO designation stands as proof of the value of literature to the local community.
“One of the great things about the UNESCO designation is that there is belief in and celebration of readers and no matter how challenging the [publishing] environment might be, our appetite for great stories well told hasn't gone anywhere,” he says. “We're a city and a state that believe in that and celebrate that and are going to keep supporting it in any way we can think of.”