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Australian Stories

Books and Reading in the Nation



More than a third of adult Australians have heard of David Malouf, more than half have heard of Tim Winton, and over 80 per cent have heard of Bryce Courtenay. It is difficult to decide whether the fact that a third of Australians have heard of Malouf is remarkably high or disappointingly low—and the recognition might be for a single well-known novel such as Johnno—but perhaps it is encouraging that the number for Malouf (34 per cent) is not too far behind that for bestselling thriller author Matthew Reilly (41 per cent). It appears that only about half those who’ve heard of Malouf have actually read him, but the vast majority who have done so liked his work.

Just over a third of Australians also read books by or about Indigenous Australians for their own interest or pleasure. If this can be seen as an encouraging figure, it’s also the case that in a list of twelve different kinds of books the Indigenous category ranked third last, above only sports books and romance fiction. Then again, books by or about Indigenous Australians would be much less visible to ordinary readers than these and many other kinds of books.

These results are derived from the Australian Cultural Fields (ACF) project, an ongoing study of Australians’ cultural tastes and participation, and in particular from a large-scale social survey conducted in 2015.1 The ACF project can be linked to two earlier studies, the Australian Everyday Cultures Project and its publication Accounting for Tastes (Bennett, Frow and Emmison) from 1999 and the UK Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion project, which resulted in Culture, Class, Distinction (Bennett et al.) in 2009. All three can trace their origins to the work of Pierre Bourdieu, especially Distinction, his major work on class, education and taste.

The earlier Australian and UK studies both surveyed reading habits across books, newspapers and magazines, but our focus, here, is more on the nature and extent of people’s engagement in ‘book culture’ within either the domestic or public sphere. Thus we asked questions about knowledge of selected authors, preferences among a range of fictional and non-fiction genres, ways of obtaining books, print and ebooks owned, and participation in a variety of activities such as reading book reviews, attending literary festivals, and being a member of a reading group. These measures of cultural knowledge, taste and participation are being mapped against a range of social and economic factors such as gender, education, age, place of residence, and occupational class. In this essay we investigate what the data tells us about national practices and tastes for books, and for Australian authors and writing in particular.

Unpopular Reading?

The chapter on reading in Culture, Class, Distinction begins with the startling claim that ‘reading books is a relatively unpopular activity’ (94). Our own survey shows that regular book reading is very uneven across social classes, an effect reinforced by levels and kinds of education, and by gender, age, and other sociodemographic variables. While the three best-known authors listed (Stephen King, Jane Austen and Bryce Courtenay) were each read by more than half of the Australians surveyed, only a third of the 20 authors named had been read by more than 20 per cent of respondents. Regular participation in book-related activities is also ‘relatively unpopular’. While almost 40 per cent of respondents are regular bookstore browsers or book review readers, less than ten per cent attend literary festivals or are members of reading groups or book clubs.

As these points suggest, books and reading have a double aspect: on one hand, everyday, accessible and utterly familiar (our data indicates over 80 per cent of Australians have more than 50 books in the home); on the other, endowed with a range of meanings relating to value, virtue and prestige, and very unevenly distributed across different sectors of society. The ACF analyses indicate that a significant number of Australians have very little interest in books and book culture.2 Nevertheless, 95 per cent of respondents indicated they had read at least one of the twelve types of books surveyed.3 The depth of people’s engagement with books may be variable, but books have traction across the population.

As indicated, in this essay we examine the ACF survey results with a particular interest in what they tell us about engagement with Australian books and authors in the context of the broader literary field. The ACF survey was not designed to be a study of Australian literature per se, so using it to gauge levels of interest in Australian books and authors is not without its limitations. We are not able to report on whether people feel that Australian books are important to them, for example, as we did not gather attitudinal data.4 But these limitations also engender certain advantages. Respondents were asked whether they had heard of and read a range of Australian and non-Australian authors, which generates comparative data without belabouring the question of nationality. Moreover, at a time when some of the most successful Australian writing is mainstream commercial and/or genre fiction (Liane Moriarty, for example, or the rural romance genre), our data allows us to speak to Australian content beyond a narrow configuration of Australian literature. We asked respondents directly about the number of Australian books they had read in the past year, and we will draw on this data below, but questions of cultural identity and national provenance also emerged in more complicated ways in the responses to questions about preferences for different kinds of books.

Recognition and Reading Preferences: The National Picture

The proportion of the population that read one to three Australian books in the year preceding the survey (35.3 per cent) is on a par with the proportion of the population that read no Australian books (34.8 per cent). The remaining third read more than three, at rates of varying intensity.5 The finding that two thirds of people encounter at least one Australian book annually does not point towards a population entirely disengaged from the local book sector, even if the contact might, more often than not, be incidental rather than committed.

The survey asked respondents about a list of mostly fiction authors, ten from Australia and ten from elsewhere: whether the respondents had heard of the named author, and, if they had, whether they had read and liked that author (see table 8.1). Predictably enough, the best-known and most widely read author was Stephen King—almost 90 per cent of respondents had heard of him and 55 per cent had read him—although he was not the most liked. That honour goes to Bryce Courtenay, followed closely by Jane Austen. Among Australian authors, Courtenay was the best-known, most widely read, and the most liked. Second on all counts was Tim Winton, followed by Matthew Reilly.6 Other Australian authors appear consistently in the mid-range—David Malouf, Kate Grenville and Sally Morgan— while Kim Scott, Belinda Alexandra and Elizabeth Harrower were much less-known and read. Alexandra’s low ranking suggests that success in a specific genre market is not necessarily a means to being widely known, at least for an Australian author; Sara Douglass also ranked down the list, just below Morgan.

As table 8.1 indicates, the best-known authors across the whole list were King, Austen, Courtenay, and Virginia Woolf, then a gap to Winton and Reilly. Woolf might be the only surprise in that list, but she has been a point of reference in women’s writing and her name circulates widely via educational settings and other media (such as the film The Hours starring our own Nicole Kidman). Least familiar were Scott, Dave Eggers, Harrower, and Don DeLillo. In terms of authors read, the order changes only in minor ways, and again for read and liked. With all these rankings we can note the significant differences in scores between the top three or four named authors and the rest, and also between those in the middle range and those near the bottom.8 Although some of the names nearer the bottom are well-known in genre circles or the literary press, they appear from this data as cult or niche tastes.

Table 8.1: Author recognition, reading, likes7


* ranked according to percentage of total ‘heard of’ responses

The figures for likes do change radically when we limit the sample to those who have read a particular author, thus asking, in effect, how many of those who’ve read an author enjoyed or valued the experience (table 8.1, far right column). The high scores here reflect the self-selecting nature of much reading—we choose to read what we expect to enjoy. Nonetheless the results are intriguing; on this scale the most liked among all those named are the Indigenous authors Scott and Morgan, followed by Amy Tan—three authors for whom heritage and personal identity feature strongly as themes. These authors are followed by less-recognised figures, Haruki Murakami and Grenville, and genre authors Alexandra and Douglass. By contrast, some of the best-known authors are among the least liked: King, Woolf, and Picoult.

From the point of view of knowledge of and engagement with Australian authors, perhaps the most interesting aspect of these results is the absence of a distinctive profile. Australian authors are distributed right across the scale, taking their place among the international authors with high, middle and low levels of visibility and readership. Although we note a slight preference for liking Australian writers when they are read—seven of the top ten names on this scale are Australian—table 8.1 suggests that genre and market presence are more significant than national provenance. Australian authors in quite different sectors of the fiction marketplace appear to be holding their own in this very competitive field—at least those with more or less established reputations.

The survey also invited respondents to indicate the kinds of books they read for their own interest or pleasure from a list of twelve fiction and non-fiction ‘genres’ (see table 8.2). The top four genres were Thriller/Adventure, Crime/Mystery, Biographies of historical figures, and Australian history—an interesting mix of popular fiction and non-fiction forms. Least read were Books by or about Indigenous Australians, Books about sport or sporting personalities, and, last of all, Romance. The genres we might take to be more literary in appeal—although we deliberately left that interpretation to respondents—fell in the mid-range: Modern novels, Literary classics, and Contemporary Australian novels just below. There is consistency between these results and some of the headline findings of the 2001 Books Alive data about Australians’ reading preferences (A.C. Neilsen 70–71): the popularity of Crime/ Mystery (preferred by 51 per cent of the population, the highest result) and of Biographies, and History (first and second for non-fiction with 48 per cent and 28 per cent respectively).9

Only three of the named genres carry an explicit Australian reference, although we might imagine an Australian ‘bias’ in some others (Books about sport, perhaps, or Biographies). Australian history ranks highly, while Books by or about Indigenous Australians rank towards the bottom; but, as noted above, the figure for the latter is surprisingly high in some ways given that such books would be much less visible than almost all the others named (the partial exceptions would be books such as Morgan’s My Place, which is widely used in educational settings, and those of a prize-winning author such as Scott).10 The high ranking of Australian history might be explained in part by the fact the term covers a range of popular and scholarly forms. Contemporary Australian novels ranks only ninth, somewhat lower than the comparable Modern novels, but still with 40 per cent of respondents indicating a positive response. In the analyses below we examine in more detail the degree to which a liking for these categories of books, and other books and reading indicators, are shared or divided among different groups of readers.

Table 8.2: Kinds of books read for interest/pleasure (percentage of total)


Total %





Biographies of historical figures


Australian history


Modern novels


Literary classics






Contemporary Australian novels


Books by or about Indigenous Australians


Books about sport or sporting personalities




* ranked according to % of total respondents recording a positive response


As the earlier Australian and UK studies discovered, the field of books and reading is strikingly uneven in terms of gender.11 Women are more involved in book culture, scoring more highly than men on every measure we investigated, not least as regular participants. Women had higher rates of bookstore browsing, participating in a book club or reading group, attending literary festivals or local book-related events, reading book reviews, participating in online or social media discussion of books, and following TV or radio book shows; men had a higher rate of no participation in all these activities.12

Further, women have a greater positive engagement with a wider range of books. More than 50 per cent of women respondents answered positively for six of the genres surveyed, while for men only three genres registered above the 50 per cent mark (although with Crime/Mystery at 49.9 per cent). Turning this around, women had only three genres below 40 per cent, while male respondents had seven. Women scored more highly than men for every genre with the exception of two that were valued equally and two where men registered stronger liking. The closely-related non-fiction genres of Biographies and Australian history were strongly liked by both genders, registering near-identical scores, while men had higher positive responses for Sci-fi/Fantasy and Books about sport (table 8.3). As indicated, Books about sport was the second-lowest category overall, suggesting perhaps how far this sector of the book market depends upon gift-buying. The lowest percentage of all was recorded for Romance, and together these two genres were the most polarising in gender terms, with women leading Romance by a margin of 35 points, and men ahead by 23 points for Sport books. The low ranking of Romance, together with the fact that it is the domain where women’s reading outranks men’s to the greatest degree, suggests that the long-standing denigration of romance as a feminine sphere remains firmly in place. No other form of popular genre fiction shows the same pattern. The variation for Sci-fi/Fantasy, by comparison, is much smaller.

Table 8.3: Kinds of books read for interest/pleasure (percentage of male respondents and female respondents)


* ranked according to % of total respondents recording a positive response

At the same time the numbers force us to resist crude gender typologies, for neither the Sport or Romance genres rank highly for either gender: books about sport rank only sixth in men’s preferences, while Romance ranks ninth for women. In other words, for both groups (but especially for women) books other than romance and sporting stories are read much more widely for pleasure or interest. As Accounting for Tastes puts it, ‘if women’s association with romance fiction—the most frequently disparaged and despised of genres within conventional literary hierarchies—is a strong one, so also is their association with the most valued genres in those hierarchies’ (Bennett, Frow and Emmison, 147). Similarly in the ACF data, women have a greater affiliation with the survey items which specify a literary format, if not its content or genre (Modern novels, Literary classics, and Contemporary Australian novels). These make up half of the six book types for which women led men with a margin greater than ten percentage points.

Women also signalled a higher rate of engagement when asked to specify how many Australian books they had read in the year preceding the survey. Men were more likely than women to have read no books by Australian authors (42 per cent v. 28 per cent), and while levels of reading one to three Australian books were equivalent at 35 per cent, women generally led in the higher levels of reading: 30 per cent of women compared to 19 per cent of men indicated they read four to twenty Australian books the previous year. While this does suggest that women read Australian books more frequently than men, it is difficult to judge whether women’s taste for Australian books and writing is distinct from their deeper engagement with books and reading generally.

Women read Books by or about Indigenous Australians at somewhat elevated rates compared to men (38 per cent to 31 per cent), but this degree of difference is more pronounced for many other genres—from Romance to Literary classics to Self-help/Lifestyle. It is however in keeping with data from other sections of the survey which indicates that women register stronger preferences than men for Aboriginal art and Aboriginal heritage to a comparable degree.13 Australian history is a more popular type of book for men: while men and women read the category at equivalent rates, it ranks third for men compared to fifth for women; but this is not exceptional in light of patterns of non-fiction in men’s reading generally.14 In sum, while the gendering of book/reading culture is striking, national provenance or Australian content do not appear in themselves to have a major impact on these results, instead reflecting wider gender trends for books and reading. In particular, women’s higher levels of positive responses in some nationally inflected categories are in line with their overall predominance in the field of tastes and participation in book culture.

Women also registered higher levels of recognition for every one of the 20 authors listed (see table 8.4). While the biggest differences appeared for authors who might be considered writing specifically for women or who’ve become identified with women’s writing—Picoult, Atwood, Tan and Woolf—they are followed by very different cases: Reilly and Rankin. For eleven of the authors named, the difference is above ten percentage points.

In terms of having read the named writers, women again lead the pack and are more likely to have read all twenty except for one: DeLillo, who has the smallest difference in numbers with less than 1 per cent, and the smallest number of readers overall. The biggest differences are for Austen, Picoult, Courtenay, Woolf, Winton, Atwood, Grenville and Tan, an inclusive mix of male and female, literary and popular, Australian and non-Australian authors. If we limit the sample to those who have heard of an author (rather than of all respondents), the order of differences changes slightly and men jump ahead for Reilly by eleven percentage points and, on small numbers, for Murakami, DeLillo and Harrower.15 Still, the figures indicate that many women read not only ‘women’s writing’ more avidly than their male counterparts, but almost every other kind of fiction as well. Indeed, the higher level of reading demonstrated by women across the surveyed authors might lend itself to an argument that ‘women’s writing’ is something of a misnomer, and the exceptionalism such a phrase connotes would be more aptly applied in respect of genres associated with a male readership.

Table 8.4: Gender differentiation for recognition and reading


M. = men; W. = women; Diff. = difference.

* ranked according to percentage of total ‘heard of’ responses

Major differences emerge again in the answers to the question of having read and liked particular authors (table 8.5). Overall, women readers have a much greater range of (stronger) likes than men, with six authors appealing to over a quarter of women, compared to only two for men. The most liked author for women was Austen: 63 per cent of all women had read and liked her books compared to 24 per cent of men; and of the men who had heard of Austen, 59 per cent had not read her compared to only 25 per cent of women. These figures again represent the biggest differences in tastes and engagement for any author. The second-biggest difference was recorded for Picoult, with only 4 per cent of men having read and liked her. Courtenay came in second as most-read and liked author for both women and men, with a smaller but still significant gap (19 percentage points). Across all male respondents, King was the author with the highest percentage of likes at 43 per cent, just above the female score of 38 per cent. With fellow American DeLillo, King was the only author where the percentage of male ‘likes’ exceeded that of women.

The gendering of the field of books and reading might also be suggested by the fact that eight of the top ten positions in table 8.5 are occupied by female authors; and this gender effect, where readers appreciate writing by authors of the same sex (Flood 2014), is even more pronounced when liking is expressed as a proportion of those who have read the particular author rather than as a proportion of all respondents. On this measure, Alexandra, Picoult, Morgan, Douglass, Austen, Harrower (and Murakami) rise by four or more positions for female readers, while DeLillo, Rankin and Eggers fall by four or more places. Albeit based on small numbers in real terms, it is impossible not to notice the cache of Australian women writers who climb through the rankings in the estimation (or enjoyment) of Australian women readers.

Table 8.5: Gender differentiation for having read and liked


* ranked according to difference in percentage points (liked as % of total)

Class/Occupational Status

The survey collected information that enables results to be distributed according to various class schema. For purposes of analysis, here, we adopt the most detailed breakdown in terms of eight occupational classes: large owners/high management, high professionals, lower management/professionals, intermediate occupations (clerical, sales and service occupations that do not involve planning or supervisory responsibilities), small employers/on own account, low supervisory/technical, semi-routine, and routine occupations.16 The data reveals clear distinctions in cultural tastes and participation, strongest for levels of recognition and liking for named authors and for participation in book-related activities more broadly. To borrow the term from American sociologist Wendy Griswold, if there is a ‘reading class’ in Australia, ‘restricted in size but disproportionate in influence’ (Griswold, McDonnell and Wright, 127), it is very much concentrated in the band of three occupational classes extending from high professional through lower management/professional to intermediate occupations.

Over a third of most class groups read between one to three books by an Australian author annually. Only two groups fall below this figure, and they do not fall short by much—large owners/high management with 27 per cent and routine occupations with 30 per cent—suggesting that reading one to three Australian books annually constitutes something of a baseline. Large owners/high management join high professionals and lower management/professionals as the class groups where a further third read four or more Australian books a year. By contrast, nearly half of routine occupation workers indicated they read no Australian books in the previous year, alongside 45 per cent of semi-routine and 43 per cent of low supervisory/technical workers.

For most occupational groups the same four genres—Thriller/ Adventure, Crime/Mystery, Biographies, and Australian history— appear at the top of the rankings. But some genres do change places in noteworthy ways: Literary classics rank highly in the professional-intermediate range but low among all other groups.17 Sci-fi/ Fantasy does something like the reverse, ranked in the bottom half for those in the professional-intermediate range but in the top half elsewhere, its highest ranking (fourth) coming among those in routine occupations. Romance is near the bottom for every group, although its highest ranking (tenth) is registered among those in intermediate occupations.

More revealing are the relative percentages attached to these genres in terms of reading for interest or pleasure (table 8.6). High professionals, for example, are above the average for every genre except Romance, where they’re the lowest; lower management/professionals register above average for all but Sci-fi/Fantasy and Sport (where they’re the lowest); intermediate occupations are above average for all except books by/about Indigenous Australians and Australian history (although the figures are still substantial). The clustering of tastes and preferences in this professional-intermediate band can be seen clearly in the concentration of shaded (above average) areas in table 8.6.18 By comparison, moving across to the next band of occupational categories sees a sudden shift of weight, with small employers below average in eight of the twelve categories, low supervisory/technical in six, and semi-routine and routine oc cupations in ten. The latter two groups are above average only for Sci-fi/ Fantasy (both groups), Self-help/Lifestyle (semi-routine) and Sport (routine).

Table 8.6: Kinds of books read for interest/pleasure (percentage of occupational class group)


1 = large owners/high management;

2 = high professional;

3 = lower management/professional;

4 = intermediate occupation;

5 = small employer/own account;

6 = low supervisory/technical;

7 = semi-routine;

8 = routine.

* Avg. (average) = overall result for each genre across the main sample.

Shaded = above average (reversed for ‘None’, ie shaded = below average).

No less revealing, however, are the scores for the large owners/ high management group, for its profile matches closely those at the other end of the scale. It too is below average for eight of the twelve genres, and above only for Sci-fi/Fantasy, Sport, Australian history, and Biographies.19 The professional-intermediate band thus stands apart from large owners/high management on one side and the small employer-routine occupation groups on the other. Modern novels and Literary classics register above average scores only in this tripartite professional-intermediate band, as do Contemporary Australian novels with the addition of the small employers/self-employed group. The highest percentage scores for these ‘literary’ genres all fall within the high professional category, while those for the popular genre fiction categories all appear within the professional-intermediate range: Thriller/Adventure and Sci-fi/Fantasy (high professionals), Crime/Mystery (the three class categories of the high professional-intermediate band have the top three scores), and even Romance (intermediate). Indeed all the highest scores come within this band except those for Sport and Australian history, although the professional groups score highly for these, too, in second or third position.

Literary classics shows the largest gap in reading preferences with a margin of 36 points between high professionals and routine workers, followed by Modern novels with a gap of 29 points between the same two cohorts. Australian history and Books by and about Indigenous Australians are the least differentiated by class on this measure, with the smallest range between highest and lowest levels of engagement.20 While Australian history is a popular category, almost always in the top four for each class grouping, it is notable that it is the most read book type for three of the four class cohorts in the small employer-routine band.

Contemporary Australian novels sit in the mid-range. The margin of 21 points between high professionals and routine workers is sixth highest, and well below those just indicated. That said, lower supervisory/technical-routine workers have among the lowest reading rates for Contemporary Australian novels of any of the groups considered in this analysis; that is, across the cohorts defined by gender, class, education, age or ethnicity. Further, while routine workers’ rate of reading Contemporary Australian novels is close to the group’s reading of Modern novels, the latter category scores much more highly for lower supervisory/technical and semi-routine workers. In other words, while class does not seem to strongly influence levels of engagement with Australian history and Indigenous books, the Australian provenance of contemporary novels seems (at the very least) not to be a positive attraction at this end of the occupational class scale. Finally, we note the reading pattern of the small employers/ on own account group, which seems particularly nationally inflected. As well as Sport, this group reads only Contemporary Australian novels, Australian history and Books by or about Indigenous Australians at above-average rates; for the latter reading category it has the second-highest rating of any class cohort.

The clear break between the professional-intermediate band and all other occupational groups is reproduced for recognition of authors (results not represented here in tabular form). High professionals are above average for fourteen of the twenty authors; lower management/professionals do even better, above average for all but one (Alexandra); and those in intermediate occupations score above average for twelve writers (as do large owners/high management). But then with small employers the number drops dramatically to only three of the twenty. Between lower management/professionals and the low supervisory/technical categories, groups we might otherwise imagine as overlapping in social and cultural profiles, there is an average difference of 17 percentage points in terms of recognition for the top dozen authors listed. The smallest differences are for popular genre writers King and Reilly; the biggest, all above twenty points, are for Austen, Winton, Picoult, and Morgan, with Malouf close behind. This suggests that cultural capital matters to the former group in ways it does not to the latter.

The strongest ‘likes’ are also clustered in the professional-intermediate band, with a few exceptions: Reilly and Winton score highest in the large owners/high management group, although the professional-intermediate groups are also above average before the numbers fall away.21 King scores highest in the low supervisory/ technical category; indeed in his case the three lower bands are all above average. In contrast, Douglass’s appeal is spread across the mid-range, with very close results from the lower management/ professionals group through to those in semi-routine occupations. While we did not identify any strong class patterns relating to nationality, we can note that for all the named Australian authors in the top dozen most-liked authors, the three or four highest scores are clustered at the ‘top’ end of the occupational class categories (from large owners/high management to intermediate). We might also note that while Courtenay is the most liked author for three of the eight occupational class categories (lower managerial/professionals, intermediate, and small employer/own account), King led for lower supervisory, semi-routine and routine workers.22 The gap between first and second most popular author for each cohort was in most cases slight, but it opened out to ten points or more for King’s lead in each of the lower groups.23 Combined with these groups’ lower reading rates for contemporary Australian novels, this does perhaps suggest that these class groups are relatively disengaged from Contemporary Australian fiction, popular as well as literary.

Other Variables: Education, Age, Ethnicity

Reading the survey results against respondents’ level of education (from some secondary or less, through secondary completed, vocational training, some tertiary, and tertiary completed, to postgraduate qualifications) produces a parallel image of a culturally divided field. The key line of division on almost all measures is between the secondary/vocational and tertiary groups, although there are further variations within those groupings. Postgraduate respondents recorded the highest rate of reading for half of the book types surveyed, while those with completed undergraduate or graduate qualifications registered levels of engagement at higher than average rates with ten of the twelve surveyed genres. A completed tertiary or postgraduate qualification is also associated with high levels of recognition across the range of authors, with these two groups showing the highest recognition levels for over three quarters of the authors listed and above average levels of recognition for all bar one (Harrower, where the result for the tertiary completed group sat just below the average). And those with tertiary qualifications are more likely than those without to have read books by Australian authors, to have more than 200 books in the home, to own ten or more ebooks, and to participate regularly in book-related activities. Occasional bookstore browsing is, by and large, undifferentiated by level of education. However, regular bookstore browsing rises with education level, while people with secondary/vocational training have higher rates of ‘never’ browsing in bookstores. Postgraduate and tertiary education (partial or completed) is generally associated with higher rates of attending events at local book stores and literary festivals, participating in book clubs or reading groups, following book/author discussions online and reading book reviews.24

While these results might indicate how formal education both generates and sustains cultural capital, simple oppositions are complicated by the ‘volume’ of reading the survey recorded for each group. More than half of every educational cohort indicated they read Crime/Mystery and Thriller/Adventure books for pleasure or interest, as did all groups for Australian history except ‘some tertiary’ (who fell just short with 46 per cent). More than half of those with vocational qualifications or higher read Biographies of historical figures. Where we start to see educational level make sharper differences is in the appreciation, progressively, of Modern novels, Literary classics and Contemporary Australian novels. Those with completed tertiary or postgraduate qualifications have the highest rates for all three categories, and for Modern novels and Literary classics there was a margin of at least ten percentage points between all tertiary and all secondary/vocational groups. The latter, by contrast, had the lowest levels of engagement for every book type except Australian history and Romance; and to illustrate the divide across the field, the secondary/vocational group had the highest level for the two kinds of books—Sport and Romance—that were least popular overall. The scores for Literary classics and Contemporary Australian novels increase progressively through the three levels of tertiary education.

Rankings for the Contemporary Australian novels category evince a very clear pattern across the range of educational attainment: starting in tenth position for ‘some secondary’, climbing one place for the ‘secondary completed’ and vocational groups and another place for ‘some tertiary’, then reaching its highest ranking (seventh) for the completed tertiary and postgraduate groups.25 Modern novels, by contrast, oscillate between fifth and seventh positions with no discernible pattern. Considered against Contemporary Australian novels’ clear trajectory, this seems suggestive of a relationship between level of education and level of interest in Australian fiction. Australian history acts as something of a counter case. While popular across the board, it does fall consistently in rankings from first, second, and third position for secondary/vocational to third, fourth and seventh position for the tertiary cohorts—perhaps because it competes with a wider range of reading tastes. While no similar trajectory or pattern is visible for Books by or about Indigenous Australians (‘some secondary’ has one of the higher results), it is clear that education does play a role: the figure of 40 per cent for postgraduates is one of the higher results seen across all the groups in our analysis.26 Overall, tertiary or postgraduate education is is an important indicator of the likelihood of reading Australian authors. Of the five authors the secondary/vocational cohorts read at above average rates, only two were Australian (7 per cent of ‘some secondary’ who read Douglass and the 4 per cent who read Harrower). In contrast, the tertiary educated and postgraduate groups were above average for every one.27

There are, however, several individual authors who buck these trends. For Courtenay and King, those in the partial secondary, secondary completed and vocational cohorts score strongly on recognition and liking, although the tertiary and postgraduate groups still often rank highest. For example, for Courtenay, those with partial secondary education or less record the second-highest rate of recognition (85 per cent), trailing the postgraduate group (90 per cent) but ahead of those with completed tertiary education (84 per cent); and vocational and ‘secondary completed’ both outrank ‘some tertiary’. Postgraduate and completed tertiary have much higher rates of recognition for Rankin (41 per cent and 35 per cent respectively) but all other educational cohorts sit more or less equally with recognition rates at around 24 per cent, while recognition of Alexandra is led by the ‘secondary completed’ group at 10 per cent. Still, for both Rankin and Alexandra, the postgraduate groups and tertiary completed groups express the highest degrees of liking. From these results it appears that for authors with high visibility in mainstream commercial or niche genre markets there is no strong correlation between levels of recognition and level of education; or, to put it another way, there is no strict correlation between low levels of education and what some might regard as ‘low’ tastes.

Age is an important factor for engagement with certain genres and certain authors, and for engagement with Australian content. On most measures, such engagement increases as people progress through the life-cycle. In terms of genre, the two most influenced by age are Sci-fi/Fantasy and Australian history. The former is immensely popular with young people, being read by almost two thirds of 18–24 year olds, but this rate drops to roughly 45 per cent for people aged between 25 and 54, before trailing off for those aged 55 and above; it is the lowest ranked genre for those aged 65 or older.28 Australian history has the opposite trajectory, rising across cohorts from one third for 18–24 year olds to over two thirds of those aged 65 years or older. For Australian history, the rates recorded for the 55–64 and 65+ groups (69 per cent and 71 per cent) are the highest single ratings for the genre for any of the gender, class, education and ethnicity groups recorded by the survey. Conversely, 18–24 year olds’ reading of Australian history was the lowest of all the groups considered in this analysis.29

Each of the three explicitly Australian genres surveyed show generally uninterrupted growth from age group to age group. Indeed, of all the book types surveyed, these are the genres that show the most distinct patterns of growth from the younger to the older groups. For each the rate of engagement for the oldest group is in the order of 50 per cent higher than that recorded for the youngest. In the case of Australian history, the rate is doubled. The importance of age for these genres is underscored when we look across the variables: 18–24 and 25–34 year olds recorded some of the lowest levels of engagement with Books by or about Indigenous Australians.30 Further, although their rate of engagement with Contemporary Australian novels is not the lowest compared to other groups, it is much lower than their identification with the broader category of Modern novels: 18–24 year olds’ 50 per cent for Modern novels is almost double their score for Contemporary Australian novels, which is 28 per cent. In contrast, the numbers are virtually equivalent for those aged 55 and above.

Overall, younger people read Australian books at lower rates than older people: 18–24 year olds have the highest rate of any age group for reading between one and three Australian books (42 per cent) and 25–34 year olds have the highest rate of reading no Australian books in the past year, in keeping with their lower rates of reading generally (this age group, for instance, registers the lowest result for seven of the twelve genres). By contrast, the older groups lead higher volume reading: either the 55–64 or 65+ year old group leads each range for reading four or more Australian books in a year.

The significance of a book’s provenance is less clear when it comes to named authors. Here again it is visibility (or rather its inverse, niche tastes and ‘invisibility’ or cachet), rather than the nationality of the writer, which seems to differentiate more consistently between age groups. Respondents aged under 45 had some of the highest rates of recognition and reading for some of the authors who were the least visible overall: 18–24 year olds had the highest rate of recognition for Scott (12 per cent) and Harrower (15 per cent), the highest rate of reading Murakami (6 per cent), and the highest for recognition and reading of Reilly (48 per cent and 28 per cent respectively), reinforcing the appeal of Thriller/Adventure for this group (over two thirds of 18–24 year olds read this genre). Twenty-five to thirty-four year olds had the highest recognition rate for Alexandra (14 per cent) and Eggers (12 per cent).

Perhaps, surprisingly, book clubs and reading groups are slightly more popular among the younger groups: more than 10 per cent of each age group below 44 years participates in book clubs, occasionally or regularly, while the figures fall between 6 per cent and 8 percent for those aged 45 and above. Less surprisingly, younger people are more active in book discussions on social media: 40 per cent of 18–24 year olds are regular or occasional participants in such discussions, a result which dwindles to 12 per cent for the 65+ group. There is not much to distinguish overall rates of ebook ownership between the ages of 25 and 64, with around 40 per cent of each group owning ebooks. Ebook ownership is somewhat higher among 18–24 year olds (51 per cent), and dips dramatically in the 65+ group (24 per cent). Barring a slight drop for the 25–34 year olds, watching book shows on TV or radio rises steadily with age: 16 per cent of 18–24 year olds watch occasionally or regularly, increasing to 46 per cent for those 65+ years. Again, barring a drop for the 25–34 year olds, there is no age difference in overall rates of reading book reviews, although there is variation relating to frequency: older people are more regular book review readers than the younger groups.

Space does not permit anything like a comprehensive account of the cultural profiles of the survey’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents and ethnic minority (Chinese, Indian, Italian and Lebanese) populations. But for the purposes of this essay we can note some significant results in terms of engagement with Australian books and authors and with particular genres. At 70 per cent, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents had the highest rate of any group considered in this paper for reading Books by or about Indigenous Australians; but Lebanese engagement with Indigenous books (45 per cent) was the second-highest across the board. By contrast, the results for the Chinese, Indian and Italian groups were among the lowest. For Australian history, ethnicity is also significant (second only to age, perhaps) with the Lebanese and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups again well above the average at 67 per cent and 63 per cent respectively. While the other groups are below average, even the lowest score is above 40 per cent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people read one to six books by Australian authors at a slightly higher rate than the general population (55 per cent compared with 49 per cent). The Indian (65 per cent) and Lebanese (58 per cent) groups, by contrast, had among the highest rates of reading no books by Australian authors across the sociodemographic variables measured. Finally, the Indigenous Australian group is the only one amongst these five to register an above-average engagement with Contemporary Australian novels, although both the Italian and Lebanese groups do so for Modern novels, and the Italian and Chinese for Literary classics. Otherwise, the interests of the Chinese and Indian groups are strongly concentrated in genre fiction, with both groups above average for Crime/Mystery, Sci-fi/ Fantasy and Romance (and the Chinese for Thriller/Adventure as well), perhaps reflecting the age and, for Romance, gender profile of the samples.31

Presenting the results according to ethnicity for recognition, reading and liking of authors also reveals significant variations from the main sample. Indicating the bias in our selection of named authors, only two of the top dozen best-known authors (according to the main sample) register an above-average rate of recognition: Malouf among the Lebanese group and Morgan among the Indigenous and Lebanese groups. Malouf is also read and liked by Lebanese Australians at an above average rate, as is the case for Morgan with Indigenous readers (Lebanese readers, too, have a higher degree of ‘liking’ for her). Some of the other well-known Australian authors are, however, less read and less liked across these groups in comparison with the main sample. Only the Italian respondents register above average for reading or liking Courtenay and Grenville, while no group is above average for reading or liking Reilly or Winton.

Ethnicity, then, registers some key differences in relation to Australian books and authors, although it is perhaps only with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents that we see this factor outweighing other variables. Popular authors and genres remain well-liked, although the best-known Australian authors fare less well outside the main sample.32


Nearly all adult Australians have some level of interaction with books and book culture. Over 80 per cent of the population has heard of Stephen King, Jane Austen and Bryce Courtenay, have more than 50 books in their home, and visit a bookstore for browsing once a year or more frequently. At this level, books and book culture might be considered general and undifferentiating, or perhaps, more usefully, public. By a further set of measures Australians are, more often than not, readers: over 50 per cent of people have read King, Austen and Courtenay, and read thrillers, crime, biographies or Australian history for their own interest or pleasure; moreover, over half the adult population takes an extended interest in books in that they read print or online book reviews at least a few times a year.

There is, of course, another way to look at this picture. Ninety per cent of respondents had not attended a literary festival or participated in a book club in the year preceding the survey. Over 60 per cent own no ebooks. More than half the writers named in the survey were recognised by less than a third of the population, and three quarters of the writers had been read by less than a quarter. There is, in short, a vast amount of literary activity that is invisible to most Australians or with which they do not engage. With this optic, reading books and participating in book culture indeed emerge as ‘relatively unpopular’ activities. It is at this point that degrees and kinds of involvement with books become highly variable, and sociodemographic factors intersect with practices and tastes in illuminating ways.

Gender is critical for reading practices as well as book culture. While margins are not always significant, women are in front of men on most measures. Women read many genres at distinguishably higher rates than men, as well as works by the vast preponderance of the writers we asked about. They are more familiar and engaged with the book scene, recognising every author surveyed at higher rates than men, and more often attending events and festivals, reading book reviews and consuming book media. There are some indications that Australian content or provenance matters in gender terms, with Australian history proving more popular in the male repertoire of taste, and women enjoying Contemporary Australian novels at a higher rate and registering a taste for Australian women writers when they are read. But these indicators are not particularly distinguishable from men’s preference for non-fictional forms and women’s higher level of engagement with books generally.

Age also emerges as a strong indicator of engagement with Australian books and authors, although in certain instances genre will outweigh this effect. It is likely that this result reveals as much about the sectoring of the book marketplace (and changes over the life-cycle) as it does about any profound generational shift in cultural orientation as a result of globalisation or a decline of interest or investment in a national culture—although these possibilities cannot be dismissed.33

From the perspective of a Bourdieusian analysis and the relationship between economic and cultural capital, perhaps the most significant results of the survey are those confirming the concentration of ‘literary capital’ in the professional-intermediate classes (as defined above) and the tertiary educated. The figures do not suggest any simple dichotomy of ‘high’ literary tastes strongly attached to groups with relatively high occupational status and ‘popular’ tastes defining those lower down the status ladder. Many tastes are shared to a significant degree, although, as we’ve shown, there are some striking divergences. More important, the professional-intermediate groups—where cultural capital seems to matter most—tend to predominate across all types of books and authors, with a few telling exceptions where dislikes become as significant as likes (Romance; a taste for Stephen King), and also across all kinds of active participation in book culture, including an interest in Australian books and authors.

Australian books and authors are dispersed across the scales produced by the ACF survey of tastes and participation—holding their own, as suggested, within different sectors of the marketplace. An engagement with Australian books and book culture increases (or decreases) in line with the tendencies indicated by the other socio-demographic variables surveyed, with little evidence that national/ Australian provenance has a strong determining role in its own right. What does emerge clearly is the uneven and unequal levels of participation in book culture across Australian society.


This chapter is a product of the ‘Australian Cultural Fields’ project supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council (DP140101970). The project was awarded to Tony Bennett (Project Director, Western Sydney University), to Chief Investigators Greg Noble, David Rowe, Tim Rowse, Deborah Stevenson and Emma Waterton (Western Sydney University), David Carter and Graeme Turner (University of Queensland), and to Partner Investigators Modesto Gayo (Universidad Diego Portales) and Fred Myers (New York University). Michelle Kelly (Western Sydney University) was appointed as Senior Research Officer and Project Manager. The project has additionally benefited from inputs from Ien Ang, Ben Dibley, Liam Magee, Anna Pertierra and Megan Watkins (Western Sydney University).

Works Cited

AC Nielsen Company 2001, A National Survey of Reading, Buying and Borrowing Books for Pleasure: Conducted for Books Alive, AC Nielsen, Canberra.

Atkinson, W 2016, ‘The Structure of Literary Taste: Class, Gender and Reading in the UK’, Cultural Sociology, vol. 10, no. 2, SAGE, pp.247–266.

Attwood, B 1992, ‘Portrait of an Aboriginal as an Artist: Sally Morgan and the Construction of Aboriginality’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 25, no. 99, Taylor & Francis, pp.302–318.

AustLit n.d. Sally Morgan, The University of Queensland, accessed June 5 2017,

Australia Council 2013, ‘A Changing Story: Trends in Reading Among Australians’, Australia Council, viewed May 1 2017,

Bennett, T, Frow, J & Emmison, M 1999, Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Bennett, T, Savage, M, Silva, E, Warde, A, Gayo-Cal, M & Wright, D 2009, Culture, Class, Distinction, Routledge, London.

Bourdieu, P 1984, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Flood, A 2014, ‘Readers Prefer Authors of Their Own Sex, Survey Finds’, Guardian,

Griswold, W, McDonnell, T & Wright, N 2005, ‘Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 31, pp. 127–141.

Throsby, D, Zwar, J & Morgan, C 2017, Australian Books Readers: Survey Methods and Results, Department of Economics, Macquarie University. Wright, D 2006, ‘Cultural Capital and the Literary Field’, Cultural Trends, vol. 15, no. 2–3, pp.123–139.

1The Australian Cultural Fields project is focused on the fields of literature (books and reading), visual arts, heritage, sport, media (especially television), and music, with ‘cross-field’ studies of Indigenous and ethnic minority cultures/ participation. The ACF survey was administered by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland using Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviews (CATI) between May and October 2015. The main sample comprised 1202 individuals. Additional to this, individuals were separately recruited from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Indian, Italian, Lebanese and Chinese communities. In this paper, overall totals are calculated with reference to the main sample only, and weighted for age, gender and state of residence, to ensure the sample is as representative of the Australian population as possible. Data relating to individual communities is flagged as such, and is unweighted.

2These findings are explored in a forthcoming paper by David Carter, Modesto Gayo and Michelle Kelly

34% of the sample indicated that they read none of the twelve book types surveyed.

4Non-statistical data relating to Australian books and reading will emerge from the qualitative component of the Australian Cultural Fields project: a series of in-depth interviews with respondents examining their cultural activities and preferences.

514% read four to six Australian books over the last year, 7% read seven to ten, 4% read 11 to 20, 2% read 21 to 30 and 3% read more than 30.

6The sequence of Courtenay, Winton and Reilly matches the results of an Australia Council survey in which respondents were asked to name ‘at least one Australian author whose books they enjoy or would like to read in 2012’: 42% of respondents were able to name an author, with Courtney (9%) the top response, then Winton (5%) and Reilly (4%). They were followed by Colleen McCullough (2%), John Marsden (2%) and Di Morrissey (2%) (Australia Council 2013).

7Six respondents in the main sample (0.5%) did not respond to questions relating to named authors, number of Australian books read, number of books in the home and ebooks owned, and questions about book related activities. One respondent did not answer questions about kinds of books read. In general, we have disregarded these respondents when making overall observations and calculations..

8Table 8.1 shows that less than five per cent of the main sample had read Murakami, Scott, Eggers, Alexandra, Harrower and DeLillo. Consequently readers are asked to remember that further subdivisions relating to these writers may be underpinned by small sample sizes, and hence results can be less meaningful in statistical terms.

9There is a reasonable level of consistency but notable divergences also with the results in Throsby, Zwar and Morgan (2017, 12): among a list of 10 fiction and 10 non-fiction ‘most frequently nominated genres for reading for enjoyment’, ‘Crime/ Mystery/thriller’ came first for fiction (48.5%), ‘Contemporary/general fiction’ third (33.4%), ‘Sci-fi/Fantasy (32.2%), ‘Classics’ (31.3%), ‘Romance’ (17.3%), ‘Literary’ (15.3%). ‘Autobiography/biography/memoir’ came first for non-fiction and second overall at 45.0%, with ‘History-general’ eighth overall at 28.2%.

10It should be noted that My Place ‘has drawn some criticism, from white and Aboriginal voices, raising questions of authenticity and the construction of Aboriginality’ (AustLit). See for example the debate surrounding Atwood (1992) in Australian Historical Studies 100 (1993).

11See also Atkinson (2016), Wright (2006), and Throsby, Zwar and Morgan (2017, 7).

12Men score slightly higher for occasional bookstore browsing, but the difference is marginal (43.3% v. 42.4%). Ebooks are the one area where men consistently outpaced women. Although again margins are minimal, men are more likely to purchase and download free ebooks, and own a greater number of ebooks, than women.

1328% of women indicated Aboriginal art was one of the types of art they liked most compared to 24% of men. For Aboriginal heritage, the equivalent figures were 20% for women and 16% for men. These margins suggest the effect is slightly more pronounced for books.

14Australian history mirrors the result of another non-fiction category, Biographies of historical figures, which rises from fourth in women’s rankings to second among men; sport books climb in the men’s table even more dramatically. Self-help/ Lifestyle predictably bucks this trend, though not dramatically, rising one position for women to men’s ranking.

15A certain inscrutability attaches to Harrower results across many variables, which we take to be primarily an artefact of the small number of respondents who knew or had read her. Here the somewhat anomalous result may be related to the fact fewer men than women have heard of her, which inflates the relative proportion of men who have read her.

16The eight-part breakdown enables the most detailed analyses and is important in enabling the top two categories, for example, to be distinguished, but it has the disadvantage of producing very small numbers in certain cases so that statistical differences become insignificant and/or potentially misleading. It should also be noted that two per cent of the main sample had no class position assigned, and a further 1.8 per cent had never worked. Since writing this paper, five respondents who were previously unassigned were classified in occupational terms. These changes are not reflected in this analysis, but the new classifications do not appear to affect any result by more than half a percentage point.

17‘Professional-intermediate’ refers here and subsequently to the three occupational groups high professional, lower management/professional, and intermediate taken together.

18Below average for None also shaded.

19Although not factored into other comparisons we make between occupational groups in this paper, the results for the ‘Never worked’ group are worth briefly noting, as this group in fact has the highest scores for Sci-fi/Fantasy and Literary classics and is above average for Romance and Modern novels and for reading none of the listed genres. The category no doubt crosses class and educational boundaries; however the numbers are small, less than 25 respondents.

20There was a margin of 11 points for Books by and about Indigenous Australians (with lower management/professionals the highest at 38% and routine the lowest at 27%). The margin for Australian history was 13 points, between lower supervisory/ technical workers at 61% and semi-routine workers at 48%.

21Likes as a percentage of total respondents in each occupational class category.

22An Australian literary author (Winton) was most liked for large owners/high management, and Austen led for high professionals.

23Courtenay also had a significant lead on second ranked Austen in the small employer/own account group (49% v. 36%).

24One exception is that people with completed secondary education are more likely to participate in book clubs/reading groups than those with partial tertiary education.

25For the ‘some tertiary’ group Contemporary Australian novels shared eighth place with Self-help/Lifestyle. It should be noted that those who studied Humanities and Social Sciences at a tertiary or postgraduate level read Contemporary Australian novels at the highest rate of any cohort considered in this analysis (53%).

26Again the study of Humanities and Social Sciences is important here, with 41 per cent of this group reading Books by or about Indigenous Australians.

27With the exception of Harrower, where postgraduates have a lower than average rate of reading by 0.01% (and with very small numbers overall).

28Results are organised according to six age brackets: 18–24, 25–34, 35–44, 45–54, 55–64 and 65+. Ages were not recorded for just over 1% of the main sample. Data from these respondents has been disregarded for the purposes of this analysis.

2925–34 year olds’ reading of history (44%) is also very low compared to the other groups.

3025–34 year olds’ rate of 21% is only just above the lowest rate recorded, 18% recorded by Chinese respondents, and 18–24 year olds’ rate of 28% is in the region of rates recorded by routine workers (27%), and Indian (29%) respondents. In line with the ACF findings, Throsby, Zwar and Morgan (2017, 24) conclude that ‘older age groups are more likely to like Australian-authored books than younger ones, while younger age groups are more likely to indicate that the nationality of the author doesn’t matter to them.

31The Chinese sample had the highest concentration of 18–24 year olds of all samples, and the Indian sample had a reasonably high level of representation in this age category as well. Women constituted a higher proportion of each ethnic minority sample: 50.7% of the weighted main sample were women, compared to the Chinese (53.2%), Indian (55.6%), Indigenous Australian (56.8%), Italian (58.4%) and Lebanese (61.8%) samples.

32Results for participation do not reveal clear patterns with most results reasonably close to those of the main sample. Chinese respondents have relatively high levels of participation in organised book activities such as book clubs and festivals. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents are above average for regular bookstore browsing, and occasional festival and book club attendance.

33Cf Bennett, Frow and Emmison 1999, pp. 201–25.

Publishing Means Business

   by Aaron Mannion, Millicent Weber and Katherine Day