“The pen is said to be mightier than the sword. And these days when it comes to narrative non fiction it often takes no prisoners. In the wake of the uproar from Broome residents over Anne Coombs and Susan Varga’s just published Broometime, publisher Hodder Headline has just recalled the book from outlets. And it’s not good news for writers or Australian writing.

Some Broome residents are threatening a class action. More importantly Western Australian police are investigating whether sections of the book have breached WA laws in printing details of an indecent assault case. The publisher may have jumped the gun by recalling the book. On the other hand, remaining copies of Broometime may well be pulped. So much for those who thought the outrage would boost sales.

But Broometime is not malicious. It doesn’t employ Bob Ellis style fiction for fact. And its authors reveal a genuine fondness for their “cast”, the personalities from Broome in their work. Yet, apparently, Australians will now be stopped from reading this open but fairly tame account of life in Broome.

Moreover, while cynics may believe Coombs and Varga sought controversy by publishing private conversations, others might equally agree with Kimberley Land Council officer Wendy Attenborough that they simply underestimated the reaction.

But, say Coombs and Varga, the outrage expressed by Broome residents, and reported as if it were the whole town, is not coming from the people they wrote into the book. It’s the objection of other Broome residents, those barely mentioned or even not mentioned in Broometime. It’s not a case of the writers betraying trust at all. The interviewees and those who spoke to Coombs and Varga knew what they were doing and most, apparently, like what they’ve read.

Varga and Coombs do not write sleaze. There is every reason to believe them when they say they wanted to capture Australia in miniature. And they may have succeeded. As revealed in the recent race debate, Australians are not always as tolerant as we look on the outside. At the time of our national debate, some blamed the media for reporting what was a reality.

What Varga and Coombs have done is little more than what writers of fiction have been doing for decades. The only difference is they gave the real names. And why not? As Helen Garner discovered with The First Stone, changing names doesn’t ensure identities won’t be identified.

The movie industry has left written fiction in its wake. Unless a writer can produce a Harry Potter or a blockbuster with film possibilities, writing fiction for a living has little attraction. Interview a princess and the transcripts might become more valuable than the book after she dies.

Writers of fiction have been overtaken by real life sagas from Lady Diana to the Clintons and Monica Lewinski. Real life scandals, serialised in the mass media daily, are far more exciting.

Not surprisingly, book writers are reaching for live action, the documentary style of a drama unfolding as they take notes. It has a touch of the detective and satisfies readers’ hunger for storytelling in an era of unreadable postmodernist texts. Reading tastes have become more voyeuristic. They like the up front deconstruction.

Helen Garner and Janet Malcolm style scribblers now write about their search for the story rather than simply tell it. Behind the scenes and on the set, the making of the yarn, even occasional lawsuits, shape the final outcome. It’s given serial writing a whole new meaning.

Coombs and Varga are genuinely upset their book has caused strong emotions among the indigenous residents of Broome. At an address to the Sydney Institute last night, they were at pains to explain why they think this is so. Especially when it is obvious from the book that all characters have been viewed from a balanced, but open, perspective.

We believe the problem is super sensitivity,” says Varga. “And not being used to being characterised in non-fiction literature as mainstream. Of being always on a pedestal or victimised. Our characters are all rounded, and like anyone in the book, the indigenous figures in Broometime have light and shade.”

It is indeed a pity Broometime has been recalled. As one of the lucky Australians, I got a copy early. The book has certainly sparked my interest in Broome, not because of rat infested shacks or red Pindan dust but for the colours of its magnificent setting and the earthiness of its townsfolk. I’ve been meaning to visit Broome for years. This time I’m going.”

Article published in The Australian