Black and white photograph of author, editor and publisher, Kate Cuthbert. She is leaning on her hand, looking into the camera.

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Welcome to Why Write, a super short podcast that asks writers just that, why they write. Hi, I’m Noè Harsel, a writer and Chair of Writers Victoria, and I’m excited to chat to a diverse group of writers and simply ask, why write? I’m glad you’re here with me.

Today I have Kate Cuthbert. Kate is the editorial director at Pantera Press. Previously, she held senior roles at both Writers Victoria and Harlequin Australia. A genre fiction advocate and enthusiast, she’s currently pursuing a PhD examining representations of Australia on book covers and in book titles, and is a co-host on the podcast, What Would Danbury Do.

Welcome to Why Write, Kate. I’ve been lucky enough to work with you previously, and see the passion with which you bring to everything you do. And know what an enthusiast you are around genre fiction, especially the romance genre. I am really excited to get into it today with you. So let’s get right to the big question. The reason why we are here, tell us Kate, why do you write?


Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here. I love this podcast so much. I write because I don’t ever really know what I think until I’ve actually put it down. I’m quite a thoughtful person. And I think one of the one of my greatest advantages, and simultaneously one of my greatest disadvantages is that I’m really capable of seeing both sides of every story. And that can make it very difficult to come to a firm opinion about something or even to figure out where I stand on any given question or issue. And I spend a lot of time mulling things over in my head. And I’m never entirely sure what I think until I actually sit down and write it down. And it’s where a lot of the Op Ed pieces that I’ve written have come from. It’s often where a lot of the conversations I have in group chats or emails come from. It’s certainly where my PhD, which is the main thing that I’m writing at the moment, comes from, it’s very much about me sitting down and trying to figure out where I stand on a particular issue or what I think about a particular question, or how I feel about something that might have broader implications. It comes out when I when I sit down to write it comes out when I actually sit down and let everything that’s been going on in my brain come out of my fingertips. So yeah, so that’s why I write,


I love that. And I love that thing that you’re talking about, about being able to see both sides of an argument or a story and writing as a way through thinking. And if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear I find this thing, ‘this thing,’ that’s a terrible way of putting, it but what you’re studying, and what you’re writing about for your PhD, enthralling. Can you tell us a little bit about the thinking and the ideas behind that?


Look, I can and it’s a bit of a journey, because I don’t know a single PhD student whoever started their PhD with a topic and then ended with the same topic. So I want, when I went into my PhD, and this was six years ago, I had an idea that I wanted to write about Australian popular fiction because up until about 15 years ago, Australian popular fiction as an idea didn’t really exist. And then boom, we had Jillaroo come out by Rachel Treasure, and it really kicked off this moment in Australian publishing, where Australian publishers were acquiring Australian authors to write Australian stories for Australian audiences in a popular fiction space. And this had never happened before. So we had this amazing, just avalanche, of Australian popular romance fiction, and then that, of course, led into other Australian popular fictions, most notably crime. And then, you know, there were Australian Rural set crimes prior to The Dry but The Dry really started off a secondary avalanche.

So I thought that this was just such a fascinating area of publishing. And it’s so unusual to get to see the birth of a new genre. And I really wanted to write about what that might mean and what it was saying about Australia. What are popular fictions, saying about us, not least of which because popular fiction is, so, I was gonna say probably fiction is so popular, which is true. But what that means is that it’s read so broadly and widely and oftentimes when it comes to the creation of an idea or the dissemination of some sort of information, it has a broader reach and therefore wider scope and therefore potential for, for actually, for actual change in a way that some other genres aren’t quite able to match. So we know what is being said in popular fiction is often what is being said in popular culture, which is what is being said, in culture, which is, you know, what is being said in the world. So that was what I thought I would write about. What I actually ended up writing about is book covers and book titles. Because when I went into these conversations, I wanted to talk about how titles and covers bring us into the story: they are our first step into his story. And it turns out that nobody’s ever actually really written about that before. So in order to have those conversations, I had to start the conversations. So my thesis, which is due very, very soon, is actually looking at how to talk about book covers, and how to talk about book titles in a way that allows us to analyse not only the intent and the effect, but the tools and the scaffolding that are being used to create that meaning behind them. So yes, so I just start with this idea of writing about this area of fiction that I’m so passionate about: genre fiction, and particularly writing about, you know, what that looks like in Australia, and I ended up in a very different place. But that is very common.


I’m sure it is. But what I love about it, though, is it, I mean, the conversation that you’re having here talking about that journey, and that passion in popular fiction, genre fiction, and the messages and the things that it actually says about what we’re talking about, and what’s the conversation that’s happening in Australian literature and in Australian public conversation, full stop, and what I love about what you’re saying about the covers, and the titles, and the messaging that that gives about what you’re going to read, and I’m wondering a bit about, and I guess this is genre fiction, or popular fiction, or however you, you call it like, what is it about that, that caught your attention? I mean, there’s sort of like, I mean, when I think about, when I think about book covers, amazing book covers and book titles that have messaging, it does, in my mind, bring up the romance genre, which is incredibly pointed in the covers and the messaging in their covers. And so I guess what I’m what I’m sort of leading to, if I could, is, why does certain types of genre fiction not hold, and I’m going to give you air quotes for the word, the ‘lofty’ position that other types of fiction hold, say in Australia? What do you think about that?


Like, it’s not an easy question to answer, because there isn’t one simple answer. In short, there’s a lot of different aspects to popular fiction, that lend themselves to not being taken as seriously. The first of which, of course, is that popular fiction doesn’t take itself very seriously. It’s not necessarily a genre that is devoted to big ideas and too broad thinking. It’s a, it’s a fiction that’s designed to be read and enjoyed. And that doesn’t mean that big ideas aren’t explored. In popular fiction, I would argue that big ideas are explored often and often incredibly well. But with popular fiction, that’s fantastic, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a good story. And when you’re reading for entertainment, instead of reading for other reasons that you can read for, I think that that’s quite easy to be dismissive, because, because you are reading for pleasure, you’re reading for enjoyment you’re reading, to distract yourself, you’re reading to escape. And these aren’t considered valid reasons for reading in a lot of ways, which is something that I find incredibly frustrating to talk about, because I don’t think that there’s no wrong way to read and I don’t think that there’s any way to read that isn’t engaging your intellect, your, your sense of self, your sense of the world, even if you are enjoying the story along the way for romance in particular, because I know that you specifically mentioned that genre, and certainly that’s the genre that I came up with in, and the genre that I hold closest to my heart. I think there’s a lot of other aspects to that, including the fact that for a very long time, it was a genre that was written by women for women. And of course, the genre has expanded significantly since then. And it’s now written for a number of from a different number of different points of view for, you know, a quite a wide audience.

But certainly, for the longest time, it was the one genre where you could guarantee that it was going to be from the point of view of a woman, and it was going to, to concern itself with things that were considered women’s concerns. So family, community, love, children, security and safety and relationships are all we’re all women’s concerns, they’re all still women’s concerns to a large extent of, I suppose. Popular mentality, I think, and anything, I think that centres women in that way, and concerns itself with what women are concerned with, is necessarily considered second, or not as serious or not as important. And that just fills me with the rage of 1000 suns. You know, that centre, that is the way that that is the way.

I think, in many ways, popular fiction also looks at the world in ways that it could be instead. And there’s a sense of inbuilt optimism there. That is also demeaned, because it’s considered naive. I think optimism is considered naive, hope is considered naive. Looking for a happy ending is considered naive, you know, cynicism is, is what’s considered sophisticated and intelligent and I’m looking for another synonym, but essentially, cynicism is is what’s considered intelligent and sophisticated. And naivete, of course, is the the flip of that. And so there’s this idea that popular fiction is juvenile. And I really firmly don’t believe that I think that being able to hold on to optimism to find the joy is necessary, it’s necessary to recognise that cynicism doesn’t move the world forward in any way. It’s all it’s always hope. It’s always this idea that the world could be better or different than it is, that moves the world. But that that actually drives change. So I find a lot of satisfaction and a lot of intellectual challenges in popular fiction, because they’re always coming from a place of how could the world be different? How could we make it different? What could change? What would those changes look like? What are the things that are important to us as a society? What are the things that connect us? And those are the things that you find in popular fiction. And those are the things that I think are overlooked as important when we start, when we think about literary culture.


Beautiful, so true. So true. I think it’s fantastic. I think as you say, hold on to the optimism and hold on to the joy. Thank you, Kate. That was amazing. And thank you so much for sharing with us your journey and the reason why you write.


Thank you so much for asking me. It was an absolute pleasure to be here.Noè


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