I was going to write my next post on why I like short stories – as a prelude to my next review – when I heard on the radio today that Hilary McPhee has just edited a book of Australian short fiction. To most Australians, Hilary McPhee is – and if she’s not she should be – a literary giant. With her friend Diana Gribble, she founded in 1975 a small independent publishing company called McPhee Gribble. Together they filled a major gap in Australian publishing at the time by introducing new Australian authors like, oh, you know, Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Murray Bail! Writers, in other words, who have gone on to be giants themselves. McPhee Gribble survived for 14 years before being sold in 1989 to Penguin.
Some years later, McPhee wrote a part-memoir part-history, titled Other people’s words (2001), of her experience as publisher/editor. For anyone interested in publishing, editing and the booktrade, particularly in the Australian scene, it’s an eye-opening book. And, I’d happily write a mini-review of it right now if I had a copy to hand – but unfortunately it’s one of those few books I’ve read that I don’t own myself. What I remember about it is her thorough description of the publishing industry and booktrade in general, and of the role of editors in nurturing and developing authors. She particularly details the problems in the booktrade at that time of getting books out there in an increasingly commercialised and commodified market. She was also concerned about the fact that, in the late 70s and 80s, British publishers and reviewers in general did not give much credence to Australian writers and writing, whereas the same Australian writers were generally well reviewed in the US. In today’s interview, she indicated that Australian writing still seems to not be a part of the world, and said that our writers are instead “cherry picked”. From my experience of the blogosphere, I’d say she’s not wrong.
And this brings me to the new book. Titled Wordlines: Contemporary Australian writing it contains pieces of Australian short fiction that, as McPhee said in the Radio National interview today, meet her criteria of being “international, engaged and political”. She doesn’t define these, particularly “political”, narrowly but in terms of exploring a “different moral universe”. In other words, she doesn’t look to Australian literature to define what being Australian is, but to its ability to offer a particularly Australian sensibility or perspective on the world.
The writers in this collection include those she has loved (and often nurtured) from her publishing days – such as Gerald Murnane, Drusilla Modjeska, Carmel Bird and Cate Kennedy – and new authors she has discovered since her return from a stint overseas – such as Nam Le, Amra Pajalic and Abigail Ulman. The pieces include some that have been previously published and others written specifically for the volume.
It sounds a fascinating collection. Having been compiled by McPhee, it is, as some of the promos suggest, likely to be idiosyncratic; and it includes some writers I haven’t yet read and some I’ve barely heard of. But the main reason I’d like to read it is because she believes there is a new sensibility in Australian writing, a new way of looking at and being part of the world. I’d like to see exactly what she means by that.