Hilary McPhee on Australian writing

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.

13 thoughts on “Hilary McPhee on Australian writing

  1. This sounds like a good book and I can’t wait to hear more about it. It is interesting what you say about Australian writers being cheery picked. It must be true because I can only think of a handful of authors. But then I may have read some Australian authors and not have known it. Either way it is a shame. I wonder why they aren’t more widely marketed?

  2. Fascinating. I am always embarrassed when visiting your blog by my lack of knowledge of Australian literature. It just doesn’t appear in book shops over here, nor in public libraries, other than for a few very fine writers such as Kate Grenville. This sounds like a good sampler of Australian fiction

  3. ‘Cherry picked’ reminds me of a post I saw a few weeks ago (I think) at the New Yorker (I think) book blog, where the writer, who was conducting a Shirley Hazzard read-along, got marvellously excited because a Christmas scene in Transit (I think) of Venus reminded him of a Christmas scene in one of Clive James’ memoirs. Why? Because in both scenes people were eating plum pudding in the summer heat. Mon Dieu! Perhaps Clive James had read Shirley Hazzard? But no! Both books published in the same year, 1980! Astonishing coincidence! What a wonderful year for Australian writing, concludes this ass. Two Australians published books!

    The obvious answer never occurred to him: that the number of Australians who have eaten northern hemisphere Christmas meals in summer heat is immense, that both of those writers were expats writing for northern hemisphere audiences, and, as any expat writer would be aware, your average northern hemisphere reader can be expected to find plum pudding eaten at forty degrees noteworthy. Of course they’d put it in. Christina Stead, all the way back in the 1940s, when she wanted to introduce her readers to the idea that For Love Alone was going to start with the characters in Australia, what did she do? Very first sentence: Christmas in the heat. “In the part of the world Teresa came from, winter is in July, spring brides marry in September, and Christmas is consummated with roast beef, suckling pig, and brandy-laced plum pudding at 100 degrees in the shade …”

  4. Stefanie and Tom: Thanks for your comments … I don’t really know why our books don’t get out there more. From my vague memory of McPhee’s earlier book, I think she found a real lack of interest in Australian writing at places like the influential Frankfurt bookfair. Maybe the groundswell of blogging will start to turn this around and overseas booksellers will start to pay more attention? I can only hope!

    DKS: Oh dear. We have to laugh, otherwise we’d cry and that wouldn’t be a pretty sight! (BTW I still wonder why I believed for longer than I should have that birds flew south in winter!)

    MLD: Methinks that while McPhee thinks there’s been some change in Australian writing, that has not flowed through to publishing.

  5. I suppose there was a time when publishers thought someone wasn’t Australian enough unless they were Crocodile Dundee.
    I really enjoy sampler books where someone with taste picks stories to include. Hope this new book makes it to the States.

  6. I wonder if she is glad that their company was sold to Penguin. Seems like a shame really after introducing us to these fantastic writers who have gone on to be classics. If the publishing scene in the late 80s was increasingly becoming commercialised, what must she think of the industry now?!

    That the Brits didn’t give much credit to Aussie writers could be an interesting essay. Does it all go back to the convict past or post-colonialism shame? While I don’t think it’s a large issue now (I think – I haven’t been to the U.K…yet) I think there is still some work to be done in promoting Aussie writers not just to the U.K but internationally too.

  7. I remember when McPhee & Gribble first started. A friend of mine got a job with them as an editor/proofreader or something. He got the job due to his witty and irreverant application, and much to his friends surprise, he got the job. He was a desperado sort of person, though very a talented songwriter and folk singer. He also did a stint as a journalist for Living Daylights, a subversive newspaper of the early 1970s. Sadly he passed away 20 or so years ago.

    Anyway, that’s what I remember about McPhee Gribble

  8. Tony: LOL I think we have at times been dogged by things like Crocodile Dundee and Paul “throw a shrimp on the barbie” Hogan. And I agree, specially selected collections like this can be great. The very first book my reading group did back in 1988 was a collection of contemporary Australian women writers and it generated authors for our next few books. It was a great book to get us up and running.

    Mae: I wouldn’t be surprised – particularly back in the 70s/80s if there wasn’t still a bit of that colonial element playing out even if partly subconsciously. And, it’s a while since I read her book but I think there was sadness in selling out to Penguin but some relief too (BUT I’d have to check the book again to see if my memory is correct).

    Anne: Thanks for sharing that story – did your friend enjoy working there? I’m sorry he has died.

  9. I have lived in the UK for most of my life after growing up in Australia. When I was out there (Australia) recently I went to a bookshop to buy The Secret River for a friend (Australian) who hadn’t read any Kate Grenville. I couldn’t find it on the shelves – in fact I coudln’t find anything by her and when I asked about it I was told I would find it in ‘Australian Fiction’. There wasn’t even an overlap – so new and emerging Australian writers were sitting there next to Miles Franklin and AB Facey on shelves of their own – nowhere near the much larger collection of ‘General Fiction.’
    Naively perhaps (and I have to say I am now totally anglicised – especially when I am in a bookshop) I don’t see a writer’s birthplace as a defining criterion in their writing. Is it Romance? Is it Chick Lit? Is it New or Classic – no – it’s Australian. Bizarre.
    I was horrified.
    I’ve lived away for twenty years and it seems in this respect very little has changed. (Of course this is not true of ALL bookshops – but neither is it unusual.)
    The change in perception has to come from all angles. From readers as well as publishers. I was told in the shop that this is how customers like to see the shelves arranged.
    It’s frustrating, because as I see it a lot of the anachronistic post-colonial self-consciousness still comes from within. Lots of readers here know the names of (a short list of) the usual suspects: Winton, Grenville, Malouf, Carey and consider them “writers” not “Australian writers” but I discovered Thea Astley on the same trip and when I asked even some of my most literary Australian friends why they thought I had never heard of her – it turned out neither had they.
    No – I can’t explain it either.

    • Welcome Federay and thanks so much for sharing this perspective. How bookshops shelve their books is a mystery to me. Where do you put Hyland? She spent 25 years (I believe) here but calls herself British I think. Born in Ireland, grew up and went to University here, and now lives in London…not Irish, not Australian, not English. An then of course there’s that separation of Literary from General fiction. I can usually guess but I don’t always get that right either. JUST fiction A-Z is best I think – like a library (or, if you must, separate sections for the genres – but again there are overlaps aren’t there).

      If you’ve looked at my blog you’ll have discovered that I’m a big fan of Astley and have been long riled by the fact that she is little known. Every year around Miles Franklin time there’d be the usual round of discussions about past winners but rarely did anyone ever mention that (until last year when Winton finally equalled her) she’d won more times than anyone else. She has clearly been relegated to the “literary” basket. Anyhow, I gather you have now read some Astley. Would love to know what you think.

      • Hi,
        Yes – Astley – well she’s just a goddess,really and maybe the world is not ready. I wonder if possibly perverse decision to write the landscape she lived in – it might have been more astute career-wise to write with a Profile in mind. But she didn’t. And anyway – who can?
        If we all bang that drum – her time will come. I literally stumbled on her in Sydney when I discovered the Writers’ Walk near Circular Quay – I recognised every name except hers. So I went to the nearest bookshop (an Australiana specialist, of course) and bought “Rainshadow”… that’s how these things work.
        I actually stumbled on your blog when I googled Astley after finishing (awestruck) “Rainshadow”. So here I still am and very much enjoying the fresh perspective.
        I forgot to say in my original post that I am looking forward to getting my hands on this anthology.
        “Literary”? Don’t tell me there are shops there that have “Literary” Fiction shelves? Please. That would be like putting a ‘level of difficulty’ grading on a book. As a reader I find these criteria irritating – as a writer they are a necessary evil. As a writer friend of mine says: ‘the most important words in your whole book are the ones that appear above the bar code.’ (And in case it’s different there – he means the terms “travel-biography”, “historical romance”, “crime fiction,” etc that go in small letters on the back cover.)
        I totally agree with you – “literary” should not be a relegation-basket. What (hello?) is a book if not literary? Any book? Even the phone book has words and, if you can be bothered looking, a poetry of its own. (Ok: a little extreme… but where does it end?)
        Anyway, hurrah for Hilary McPhee, let’s not worry where Ms Hyland is from or going as long as keeps writing books, and on with your most charming and interesting blog!

    • Thanks for the truly lovely compliment Federay. I mainly write this for my own benefit to get my thoughts in order and keep the brain functioning but it is nice when visitors come by and comment. How great that you found Astley through the Writers Walk. Am so so thrilled that you like her. It is a bit of a mission – quiet though it is – of mine to get more people to read and like her so I’m glad you’ll be joining the mission!

      LOL re Literary, but yes, I have seen that in more than one shop. I wish off the top of my head I could give you examples of decisions made to show you (just for fun as we are clearly of a mind) how silly it is, but I can’t right now.

      Re those words above the bar code — I have seen them but I’m not sure all publishers do it here. Sometimes I actively look for them when I’m not sure from the cover whether something, for example, is fiction or memoir. So you are a writer? Good for you. What do you write?

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