Monday musings on Australian literature: Currawong Publishing Company

Currawong First Novel logoAs regular readers know, I’ve been involved in much clearing out of houses over the last eighteen months. I have, as a result, accumulated a small but interesting collection of older books, several of which I have already posted on. Today’s post is inspired by another such book, And all the trees are green (1944), by A.E. Minnis who’s unknown to me. However, my post is not so much on Minnis but on the book’s publisher, Currawong Publishing Company.

It captured my attention for a couple of reasons, starting with the little logo on the plain front cover which reads “Currawong First Novel”. Inside, there is a publisher’s Foreword which says that the novels in the series are all “first novels” (obviously) by “young Australian authors”. That made me sit up. I wondered how many authors whom we now know got their start with Currawong – the way many contemporary authors got their start with publishers like McPhee Gribble (such as Helen Garner and Tim Winton) and Fremantle Press (Elizabeth Jolley). Anyhow, the Foreword goes on to set out its philosophy, which is that their authors are chosen mainly for three reasons:

Each author has a story to tell, and tells it. [Haha, love that “and tells it” bit]
Each author’s style shows more than a promise of developing into a powerful literary instrument.
Each author is Australian, either by birth or adoption.

They continue to say that they invite manuscripts from authors who have not had a novel published in Australia or overseas, that “the setting of the plot of any novel submitted need not be Australian”, and, something most authors would love, that “each author whose work is accepted will be placed under contract to The Currawong Publishing Company for his or her next three literary works”.

You can see why I wanted to find out more about them. The AustLit database, which is, unfortunately, only fully accessible by subscription (which I don’t have) says this

The Currawong Publishing Company was a war-time success, active from about 1942 to 1951. Currawong issued a wide variety of fiction – including mysteries, westerns, romances, and fantasies – under the slogan ‘You can’t go wrong with a Currawong’; with a few exceptions, Currawong’s authors were Australian. Currawong also issued a series of ‘Unpopular Pamphlets’, advancing left-wing economic and socialist ideas for post-war reconstruction.

I was also able to read, before I hit the paywall, that the most referenced work relating to this entry is Kylie Tennant’s award-winning debut novel, Tiburon, albeit Currawong’s edition was a later “pocket” one.

Anyhow, Currawong sounded interesting, so I decided to research further, but they aren’t listed in my copies of The Oxford companion to Australian literature, nor The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, nor the index in the Annals of Australian literature. I could find them in Trove, of course, though mostly as the publisher of books being reviewed. That’s better than nothing!

I found, for example, a review of a novel by Ailsa Craig, If blood should stain the wattle (1947). The reviewer calls it a “fine first novel by an Australian author” and says:

Her style is impressive and she writes convincingly about country scenes with which she is familiar … It is rather a sombre story of a modern tyrant who rules the lives of his family in almost mediaeval style. You will find it an enthralling study of human relationships handled simply yet vividly.

The Courier-Times reviewer was a little less glowing, saying “There is quiet talent here but a little too much of the Daphne du Maurier technique to give it its own personality” though does admit that “the story is a good one, well-told”. Meanwhile, over at The Age, the reviewer says that the book was highly commended in the competition won by Ruth Park’s Harp in the south! Ailsa Craig, according to AustLit, was “a writer, journalist and scholar. She was also the first female London correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald” and she won the prestigious, in Australian journalism circles, Walkely Award.

After Trove, I turned to Professor Google. I didn’t find a lot but did find, in Google books, a reference in History of the book in Australia, Vol. 3: Paper empires, edited by Craig Munro. The reference, which appears in the essay by Ian Morrison titled “Case study: Pulp fiction”, explains that Currawong was one of the leading publishers of pulp fiction – those mysteries, westerns, fantasies, etc – during the war years.

Unfortunately, in all this research, I couldn’t find much about the reason I decided to write this post, their “first novel” series, but I did find this little anecdote in one of those end-of-year articles newspapers like to write about books. The Sunwrote this in its article, “Tastes in books were changing”:

Oddity of the publishing year has been the fact that two books on taxation became bestsellers almost overnight. Earlier in the year Currawong Publishing Company issued “I Can Get It For You Tax-Free!” by E. Kellie, with an introduction by Sydney taxation expert J. A. L. Gunn. In quick time three editions of the book were sold. Currawong has now published, at 10/6, a sequel entitled “Farmers, Bushrangers, Businessmen,” by B. Hall, curiously with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. The title is drawn from the indiscreet remarks made about Australia in London last year by Dr. C. E. M. Joad. B. Hall’s book is as witty and as shrewdly informative about taxation affairs as E. Kellie’s book. Chapter headings range from “How to Jack Up Your Director’s Remuneration” to “Don’t Go Shop Crazy Till You Get Your Provisional Assessment.” ‘The publishers’ claim that Mr. Hall can teach Mr. Kellie a thing or two about income tax legerdemain is amply confirmed and must be causing Treasurer Chifley some concern. Taxpayers can confidently anticipate a companion book next year by Capt. Starlight with an introduction by J. A. L. Gunn. (14 December 1947)

There is a joke here – besides the fact that a book on tax went quick-smart into three editions! –  in that the books were, in fact, written by J.A.L. (John Angus Alexander) Gunn. The so-called authors, E Kellie and B. Hall, allude to bushrangers Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, hence the reviewer’s reference to the next book being by Captain Starlight! I’m not sure that all the contemporary reviewers got this. (By the way, Gunn was a highly respected accounting practitioner and was elected into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame.)

During all this research I found a wide variety of books published by Currawong, in addition to pulp fiction – a book on Indonesia and one by A.O. Neville on Australia’s coloured minority; a book on Australian art, and one containing plays; an autobiography by tennis player Dinny Pails, and much more. They were clearly an active publisher in their time.

As for A E Minnis, I could find little about him – though I did discover that it’s a him. The only review I found starts with “Mr Minnis writes interestingly concerning the odyssey of his young hero, Dick Radford” but it then goes on to just describe the story. I wonder if Mr Minnis ever got his next two books!

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Currawong Publishing Company

  1. Dear Sue
    If you are a member of your local library, you should be able to access the AustLit database through the library website. All you have to do is log in using your library username and password, and then go to the AustLit portal. Hope it works!
    Cheers, Teresa Pitt

  2. You are a mine (and a mind) of all sorts of fascinating information and thought! I wonder what you know of SCOPP (Saturday Centre of Prose & Poetry) and Patricia Laird?

  3. Fascinating, and especially as I was in Currawong itself a couple of weeks ago! We found one shop only, a very pleasant sells everything place, and I bought there a book written for young children/readers about a local coastal bird!
    The titles you give are intriguing.

  4. I’ve whinged about this before, but I really don’t understand why the AustLit database has to be subscription only. If anyone can access it through their library website why can’t anyone have open access? Or, why can’t bloggers like us – making a substantial voluntary cultural contribution to AustLit and encouraging people to read it *and* our blogs being cited as a resource to use by universities and colleges – be given the damn password? (I know this can be done, because I previously was given it, and then it lapsed or was withdrawn or whatever, maybe ‘policy’ changed.)
    I don’t know who directly funds AustLit but if it’s public money directly or indirectly, then the public ought to have proper access instead of having to faff around going through another website first. I mean, really, there you are, absorbed in writing an article, and you want to check something… and you have to go and find your library card number before you can keep going with your task?! Why? It’s absurd. (BTW if there is a portal through my local library or the other three municipal libraries I belong to, I can’t find it and I’m pretty smart at navigating websites. Maybe my library doesn’t buy the subs, and maybe lots of other libraries don’t either. My guess is that municipal libraries don’t see the need to pay for a niche service and that small rural libraries can’t afford it and that automatically disadvantages people in the bush).
    From what I can see on their About page, they are partnered by various universities and the NLA. They say that their mission is ‘to be the definitive information resource and research environment for Australian literary, print, and narrative cultures’. But they are not readily accessible as a definitive source because this exclusionary system puts off Australian users from using the site, and presumably prevents any international would-be users from finding out more about Australian literature altogether.
    If you look at the example of international art galleries, you can view everything they’ve got online, for free, and no mucking around with passwords. Sharing of cultural capital is an international obligation for institutions…
    Ok, rant over, but this issue really does push my buttons.

    • Yes I know Lisa. I had a guest access at one stage. I believe it is a money issue but it’s SO expensive or was last time I looked. I have accessed through a uni library before but I’m not working at present for that uni. I will check our library system here. I think I did a couple of years ago but came recollect whether I found it there. At least Trove is free!

      • I need it to check the DB for indigenous authors. I always try to include their country, their language group, or their heritage as in ‘a Bunjalung woman’ or ‘of Wiradjuri descent’, it’s a way of paying respect to their indigenous identity. But it’s not always easy to find that info, and AustLit ought to have it, and it ought to be authoritative if it’s there in the DB. But I can’t get at it!

        • Yes, good point. I often mention their heritage too though don’t chase it if I can’t find it. Wikipedia often has it but of course not all writers are there.

  5. You and I have the same reference books, so I can’t add anything except that neither the book nor the author appear in the Annals for 1944 (or 43 or 45) at all. As for ‘If blood should stain the wattle’ that is, as I’m sure you as a good Queenslander know, a line from the Henry Lawson poem Blood on the Wattle celebrating the 1891 shearers’ strike at Barcaldine, Qld. I guess the book was about the strike, especially given the leanings of the ‘Unpopular Pamphlets’.

    • Interesting that such an enterprising and lively sounding publisher has left such a faint trail. I like the fact that they both published a lot of pulp fiction but also a series like these first Australian novels. Perhaps this was before Australian publishing congealed into conformity (would that be totally unfair?).

      • Hmm, it might be a little unfair Ian – at least if we are talking about contemporary publishing i.e. contemporary to now (“contemporary” is a tricky word I’ve decided) but if we are talking that period after they seem to have stopped publishing, i.e. the mid 1950s and on for some time, then you may have some justification! I like the fact that you’ve thrown the idea out there (or here!)

        • Hmm. I wouldn’t say that Australian publishing ‘congealed into conformity’ from the mid-1950s. There was very little Australian publishing until about the mid-late 1970s, at which time there began a great surge of local publishing that finally put Australian books and writing on the cultural map. This exciting period lasted for a couple of decades before the multinationals started taking over everything in sight. Even now I don’t think it’s particularly fair to say that Australian publishing has ‘congealed into conformity’ – there are still some small, independent publishers around doing interesting books.

        • No I certainly didn’t agree in my comment re now, Teresa, given the wonderful range of independents we have, but I wasn’t sure about that earlier period. Sounds like you have a better handle on that than I do, so thanks for contributing your perspective.

    • Haha, Bill, yes I thought of our mutual collections as I checked them!

      Re If blood should stain the wattle, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think it is ABOUT the shearers’ strike. I think it’s more a domestic drama set in the bush. But, I haven’t read it of course.

      • That “congealed into conformity” bit was pretty unfair. I do feel that perhaps all publishing (certainly in the UK) has perhaps lost the openness that would allow a list to take both pulp and literary fictions.

        • Haha, Ian, but it sounded good! I think some of the bigger publishers here do take both – though I suppose it depends on how pulp is pulp! The smaller publishers tend to specialise a bit more.

  6. Do I take it this company no longer exists – I assume so because otherwise you would have gone direct to them and asked for info. If they are not in business, what happened to bring about their demise?

    • Yes, they no longer exist. Died in the early 50s. There was another one of the same name a little later but it’s not believed to be related. I’d love to know more about them but my usual sources are quiet!

  7. AE Minnis was my father, and a man with charm and talent. No, he didn’t get his three published novels, but he did have a wealth of stories to tell from his early adulthood on the road – much like that of his protagonist – and from his experiences as a hunter, an air-force instrument fitter, a horticulturalist, a farmer and an amateur scientist. He was a keen reader, who told of his delight when he walked into a bookshop to see his novel on the shelf – next to Shakespeare’s complete works.

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