Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s most successful writer, ever

The obvious question to ask when someone makes a “best ever” claim is by what criteria? The easiest way to justify “best” is with numbers. And so it is here, as it’s with numbers that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin’s blog, Things Made From Letters, suggests that Morris West is “Australia’s most successful writer, ever.” The numbers are sales of course. According to Allen & Unwin (A&U), West’s books have sold over 70 million* copies around the world – more, apparently, than any other Australian author.

Morris West, The shoes of the fishermanAnd yet, I wonder how many readers here know – or have read – Morris West. He wrote nearly 30 novels, not to mention radio serials, plays and non-fiction, and his work was translated into 28 languages. His most famous novels were The devil’s advocate  (1959), which made him an international best-seller, and The shoes of the fisherman (1963). These, and a few others, were adapted to film.

West was born in Melbourne in 1916, and died in 1999. The Oxford companion to Australian literature says that he was a member of the Christian Brothers order for 12 years, but that he left in 1940 before taking his final vows. This is relevant because he was known for writing about the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding its role in international affairs. During World War 2 he worked as a cipher officer and was briefly private secretary to ex-PM Billy Hughes. After the war, he worked in radio, and founded, in fact, Australian Radio Productions.

However, as the A&U blog says, he “was determined to build a career as a writer, and as for so many artists, musicians and writers before the 1980s, the only way to do that was to move overseas.” And so he did, living in Europe and the USA from 1955 to 1980. He clearly maintained contact with Australia during this time because in the early 1960s, he helped found the Australian Society of Authors. The A&U blogger is particularly interested to know why such an apparently successful writer is barely known today, indeed completely unknown to her “younger colleagues”. She offers a few reasons. One is that except for a couple of early novels, all his books are set overseas. “Is Australian literary culture reluctant to acknowledge a novelist who doesn’t write about Australia?”, she asks. Or is it that “an increasingly secular Australia is now uncomfortable reading fiction which takes religion seriously?” Even though he wrote this fiction with a critical eye?

But then there’s the issue of “literary” quality. The A&U blogger quotes the AustLit database as stating that his fiction “has not received a great deal of literary attention.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, writing about Australian fiction from 1900 to 1970 in The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, names West, along with Ion L. Idriess and Jon Cleary, as writers who were very popular in their time but who “tended to be dismissed by their ‘serious’ peers and by later literary historians as middle-brow.”  She describes his books as looking at public institutions, usually political or religious ones, on the international stage and dealing with “the moral dilemmas they pose for the individual”. These three writers are probably the equivalent of my generation’s Colleen McCullough and Bryce Courtenay?

Morris West, The clowns of GodSo, why the interest now? Well, you may not be surprised to hear that Allen & Unwin is re-publishing most of his work – in print and e-version. (The book covers here are from this new series). Author Simon Caterson writing in The Monthly refers to this reissue and asks what West has to offer contemporary readers. Good question. He talks about the subject matter, suggesting that the “fascination with church politics and influence” is of continuing interest. Books keep coming out dealing with these, he says, just think The Da Vinci Code!

What makes West worth reissuing is, he suggests, West’s ability “to turn the intellectual and emotional struggles within his faith – his own and that of others – into gripping melodrama.” Moreover, he says that

it makes commercial sense to bring back the books of Morris West, whose big themes – conscience versus power, the individual versus the institution – are as relatable to the struggles of secular – as much as religious – life.

And finally, there’s the writing. Caterson sums it up this way:

It is also important to note that West could not have sold tens of millions of copies of his books without knowing how to make the pages turn. The prose may sometimes be prolix and the endings not always satisfying, but his writing is always full blooded and, for the most part, remarkably fluent.

Middle-brow perhaps, but a good read it seems. And as someone who loves seeing older Australian writers being read again – even those who didn’t write about Australia! – I’m happy to see this blast from my past being published again. Good on Allen & Unwin. I hope, just as I continue to hope for Text Classics, that they do well.

* Wikipedia says 60 million, but I think that might be based on figures around the time of his death.

36 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s most successful writer, ever

  1. Well, I hesitate to take issue with someone of the stature of Kerryn Goldsworthy, but on the basis of the one book I’ve read, The Devil’s Advocate ( I would say that Morris West definitely outclasses Ion Idress (who wrote pulp fiction) and Jon Cleary (who mostly wrote detective fiction), and that McCullough and Courtenay are not even remotely in his league. (And yes, I have read McCullough and Courtenay and regret the time wasted in both cases).
    West was not (as far as I know) a modernist, so he was not literary in that sense, but his fiction is of the same type as Graham Greene’s. Not because of the interest in Catholicism but because he used fiction to explore complex moral issues in an era when the church was inflexible while values and standards were changing.
    Anyway, I’m glad you’ve written this post because I see from my own review that I planned to read more of MW and now that there’s going to be a reissue of his oeuvre, his novels won’t be so hard to find:)

    • Thanks Lisa. I must say I’ve read none of these at all though I grew up with the earlier three being around. I think the film The sundowners was based on an Idriess novel but I’ve never read the book. People tell me McCullough Rome series is good.

      And I’ve just realised that I’ve just told a whopper. I did read The thornbirds when we went to live in California in the early nineties. It didn’t inspire me to read more.

      • I know I’ve read something by Idress, but I can’t remember what it was. He was a referenced as a fraud, if I remember correctly in one of Roger McDonald’s books, When Colts Ran (I think) so I wanted to see what his writing was like and dug up something online. It was woeful. But Morris West, I think, withstands the test of time.

        • All I really recollect of Idriess is his Flynn of the Inland book though I haven’t read it. My parents were very interested in Flynn. Idriess wrote a lot so it’s possible I suppose his output could be variable in quality? Anyhow, that’s good about West. Clearly A&U agree.

  2. I read at least those two growing up but more as well I would have thought, though I checked and didn’t recognise any titles. I agree with Lisa about the comparison with other authors – I would compare him with Thomas Keneally – except for Idriess. Idriess, Frank Clune and Ernestine Hill were writer/journalists whose popularity, and importance, arose from their ability to report the Outback to suburban Australians.

    • Yes I think you’re right Bill, re Cleary, Idriess et al and the outback. That’s largely how I remember them. I nearly mentioned Keneally myself in my post, but decided that he has quite a high “literary” end as well as his more popular output – or so it seems to me?

      • I think Keneally started out literary but in the end what quality he had was spread over too much quantity. You can only imagine that competent writers like Morris West started out thinking they were going to be literary but more or less slipped into more accessible story telling.

        • Yes, I think that’s right. I’ve read Keneally’s two novels that won the MF in 1967 and 1968 and they are unrecognisable with his output now. They were written in a High Modernist style like Patrick White. (Well, not really, no one is like PW, but you know what I mean). Still, I would still put Keneally in a different league to Courtney and McCullough: he is a grand storyteller, like Balzac in the way that his output covers so many aspects of Australian life and history – but his writing style and structure is more sophisticated then theirs, and the themes he explores are more complex too.

  3. I loved reading Morris West in my teens and early adulthood as I’ve always lived a good mystery. Not sure I’ve read them all, but certainly many of them. Totally agree with Lisa’s comments – I knew nothing about the RC Church before I read him.

  4. Slap me with a wet noodle. I had no idea MW was Australian. I grew up with his books on every newsstand and airport shelf. I know readers who loved them but they were mostly male. I have not read any myself. But I have been aware of him for years. Good post.

  5. Hi Sue, I read Morris West when I was a teen, I think my Mum introduced me to his books. I read a few, always intriguing plots. I think it also began when the political parties of the DLP and ALP were in conflict. As you say politics and religion were themes in his books, and they always leads to a good discussion. If I ever time, I would read Shoes of a Fisherman again.

  6. I read Proteus in 2010, the only book I have ever read of his, and I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads at the time but I can’t remember anything about it. I had forgotten he was Australian.

  7. I have seen the film version of The Shoes of the Fisherman. I remember liking it. I often like things that are labeled “middlebrow”. Based on your discription and upon the film, I think that I might like Morris West.

      • Middlebrow is such a damning with faint praise term! Middlebrow writing often dates pretty quickly but it sounds like Morris West’s themes and scope might make him readable again.

        • I know Ian, which is why I said “so-called”. Somehow we feel the need to describe how we feel about what we read, to distinguish what we like, what we don’t like, what we think’s OK and what we think is really poor. I think you’re right about the “dating” but. That’s probably a pretty good criterion.

          Anyhow, I’m gad you think he might be readable again. I rather think so too.

Leave a Reply to whisperinggums Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s