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Monday musings on Australian literature: FAW Activities (1)

February 8, 2021

FAW, or, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, was established in Sydney in 1928. Its exact origins are uncertain but the Oxford Companion of Australian Literature believes that the poet Dame Mary Gilmore was encouraged by another poet Roderic Quinn, to hold a meeting of writers. Poet, critic and professor of literature John Le Gay Brereton became the president. I have written before about the triumvirate – Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison – who were actively involved in the Fellowship in its early days. Indeed, in 1937, Davison was elected President, and Eldershaw, one of the vice-presidents.

My aim today is not to discuss the origins, but I will just share this from an early 1929 newspaper report about the Association’s early days:

it is evident, that before very long the organisation, in a numerical sense, will be remarkably representative, and in a position to increase in a practical way the popularity of Australian literature. At the present time local unattached writers, with very few exceptions, have an extremely hard row to hoe, but it is hoped that the efforts of the Fellowship, will materially alter this position and open up new avenues of hope and actual success.

Now to today’s topic which is to have a look at what events and talks FAW ran for its members over its first decade, from 1928 to 1937. I found the information in Trove, of course, mostly from announcements of coming meetings rather than reports of meetings held, so the detail is minimal.

Most of the “events” in these early years were part of their regular meetings, rather than being offered as separate events (like today’s festivals, workshops, and so on). And most were speakers, but there were also discussions, readings and performances. Below is a small selection of those I found, with the year-links being to the appropriate newspaper article.

Talks and papers

The talks and papers varied, with the most common topics being the lives of writers or other figures in the arts, the practice of writing, and the state of the Australian literary scene. I’ve listed my selection alphabetically by speaker.

  • Fred Broomfield, a journalist, on “Henry Lawson and his critics” (1930): according to the ADB “Tradition has it that Broomfield accepted Henry Lawson’s first Bulletin contribution”.
  • Jack Adrian Clapin, a solicitor, on literature and copyright laws (1929)
  • Winifred Hamilton on “Critics and Gloom” (1929)
  • Professor Le Gay Brereton on “Some Australian books” (1931)
  • Dr. G. Mackaness, President of FAW, on the progress made in the quality and quantity of Australian art and literature (I wonder what he said?) (1932)
  • Dorothy Mannix and John Longden, of Cinesound Studio, and Eric Bedford, of United Artists, on “Writing for the Talkies” (1935)
  • Sydney Elliott Napier, writer and poet, on “Books, Libraries, and Places I Have Visited.” (1930)
  • Rev. Father Eris O’Brien, “an authority on early Australian literature”, on “The Work of Dr. Ullathorne” (1930)
  • Very Rev. Dr. M. J. O’Reilly on “John O’Brien” (author of Round the Boree Log“): A report on this meeting said that “Dr. O’Reilly said that O’Brien’s poetry was not great. It provided recreation, however, and also preserved the image of the old type of Irish settler”. Is this a case of being damned with faint praise? (1931)
  • Peardon Pearce Packham on the life of past Bulletin editor, JF Archibald (1929)
  • Roderic Quinn on his associations and friendships with various Australian writers and editors (1929)
  • Steele Rudd on “How I wrote On our selection” (1929)
  • Sir Keith Smith, who, with his brother Ross, was the first to fly from England to Australia, on “The Pen and the ‘Plane” (sounds intriguing, eh?) (1931)
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson, writer, publisher and political activist, on “The Future of Literature in Australia” (1932)
  • E. M. Tildesley, honorary secretary of the British Drama League, on “The British Drama League and the Australian Dramatist” (1937)

There was an interesting report of a 1933 meeting. It’s not clear whether the meeting comprised a discussion or three papers, but it notes that:

  • Cecil Mann, journalist and short story writer, said, regarding what editors wanted that “there were no standards; it was all a matter of appropriateness. Each paper had an inner spiritual character, and every freelance writer must make an acquaintance with this if he hoped to have his articles accented”.
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson said that ‘there was no recipe for a “best seller.”‘ He said that only one book in a hundred was a good seller, and only five or six out of 15,000 published became best sellers. “To be successful, he said, books must be deliberately constructed, filled with inspiration, and polished and repolished before they were published. The public was not interested in anything not original, and the publisher was not running a correspondence course in authorship. The author must sub-edit his work, knock out about one-third of his words, “ring the bell” every five chapters, and round off a great character.” (Your heard it here!)
  • Eric Baume, journalist, novelist and radio personality, suggested there things were currently good for the freelance writers, that was “a greater call for Australian stories”, and that “Australian short stories were just as vital as those from elsewhere”.

Performances, readings, etc

Other sorts of meetings included discussions and debates. At an early 1929 meeting “an enthusiastic discussion took place on ways and means of winning the Australian public over to a practical interest in Australian literature”, and in 1936 the Fellowship debated the Sydney University Union on “That literature should be romantic rather than realistic.”‘ I would love to have been there!

There were also play readings (such as in 1930, the reading of Harry Tighe’s four-act play, Open Spaces), short story readings, poetry recitations, and even, sometimes, musical performances.

In 1931, FAW was behind a benefit concert for “distressed Australian authors”. Supporting Australian authors, particularly those who were struggling at the end of their lives, was an important FAW objective (at least from my past FAW research).

And now a question for you: Do you think literature should be “should be romantic rather than realistic”?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2021 23:13

    Hmm, tough question. for me, it’s the quality of the ideas that matter, not the style.
    I’ve read a fair bit of Australian realism and it can be very good, and also very dull. (Yes, I’m thinking of Vance Palmer).

    • February 8, 2021 23:17

      Haha, Lisa … it’s too long since I’ve read Vance Palmer to respond to that. Interesting point though that you make re ideas versus style. I’d say substance is more important than style to me, but style is very important too. I don’t much like style without substance, but substance without style? Well, it’s not “art”, not “literature”, is it?

      Re this debate, there would have been a really interesting discussion methinks about the definition of “romantic”. I can imagine those supporting “romantic” defining it in all sorts of serious and even, perhaps, funny ways to argue their point.

  2. February 8, 2021 23:21

    Was the question asked? We saw of course that the thirties were a time for realism – realism about urban life, following on from the bush realism of the Bulletin years. Depending how you define Romance, the last romance writers were Boldrewood or Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge, decades earlier.

    Prior to the FAW the main writers’ group in Sydney was the Push, in the 1920s, around Jack Lindsay. We know that their society was not suitable for nice young ladies like Marjorie Barnard, and I wonder how the transition came about.

    • February 8, 2021 23:30

      It would be great to know, Bill, what was behind the debate’s question, wouldn’t it? But, like you, I think it wold depend very much on how “romance” or “romantic” was defined, but I like your suggestions of “romance” writers.

      Marjorie Barnard. I guess she was a nice young lady, but she did apparently have an affair with a married man so she wasn’t a prudish nice young lady?

      It’s a shame that there seems to be not a lot known about the formation of FAW but I reckon someone researching the papers of writers at the time could probably put more of it together?

    • February 8, 2021 23:31

      (Oops, yes, Bill, the question was put in a debate that FAW took part in. Is that what you meant by “was the question asked?”

      • February 8, 2021 23:39

        Yes, I meant is that a question the FAW considered. I wonder why they had Romance on their minds. Re Barnard, I have the impression that before the FAW, young women wrote from home and without any fellows to give them support. (I think the FAW rather threw Barnard and FDD together.)

        • February 9, 2021 01:11

          Yes, I wonder too. We could posit all sorts of ideas but possibly not get the right one.

          You are probably right re young women and writing back then. I did do quite a bit of reading about Barnard and Eldershaw a decade or so ago. She and Eldershaw used to have a sort of literary salon for a while. Did people like Xavier Herbert attend? I think so.

  3. February 9, 2021 00:51

    I love the Fellowships’s varied topics over the years! I bet the refreshments evolved too – strong drink and cigars, perhaps, in the early years. Thank you for sharing that.

    Regarding romantic vs. realistic, I suppose anything that involves the imagination could be considered romantic although there is a trend of condescension towards romance, per se. I think both are essential although I usually prefer my reading not to be too realistic! Maybe that is a holdover from my years in publishing when I had to read everything (or bits of) we published, some of it dreadful.

    • February 9, 2021 01:14

      Oh, thanks Constance. I Iove that you’ve thought about refreshments.

      Interesting point re “romantic” being related more to the imagination. Perhaps that’s why I tend more to the realistic! I don’t see myself as particularly imaginative.

  4. February 9, 2021 06:10

    “The author must sub-edit his work, knock out about one-third of his words, “ring the bell” every five chapters, and round off a great character.”
    Fine. There you go, authors .. :\
    (Oddly, ST, I see myself as highly imaginative, but I lack one iota of ability to write fiction.)
    Your use of the word “literature” makes your question difficult in the context of that statement from Stephenson, it seems to me ..
    P.S. The 2021 version of the Australian Women Writers Challenge clipart has the ‘MBC’ logo’s head exploding – or maybe being a scarecrow. Greatly preferred the hat being solid. Sorry for the petty detail.

    • February 9, 2021 15:48

      He was pretty direct, eh, M-R. No molly-coddling authors there!

      I don’t think that’s particularly odd, M-R, re being imaginative but not being able to write fiction. Imagination comes in many many guises, and I see you have plenty of imagination in your non-fiction book, and in your arty craft!

      Interested in your comment on the AWW Logo. Don’t apologise. I hadn’t thought of that though I can see what you are saying. I see it as wildflowers on the hat. But, I don’t know what the creator was aiming for.

  5. February 9, 2021 09:37

    Fascinating history.

    As for the realistic verses romantic. I think that we need both kinds. I love both kinds. The world would be a duller place if we only had one kind.

  6. February 9, 2021 10:25

    I had no idea this group had such a long history. There is a branch here. I was a member for a couple of years to get their newsletter. I think there is room for all kinds of writing but I do get annoyed by a certain group that are trendy readers. I have even heard disparaging remarks about the books of a deceased author because he didn’t win the awards but his books sold like crazy. I know the academics dissect it all but sometimes I think it is overdone to the detriment of simply enjoying a book in one’s chosen area of delight.

    • February 9, 2021 16:04

      Thanks Pam, you don’t really hear much about FAW now, with all the writers’ centres around do you.

      I take your point about trendy readers, particularly if they are disparaging about other sorts of reading, but I fear I may fall more into the “trendy” side – if it means writing that mixes things up a bit. The thing is that some love dissecting books, films, paintings, whatever, while others just want to enjoy? There should be room and respect for both.

  7. Meg permalink
    February 9, 2021 12:35

    Hi Sue, I enjoy both romantic and realistic books. It depends on my mood which one of the two I pick up to read first. My reading pile is very high! Though, I do think I receive more satisfaction from realistic books.

  8. February 14, 2021 10:52

    I note that (1), but in re-reading an old review I have come across a reference to FAW after the War having their own publishing house, The Australian Pocket Library, supported by the Commonwealth Literary Fund. You didn’t say ‘I already knew that’ in Comments so I bring it once more to your attention
    https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/old-blastus-of-bandicoot/

    • February 14, 2021 11:13

      Haha Bill, it never hurts to remind me of things I’ve read. I “may” have read about that when I was researching the triumvirate back around 2007, but if I did, I didn’t remember and hence no “I knew that” back in 2017! Glad to have it brought to my attention again now.

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