Monday musings on Australian literature: Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022)

Frank Moorhouse was one of the grand old men of Australian literature, so when I learned that he’d died yesterday, I knew I had to change my plan for this week’s Monday Musings to feature him. Wikipedia’s introduction to him gives you a sense why I’ve described him as I have: “He won major Australian national prizes for the short story, the novel, the essay, and for script writing. His work has been published in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States and also translated into German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, and Swedish”. Today, he is best known for his Edith trilogy – Grand days, Dark palace and Cold light – the middle of which earned him a Miles Franklin award, but his legacy extends deeper than that.

A major legacy

I first became aware of Moorhouse back in 1975 when I was beginning my librarianship career. It was due to a court case known as University of New South Wales v Moorhouse which concerned the use of photocopying machines to photocopy “infringing portions” of a work in copyright. Wikijuris summarises it nicely if you are interested. The High Court unanimously found that, although the copying was done by a student, the Unviersity was liable for “authorising” infringement. It was a groundbreaking case whose legacy continues today.

The Copyright Agency also tells the story. They explain that Moorhouse was determined to achieve “respect and financial recognition for Australian creators”. He gave permission for his book, The Americans’ Baby, “to be used in a copyright test case” which, the Agency says, has ensured that, today, nearly 50 years later, “creators are fairly remunerated for their work in a digital environment that provides millions of students with access to high quality educational material”. Moreover, the case also resulted in a recognition that “an agency would be needed to collect the royalties generated by the copying of materials to distribute payments to creators”. That agency was the Copyright Agency, which was established in May 1974 for this purpose.

You can imagine that this was exciting stuff for a new, philosophically engaged librarian – we wanted to support creators but we also believed in the importance of libraries being able to provide access to the material students needed. Good copyright law should achieve both and here a fair (acceptable) balance has probably been struck – though I’m sure both sides will have arguments for more.

But of course …

For most readers, Moorhouse’s legacy is in his writing. He was born in Nowra, New South Wales, a beautiful spot less than three hours’ drive from where I live. On leaving school, he began work in 1955 with newspapers, first as a copy boy, and then as reporter and editor. His first short story, “The young girl and the American sailor”, was published in Southerly magazine when he was 18 years old, and he went on to be published in some of Australia’s best literary magazines after that.

In the 1970s he became a full-time fiction writer but he also wrote essays, short stories, journalism and film, radio and TV scripts. He was also, with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, part of the “Sydney Push” (about which I wrote in my review of Richard Appleton’s memoir, Appo.) It was a bohemian, libertarian movement with a strong anti-right wing underpinning. He has led or been heavily involved in many of Australia’s significant writerly organisations, including the Australian Copyright Agency, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Journalists’ Association. In 1985, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Australian literature.

Writing about his death in The Guardian, Sian Cain says this about his work:

Moorhouse wrote prolifically and with irreverence and humour of his passions – food, drink, travel, sex and gender. Early in his fiction, and later in his 2005 memoir, Martini, he wrote frankly about his own bisexuality and androgyny. In his writing, he said, he wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without family – now that procreation is not the only thing that gives sex meaning”.

Tim Barlass wrote something similar in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Moorhouse lived and wrote about the good life – in both senses of the phrase, sometimes paradoxically. With a passion for fine food, cocktails and justice, he fearlessly wrote about the things essential to him.

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light

If didn’t know all that about Frank Moorhouse, I have only to think back to Edith (particularly to Cold Light which I read after I started blogging) to see how it could be true! Edith, Ambrose and their friends knew how to work and play hard. My review of the novel was a little measured, but it is also one of those books that has remained with me. You never know, when you finish a novel, which ones will hang around in the mind for the long run.

I understand that a biography by Catharine Lumby is coming very soon. Barlass quotes her response to his death:

 “Frank Moorhouse was a literary legend. It was an incredible privilege to have a friendship with him and be his biographer. As always, Frank had to have the last word. I started writing the conclusion to his biography this morning and learnt that he had died.”

I can’t think of a better place to end, except to add that I look forward to her biography of this colourful but serious man. Vale Frank Moorhouse.

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022)

  1. Wow. Once again, you’ve broken the news for me, Sue. FM was very definitely one of my literary heroes as an adolescent, and he remains one of my touchstones. I still have my first edition paperback of “Days of Wine and Rage” from 1980 (I got it secondhand; I was too young in that year to have bought it new!) I got to meet him briefly when I was working at the Perth Writers Festival about a decade ago. Amongst his many significant writings is a long, penetrating essay that lays bare the personal and political pitfalls of daring to call oneself a writer (it’s in Meanjin’s back catalogue). To say nothing of his counter-cultural forays in life and in print, as a younger writer. He had the tenacity to edit Coast to Coast in the early Seventies when short stories were venturing towards high art, but hardly anyone in Australia was bothering to write or read them. How things have changed since then. He’s a big loss, for sure.

    • Thanks Glen. How great to have met him. He’s one of those writers – like Garner, for example – who has written across multiple forms and exemplifies the writing life. Will try to search out that Meanjin article.

    • Thanks Lisa … I didn’t want to repeat yours of course, and, in any case, I’ll never forget that court case for the reasons I gave and because I did my my librarianship at UNSW.

  2. I have read very little Moorhouse but your mention of the Sydney Push sent me down a couple of rabbit holes.
    First to a definition – a post WWII libertarian movement;
    thence to our discussion some time ago about Madeline St John.

    On a complete tangent I must get on with reviewing Jack Lindsay’s The Roaring Twenties about an earlier Sydney Push.

  3. There must be an ambivalence in the situation in which Catharine Lumby finds herself: is it better to publish a biography when the subject is dead and unable to take you to task on anything, or to publish while s/he is still alive and can endorse your efforts ? 🙂

    • Good question M-R. Only she can answer. I think if I were a subject I’d rather be gone and leave the biographer to it. Not that you can ever be objective, but it’s probably easier if the subject is not around. Lumby might have the best of both worlds – she’s been able to ask him questions but he’s not here to worry about her interpretation?!

  4. WG This is a fine review of the life of writing and advocacy of FM. As with Glen (above) I, too, once and briefly, met Frank Moorhouse – in 1984. It was at a performance from First Year UNSW Drama students – I think Mai Britt (?) was the Dramaturg (?). I’d provided some assistance to several of the students. I admit I was in awe of his presence.

    • Yes, Jim: I was rather awed, too. There’s a short story in “Conference-ville” in which the narrator detects that they’ve been fawning (his word) on someone else at a conference. I have a feeling I was guilty of the same in Frank’s presence. They say you should never meet your heroes; perhaps one of the reasons is that it reduces the likelihood of you making a prat of yourself (!)

      • Ha ha Glen, I’ve decided though that most authors would rather you made a prat of yourself than that you ignored them. My practice is to get in there, tell them something I like about their work and then get out! I think most authors appreciate that connection with their readers.

  5. So glad that Frank Moorhouse’s contributions are being so appreciated by so many. Memories of him and his work seem to be pouring out of the woodwork. I myself can’t get enough of it, my regret being that he’s no longer around to read what fine things people are saying about him. Our paths crossed now and then, and one incident we shared formed the basis of a short story I wrote. When I told him it had been published he laughed and said, ‘You beat me to it, Sara.’ It’s all coming back. On one occasion my mother was with me, it must have been a writers festival or something, and we sat at a table with Frank and some other people. I think I’d been interesting to him because of my having been American (The Americans, Baby) and my mother was even more so. At one point she said, ‘People think I’m rich, just because I’m American.’ Frank looked at her carefully and contradicted that, ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’re rich’ and she didn’t know quite what to make of that. The last time I saw him was at Mosman Town Hall. I’d taken a Swedish friend to hear him being interviewed by Don Anderson, wanting her to see ‘a giant of Australian literature’. It must have been in 2011 after Cold Light had come out. He spotted me in the audience and afterwards said he was nervous about seeing me, wondering whether or not I’d thought he’d captured Canberra with it. I assured him he had, and then some. So sad that he’s gone. I got my payment from the Copyright Agency only this week.

    • Oh that’s a lovely reflection Sara. Thanks so much for sharing. I loved his “history” of Canberra in Cold light – the story of the lake, etc, in particular.

      And what a legacy that Copyright Agency is. In that same year, 1975, I started work in the public library section of the National Library and my “big” (ie not direct) boss was Anthony Ketley who was on the Public Lending Right Committee, and was involved in establishing that system of payments for books borrowed from libraries. Hopefully you also get money from it too?

  6. I love all the personal connections that are here – for you and for your other commentors. It says a lot about Moorhouse and his legacy.
    I only heard half of the interview with his biographer on ABC Sydney yesterday, but it sounds like they enjoyed a productive working relationship.

    • I haven’t heard that yet Brona, but I gathered from some things I read that she already knew him before she started on the biography. I will try to catch the interview – if I can.

      And yes, the connections have been fascinating.

  7. Goodness, not someone I knew of but what a major figure. I had to smile at your “less than three hours’ drive from where I live” – I did a quick check and you can get to pretty well the whole of England, all round the edges, and Wales, in three hours from where I am. A lesson in relative distances!

    • Haha Liz …. We Aussies often compare distances here and in the UK. Three hours is a piece of cake here but there’s no big city I can reach from Canberra in that time – though we can get to the outskirts of Sydney and to some fair sized regional towns. As I write I’m in the car driving from Melbourne to Canberra … that would be 7 hours without stopping, and that’s only a small section of Australia.

      • Here’s my distance comparison: I commute regularly between Alice Springs and Umuwa, a community on the APY Lands. The distance for the round trip by road (which can be done in a day) is almost identical to driving from London to Newcastle and back again. About half of that is on dirt and gravel. I found out the other day that the road distance between Alice and Uluru is nearly equal to the most direct route between London and Penzance.

  8. Moorhouse’s description as a bohemian and his laid-back attitude reminds me of American author Tom Robbins. I wonder if you’ve read or heard of him, and it so, if you enjoyed his work.

  9. Pingback: Dark Palace #EdithReadalong

  10. Pingback: A tiny footnote on Frank Moorhouse | Me fail? I fly!

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