Monday musings on Australian literature: Warm Winter Read

For several years now, Cathy of 746 books has been running a 20 Books of Summer challenge, which many Southern Hemisphere bloggers re-frame as “of Winter”. It’s a great initiative, and this year has over 120 participants. You go, Cathy! However, for something closer to home that’s geared to this winter, I thought I’d share with you Warm Winter Read. It is an initiative of Public Libraries Victoria, and I read about it on Angela Savage’s blog. Well-known as an author, Angela is also the CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.

As a retired librarian, I love checking out what libraries are doing – and when they encourage reading AND Australian authors and books, then I’m on side.

The program’s aim, Angela says, is “to encourage readers to develop a daily reading habit by tracking the days they read over June and July 2022”. It has been taken up by most of Victoria’s library services, and involves an app – the Beanstack app (here) – through which participants can log daily reading, take part in optional challenges and share book reviews. Apparently the optional challenges include things like, Angela writes, “read outside your home; read aloud to a pet, person or plant; and talk about what you’re reading in person or online”.

This is all great, but I’m mainly sharing it with you because the campaign has eight ambassadors, who are all “high-profile” Victorian authors. Each of these was asked to recommend four books to get readers started (although people can read any books). There are apparently bookmarks for each author, containing their recommendations.

The ambassadors are a diverse bunch (links on their names are to my posts on them) and so are their recommended books, which range across a wide variety of forms and genres, fiction and non-fiction. Their recommendations are:

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke: Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning; Claire G. Coleman’s Lies, damned lies; Alice Pung’s One hundred days; Ennis Cehić’s Sadvertising
  • Claire G Coleman: Omar Sakr’s Son of sin; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s How decent folk behave; Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s (ed), Unlimited futures; Evelyn Araluen’s Drop bear
  • Helen Garner: Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end; David Owen Kelly’s State of origin; Larissa Behrendt’s After story; Gabbie Stroud’s Teacher
  • Jane Harper: Sally Hepworth’s The younger wife; Karina Kilmore’s Where the truth lies; Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault; Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in my family has killed someone
  • Toni Jordan: Genevieve Novak’s No hard feelings; Emily Spurr’s A million things; R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys; Paddy O’Reilly’s Other people’s houses
  • Rebecca Lim: Amani Haydar’s The mother wound; Trent Jamieson’s Day boy; Cixin Liu’s The three-body problem; Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay
  • Jock Serong: Emma Viskic’s Those who perish; Robert Gott’s The orchard thieves; Emily Brugman’s The islands; Michael Winkler’s Grimmish
  • Christos Tsiolkas: Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon; Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl; Andy Jackson’s Music our bodies can’t hold; Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin

I have not heard of all these books, let alone read them, but I can see that the list offers something for most readers and should kickstart some thinking about what to read.

Different library services are promoting the program in different ways. Here are some: Goldfields Libraries; Hume Libraries; and Yarra Plenty Regional Library. BUT as I pottered around some of the sites, I also picked up other things that libraries are doing. For example, the Warrnambool Library advertises that it can help members access their vaccination certificates. What a great service for the less technologically proficient in our communities. I love how modern public libraries are comprehending and expressing their role as community information centres.

Also, in some communities, the local newspaper has got behind the program too. What about this one from the Shepparton News:

Come into your local library to check out a Warm Winter Read. You’ll find hot romances, spicy thrillers and toasty tales of fun and adventure. You can register and log your participation via the Beanstack website at www.plv.beanstack.orgor by downloading the Beanstack Tracker app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

For readers who prefer ‘old-school’, pick up a tracking sheet from your local library. Lots of challenges to keep the next few months interesting.

And here I will leave you. This is a pretty short and simple Monday Musings, partly because I have joined the growing number of bloggers who have contracted COVID-19. So, while I’m not very sick, thanks to being fully vaccinated, I’m also not wonderfully chipper and need now to go take a nap!

Meanwhile, here’s a job for you: what would you have recommended if you’d been asked to suggest four books for a program like this? (And if you’re not Aussie, you can choose non-Aussie books!)

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 4, Adventure novels

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, it became clear as I delved into Trove that certain genres or forms kept recurring in the reviews and articles I was reading about Australian literature. I plan to share them over the next few 1922 posts, starting with adventure in this post.

You might remember that my first 1922-themed post was on the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Adventure novels, it seems, were among their popular fare. A brief article in The Australian Worker (22 February) discusses a couple such novels, but starts by saying that the N.S.W. Bookstall Co.

continues to deliver the goods, and as the goods, in the shape of vigorous yarns by Australian writers, appear to be selling well enough to make a further continuation certain, the company can be congratulated in believing years ago that local talent would make good if it were given the chance hitherto denied it.

Adventure novels

Some of you might remember a recent Monday Musings I did on Australia’s favourite genres, in which I reported that a Swiss-based study had determined that Adventure and Classics were our favourites. I won’t revisit that now, as you can read the post and its source information yourself if you’d like, but I was surprised that Adventure seemed so popular now. I am not so surprised, however, given the still relative newness of the Australian settler colony in 1922, that adventure was popular then. What did surprise me, however, was that, despite the longstanding strength of the bush myth, the bush was not the main setting I found – but I did find a few.

One was titled The black opal. I don’t know how many novels have been titled The black opal, but they abound, including Katharine Susannah Prichard’s of 1921. In 1922, however, there was one by journalist-cum-novelist Jack North. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (16 September) writes that it is sub-titled “A story of Australian love and adventure”, but that

it is more than that. Notwithstanding the melodramatic incident which Percy Lindsay selected for his cover design, The black opal is a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city.

I think “Jack North” might be a pseudonym. He had written, at that time, two other popular novels, Harry Dale’s Grand National and The son of the bush, plus, apparently, scenarios for the “movies”. (The article writer used those quotation marks for this clearly still strange new medium.)

A more traditional-sounding bush-adventure novel is Roy Bridges’ historical fiction, The cards of fortune, which the writer in the Kandina and Wallaroo Times (20 December), says is set in “the stirring days of the first settlement in Tasmania”. (Not sure all would call those days “stirring”, at least with a positive connotation!) It is, says the writer, “an appealing love story which is developed with the aid of stirring adventure”. (There’s “stirring” again”.) The novel, about a bushranger hunt, is described as a “bright little story of the early days”. Adventure novels are, I guess, escapist!

Island adventure novels

The most common adventure novels I found, however, were island adventures, which I think could qualify as a sub-genre?

The Australian Worker article I mentioned in this post’s opening briefly discusses two novels, S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island and Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven. The reviewer clearly admires the publisher, but not necessarily these books. They are both set to the northeast of Australia, and, s/he says,

are big-bulged with thrilling adventures in those places where the codes of life, to put it mildly, are not exactly of the parlor or the Sunday school variety.

They hope “this island type of yarn won’t be overdone”, because, they say

There’s plenty of love, and adventure, and goodness, and badness in Australia without going north-east in a boat to look for these elements of a readable story.

I will digress briefly here to say a little about Jack McLaren (1884-1954), because he was quite a prolific and popular writer. According to Wikipedia, he wrote novels based on his own experiences and was renowned for his “authenticity of background”. The son of a minister, he apparently ran away from school when he was 16, and worked as a cabin boy and seaman before landing in North Queensland in 1902. For the next 10 years he worked and travelled around the islands north and northeast of Australia, like Fiji, Java, New Guinea, Malaya and the Solomon Islands. He wrote for The Bulletin before turning to novels in 1919. Feathers in heaven was around his 7th novel.

The writer in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times (8 March) says that McLaren was one of Australia’s most popular authors. Feathers in heaven, this writer says, “is a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise … [and] … of course there is a girl in the story”. For this writer, the novel offers “wholesome adventure”.

Our Kadina and Wallaroo Times writer also discusses Powell’s Hermit Island, identifying it as being “of the Islands adventure class”, and set “off the beaten track” in Tahiti. It involves suspicion of piracy, for which there is “circumstantial evidence” and “develops rapidly to a wholly unexpected climax”. Sydney’s Sun (12 February), reviewing the same novel, makes a strong point about its Australian quality, starting the review with:

For a fine adventure story, neatly told, it is not always necessary to go overseas. Here is an Australian author, S. W. Powell, who knows the knack. Hermit Island is excellent value … The yarn is as capably done and as well imagined as any that comes out of California, and it has the advantage of speaking our own Australian language. 

S.W. Powell had, at the time, written four popular island-adventure novels. The genre was clearly a goer back in the 1920s.

Another reviewer, this time in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (18 July), discusses Powell’s The pearls of Cheong Tah. Like the previous reviewers, this one comments on Powell’s inclusion of humour in his novels – along with tragedy and romance.

Some random concluding observations

Did you notice the focus on “wholesome”? “Little” things like this provide such insight into their times.

Also, I struggled to find cover images. These books may have been popular, but most were cheap paperbacks and have not, apparently, survived well. Neither have the literary reputations of most of their authors. As always, it’s interesting to see how popular authors of a time fare over the long term. Could it be argued that the more popular a work, the greater the likelihood of appealing to more ephemeral interests and tastes and therefore of dating?

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 2, Reviewers on Australianness

This is the second post in a series I plan to do this year inspired by articles in Trove from 1922, that is, from 100 years ago. My first post was on the NSW Bookstall Company, and I have several more 1922 post ideas. However, I thought a good choice for the second one would be to share some of the things reviewers/critics/ columnists at that time were saying about “Australianness” in the writing. Representing Australia – writing Australian novels – seemed to be important. But what did that mean to them?

I’ll start by repeating something from my first 1922 post. The columnist from Freeman’s Journal (July), wrote that Vance Palmer’s upcoming book, The boss of Killara, was “an entertaining story, … most entertainingly written, and … true in every detail to Australian bush-life”. I wanted to share this again because, by the 1920s, Australia was (and had been for some time) a highly urbanised nation, and yet bush-life seemed to define us in most reviewers’ (and presumably our own) eyes. It suggests that was our point of difference from the rest of the world, regardless of the truth of our lives.

Note that not all books discussed in 1922 were published that year, but most were.

Historical fiction

I didn’t come across a lot of historical fiction, but there were some, and when I did, reviewers were interested, naturally, in whether the past was properly evoked. The Western Mail’s (November) reviewer approved of J.H.M. Abbott’s Ensign Calder, saying that “The writer’s descriptions of life in Sydney, early in the nineteenth century during the governorship of Macquarie, are very faithfully rendered”. Wikipedia’s brief article on Abbott quotes Miller and Macartney from their book, Australian literature. Miller and Macartney describe his writing as being “of a simple kind, without subtleties or motive or characterization, against a background of the Australian past as revealed by historical records, and introducing actual personages”. So, not great literary writing, but accurate. This assessment (acceptance) was, I found, also a fairly common thread in 1922.

Romance and adventure

I will write more about adventure in a later post, because it seemed to be a popular genre. However, it’s worth sharing here some reviewers’ thoughts relevant to this week’s topic.

One adventure story exponent was Walter G Henderson. He was a country solicitor and grazier, as well as writer, and his novel, Bush bred (serialised in 1918, published 1922), was an adventure romance. J. Penn, who wrote for Adelaide’s Observer, called it (July) “a truly Australian product”, then described the wild adventures of its protagonists, including on the goldfields north of Port Augusta. He notes – and I found it interesting that this is one of the things he chose to emphasise – that “the author’s knowledge of camels and their ways is extensive”. Penn also writes that the 1922 edition included a commendation from Viscount Novar who, says Penn, claims that “the preservation of fugitive incident, illustrating different phases of life in a developing country, is a valuable contribution to literature.” Here, at least, is a reference to the idea of “illustrating different phases of life”.

Another popular adventure book was Jack North’s The black opal, which The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (May), describes as “a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city”. See!

Mrs Norman (aka Mabel) Brookes’ novel, Old desires, is set partly in Cairo, but, writes the reviewer in Adelaide’s The Mail (October),

Separate from its dramatic qualities, the book is most admirable in its prelude chapters of way-back Australian life. Description of the recognisable routine, normal and often exciting, of station experience in the great interior, has, of its kind, seldom been more truthfully achieved. Occasional conventions link it, nevertheless, to a standard of accomplishment more familiar. Harris tweeds here preserve their familiar and apparently irresistible smell. That Mary, climbing through the stockyard fence, should vouchsafe a generous display of stocking is unimpressive to reading mankind inured to daily main street exhibition requiring neither fence nor stile.

As I’ve said before about these older Trove articles, I love their formal language. Formal this may be, but we get the gist that her description of Australian (station) life is authentic, albeit her English origins can’t help creeping in. Oh, and poor Mary, showing off her stocking unnecessarily, given the (city) worldliness of her readers!

What seemed to be mostly admired about “Australian” novels was not so much their exploration of Australian identity, or other themes, or their writing, but their description of Australian life. The reviewer in Brisbane’s Telegraph (August) of William Anderson’s The silent sin says

The great merit of this story in our eyes is that it is thoroughly Australian. The characters are Australian, and for the most part the scenes are laid in New South Wales and Queensland. For the rest it is told without pretension to literary ornament. 

Realist fiction

Then as now, older books were given new life, and one such book was William Lane’s 1892 novel The workingman’s paradise (my review). The report is not about a new publication, but about its being serialised in Brisbane’s Daily Standard (August). The columnist writes – remember, this is 30 years after its original publication – that

It is truly a remarkable book, more remarkable now, perhaps, than when it was published, because it is as inspiring to-day as it was intended to be then, and its story of the class struggle and road that lies before the Labor movement has increased in significance by the developments of the last quarter-century.

At last, a book that deals with some critical issues! Yes, yes, I’m showing my colours, I know, but I’m sure that won’t surprise you!

This is a brief, and superficial survey, but it comes from several pages of Trove hits and is a fair representation of what I saw as trends at the time. I have found some, let us say, outlier articles, which I will also share as 2022 progresses!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (2)

Last Monday I introduced the Australian Pocket Library (APL) which was a series of cheap paperbacks produced under the auspices of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF). Its initial purpose was to provide Australian reading matter to Australian POWs but, in its final form, was intended by the CLF to play a bigger role in promoting Australian literature at home too. Planning started in 1943, with publication occurring between 1944 and 1947.

In last week’s post I shared part of an article on the APL by academic, Neil James, and some thoughts on the selection by a contemporary critic and literary editor, RG Howarth who discussed the library, taking as his starting point that the library was intended to contain “standard” works. I will return to James, but first, more from contemporary commentators on Trove.

Standard?

I’ve chosen to focus on P.I. O’Leary (1888-1944), a journalist and poet who, like Howarth, was committed to promoting Australian literature, and who also took up the “standard” question. P.I.O’L (his by-line) wrote an extended article about the APL in the Books and Bookman magazine of the Advocate in 1944 (17 May). He commences his article, titled “We parade our masterpieces”, with:

What is a “standard” Australian book? How many of the books selected by the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund to form the nucleus of an “Australian Pocket Library” are “standard” works? These and other points in this commendable enterprise are here considered.

Overall, he commends the endeavour, because too many works have been out of print. He sees the Library as representing “a belated national appreciation” of Australian writers. He is “not heady with any enthusiasm for an attempted, forced growth of literature in Australia”, he says, arguing that you cannot force produce great novels or great poems. However, “Australia has, and has had, many subsidised industries—and there is no reason why the literary industry … should not have some assistance in the shape of grants to writers”. Then he gets onto the issue of “standard”.

He doesn’t really know ‘what entitles an Australian literary work to be styled a “standard” book’, he says, but supposes that

Robbery under arms has passed the test, together with, say, We of the Never-Never, On the track and Over the sliprail, Such is life, and a handful of other books.

However, the selection of some of the other books as “standard” works, “sets up an energetic speculation as to what special passport a book must carry in order to cross the frontier”. (Love the language.) He knows how difficult it is to make such choices, but writes that “some books selected do not appear to me to even be borderline cases”. Then, like Howarth, he puts forward his views on some of them.

He agrees with Howarth’s questioning the inclusion of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, asking “what standard does it set up?” He thinks it the weakest of her novels, and “not comparable to Working bullocks or Coonardoo as a skilful work of fiction”. (Howarth named Working bullocks and Pioneers as better.) Like Howarth, he also questions the inclusion of Brian Penton’s Landtakers (read it anyone?) as “standard”, describing it as “largely sound and fury”. 

P.I.O’L also discusses representativeness, asking whether the selection is “representative” of “our writers’ books”. He feels that “as a foundation selection it is … satisfactory”, arguing that “a start had to be made somewhere”. Howarth, he says, agrees, given the limitations the CLF was operating under. Moreover:

Allied Servicemen are not literary cognoscenti balancing niceties of literary values, characterisation, form. If you were to ask most of them in what order they would place the writers of their own polyglot land they would probably very honestly say that they were no judges—and had not read many books, American or otherwise, anyhow.

Then he tackles Howarth’s discussion of the gaps, the works that should have been included. Again, I loved his language:

And when you start offering a register of names of writers whose works should be included in the “Australian Pocket Library” you push your keel into a wide sea—one, sometimes of trouble. 

He disagrees with some of Howarth’s suggestions – we are mostly talking poets here – and makes his own, but you can read it yourself if you are interested. Overall, he agrees with Howarth’s support of the project, quoting Howarth’s statement that the CLF should be “congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise”.

Legacy?

Now, I’ll return to Neil James’ 2000 article because he has some interesting points to make about the selection, and the APL’s legacy.

Looking at the selection nearly sixty years later, James writes

The titles selected reflect clearly the nationalist agenda in Australian literature … `Representative Australia’ in 1943 derived from the Bush, and the democratic values which seeped into Australian culture from its historical struggle against the natural elements. Most of the titles were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s, but some went back to an earlier age to engage with the grand narratives of exploration, adventure and colonisation. The list sets up literary values, social values, and national-historical values as interchangeable. This is hardly surprising given the primary influence of Palmer, whose published and broadcast criticism sought to define an Australian literature in national terms … It was a nationalist canon in paperback set for a wide distribution, and it sat comfortably with the government’s war-time agenda.

James shares the many practical challenges the CLF confronted – acquiring rights to the books, cover design, production problems, and agreeing on price with the publishers. And he describes the project’s demise, ending up publishing 26 of the finally planned 39. It’s all interesting and you can read it in the article. I want to end with his discussion of the legacy because this is most relevant to us now.

First, he says, it “represents the first officially selected and endorsed canon of Australian literature” and one recognised at the highest level of government. Furthermore, the APL played a significant, though not recognised, role in the “unprecedented transformation in the publication and recognition of Australian literature” in the 1940s and 50s. However, the importance of the Library has been lost partly, he argues, because the “nationalist outlook” of the selection was rejected a decade or so later by the universities, resulting in the writers being expunged from the canon.

The failure of the venture also had an impact on publishing. The CLF withdrew from “acting as de facto publisher” and became more reactive than proactive in publishing ventures. Had it succeeded, and had the CLF ‘continued to foster a nationalist canon of writing, there would have been, at the very least, more than “one set of values [to rule] the entire roost”, as Max Harris put it’.

More significant, though, I think, is James’ argument that the failure of the APL “effectively delayed the literary paperback in Australia by two decades”. He believes that the 1930s Penguin revolution in Britain “could have been reproduced here in the 1940s” with the APL its “de facto trial run”. Unfortunately, its unappealing format, which was “far too compromised by wartime conditions … killed off any good will towards paperbacks amongst booksellers and publishers”.

How fascinating. It was not until the 1960s, James says, that the literary paperback returned to the Australian scene, and not on a major scale until the 1970s. This fundamentally influenced “the character and the accessibility of Australian writing”, by which he means that because mass cheap paperbacks were not available as they were in Britain and France, “the readership of Australian literature was to remain the middle classes rather than `the multitude’.”

James concludes – in 2000 – that the Australian Pocket Library is worthy of “further scrutiny as part of the assessment of individual authors, and in understanding the evolution of Australian cultural values”. He also suggests that, “given the current paucity of an available Australian backlist” it may contain lessons for a classics publishing program! Well, it may not be the same model, but the Text Classics imprint, which began in 2012, has picked up the baton of cheap affordable classics and run with it. As far as I can tell, ten years later, it is going strong, with a catalogue that is diverse but, like the APL, constrained at times by access to rights.

Sources

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (1)

Bill and Lisa have already posted today in recognition of ANZAC Day, Bill’s titled ANZAC Day 2022, while Lisa’s is about Martha Gething who is featured in the book, Australian women pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air. My post, in fact, comes to you courtesy of Lisa who, last week, emailed me with the subject line, “A Monday Musings Topic?” She wrote that while reading Nathan Hobby’s soon-to-be-published biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, she’d “learned about the existence of the Commonwealth Pocket Library, cheap paperbacks for distribution to POWs during the war”. She closed her email with, “Of course I thought of you…”.

Now, I’m always happy to hear ideas, particularly ones like this which come with a link to a scholarly article. I was especially grateful, this time, because I had been pondering a topic relevant to ANZAC Day, given Monday was going to be THE day. She handed me my post on a platter, so, thanks Lisa!

Australian Pocket Library

I should start, though, by saying that it appears it was called the Australian Pocket Library, not Commonwealth Pocket Library, as Hobby describes it. Wilde, Hooton and Andrews’ The Oxford companion to Australian literature says:

The Australian Pocket Library was a series of austerity paperbacks published with the help of the then Commonwealth Literary Fund during the economic restrictions imposed by the Second World War.

(The Fund’s involvement is probably where the “Commonwealth” confusion came in.)

There is, of course, far more to this story than The Oxford companion had time to tell, and I’m going to share some of it with you. In addition to reading the article from the Australian Literary Studies journal sent to me by Lisa, I also did a Trove search – of course! The project, it seems, generated quite a bit of excitement in bookish circles – and why not!

Neil James, in the article Lisa sent me, provides a history of the series. It started with an idea in 1943 and ended with publication of the last books in the series in 1947. Its active life, in other words, was short – but James argues that its legacy, both positive and negative, was significant. I’ll return to this in part 2, because there is so much to explore.

Origins

James explains that in 1943, Prime Minister Curtin had been approached by the AIF Women’s Auxiliary for Prisoners of War which wanted cheap editions of Australian books for Australia’s POWs. The Auxiliary had been choosing books for parcels going overseas, but were finding that “practically every Australian book we would wish to include is now out of print”. Prisoners of war everywhere, they said, ask for books about their homeland. The request was referred to the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF), and it ended up with Vance Palmer, who was on the Fund’s Advisory Board. He “immediately latched onto the idea”, not just for “the POWs, but also for the cause of Australian literature”. Never let a chance go by, eh! Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, as many of you will know, were significant supporters and promoters of Australian literature, as well as being writers themselves. 

Anyhow, Palmer advised that the task was beyond private publishers: the paper would not be available, and, anyhow, “most publishers do not know what to print and how to get the copyrights”. It was, in other words, a job for the CLF. Indeed, writes James, the Fund had apparently had ideas since 1939 for “a standard library of Australian works”. Here was their chance.

Cutting to the chase, funding was granted and the process commenced. You won’t be surprised to hear that choosing the actual books was fraught. Various publishers wanted their books included, but Palmer was, says James, “sceptical of Australian publishers” because they’d proven themselves to be “cautious” regarding publishing Australian literature. A committee was formed to choose the books. The plan was that “the CLF would have editorial control but the publishers would pay for production and distribution”. Publishers “which had the rights to a book chosen would have first option to publish it in the Library” but they had to agree to “conditions governing cover design, format, royalties, and price”. James explains why publishers supported a scheme in which they took all the financial risk but gave “creative control to a Canberra committee”. The reason was, in a word, paper!

The list, primarily chosen by Vance Palmer and Flora Eldershaw, was not universally approved. James reports that CLF’s Board chair “was consulted only when the list was virtually set”. He was apparently a little put out, commenting that it “is possible that other considerations than merit have determined the choice”.

The books

And here, I’ll turn for a while to Trove, and what the critics, reviewers and journalists thought. One of those was R.G. Howarth. He was founding editor of the literary journal, Southerly, and literary critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Lee, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography,  he “influence[d] Australian writing through deciding who would or would not be published in the 1940s and 1950s”. His sole criterion was “literary quality”, not “political and ideological considerations”.

Howarth wrote about the new initiative in 1944 (April 29), starting with the basic plan: it involves twenty-five “standard” Australian books, “designed for members of the Australian forces (including prisoners of war) and members of the Allied forces in Australia, as well as for the general public”, and to be sold at prices ranging from 1/3 to 2/. The list includes 10 novels, plus collections of short stories, “descriptive books”, histories, verse, a scientific work, and essays.

He comments that the poets, Lawson, Paterson, and Dennis, “will undoubtedly solace and stimulate the fighting-man” as well as “renew their own popularity”. He describes the novels, which included currently out-of-print books, Robbery under arms, We of the Never Never, and Man Shy; the best of Australian novels of the last war, Leonard Mann’s Flesh in armour, which is “unhappily little known because unobtainable”; and Katharine Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, Brian Penton’s Landtakers, Vance Palmer’s Passage, Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon, Barnard Eldershaw’s The Glass House, and Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot.

However …

Of course there was going to be a “however”! Howarth questions the definition of the selected works as “standard”, notwithstanding the CLF confronted issues concerning “copyright and competition”. He recognises that the Commonwealth Literary Fund is “at once serving the reading public, helping the Australian author, and reviving books undeservedly neglected”, then asks how far the list meets these purposes.

He questions, to take Prichard as an example, why Haxby’s Circus “and not her Pioneers or Working bullocks – much more Australian in spirit and setting?” Re Bernard Eldershaw, he asks, why “The glass house – a study of shipboard life during a voyage from Europe to Australia – rather than their prize winning A house is built?” Well, I don’t know, but Eldershaw was on the selection committee so …

Of Penton’s Landtakers and Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot he says that “much as one admires the authors in other ways one is compelled by honesty to say that their inclusion is at least questionable”. Old Blastus, he feels, ‘appears as a failure that might well have been a success; in it a true “character” is imperfectly realised’.

And of course, as all commentators do on lists, he identifies works not included, such as For the term of his natural life. He recognises that ‘opinions are now divided about this …but surely it presents a stage in our history and in the development of the human conscience that must be retained in mind. It is “standard”, too in the same sense as Robbery under arms‘. He names other gaps, such as novels by Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, Norman Lindsay and Christina Stead.

But, he concludes:

Whatever one’s opinions of its selection, the Commonwealth Literary Fund must be congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise. It has here decisively shown its importance to Australian authors, hitherto largely unprotected and uncertain of the future; and its wish and power to foster the growth, and distribute the products of Australian literature.

Then, on 4 May 1944, he writes a letter to the editor passing on a playwright’s surprise at the omission of “the Australian playwright” from the list. Two days later, on 6 May, playwright Leslie Rees, who signs as “Hon. Chairman, Playwrights’ Advisory Board” responds in his own letter, saying that Howarth was “surely unfair in implying that the Commonwealth Literary Fund has done nothing for the Australian dramatist”. He defends the work of the Fund and says that “When the time comes for a second list of Pocket Library books”, plays “might well be included”. You gotta laugh really. Howarth merely passed on someone else’s comment – albeit in passing it on he must have agreed somewhat – while Rees defends the Fund suggesting that they “might” include plays in a later list! Sounds like some undercurrent there that we don’t know about.

Meanwhile, on 17 May, P.I.O’L. also took up the issue of “standard”, but I’ll leave that for next week … and simply say, here, that little of the discussion I read focused much on the poor POWs!

Sources

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

Some of you know that Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they choose, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1954, and is happening this week, 18-24 April.

I’ve taken part a couple of times, the first time being the 1936 Club for which I also wrote a Monday Musings. I’ve decided to do this again for 1954.

By 1954, World War 2 was over, and the now infamous baby-boom was well underway. Australia was welcoming migrants from war-torn Europe and life was, generally, looking good. However, the war was still close, and the Cold War was being well felt. The war featured heavily in popular literature, but writers were also looking at who we were as Australians, and at our near neighbours.

My research located a variety of books published that year across all forms, but to keep this simple, I am going to focus on fiction. Here is a selection:

  • Jon Cleary, The climate of courage
  • Dale Collins, Storm over Samoa
  • L.H. Evers, Pattern of conquest
  • Miles Franklin (as “Brent of Bin Bin”), Cockatoos (Bill’s review)
  • Catherine Gaskin, Sara Dane
  • Nourma Handford, Coward’s kiss
  • T.A.G. Hungerford, Sowers of the wind: A novel of the occupation of Japan
  • Barbara Jefferis, Contango Day
  • Eric Lambert, The veterans and The five bright stars
  • Henry George Lamond, The manx star
  • Eve Langley, White topee (Bill on The pea pickers and White topee)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie (as “Seaforth” Mackenzie), The refuge
  • Alan Moorehead, A summer night
  • Tom Ronan, Vision splendid
  • Arthur Upfield, Death of a lake
  • Judah Waten, The unbending
  • Don Whitington, Treasure upon the earth

Many of these authors have been forgotten, while others, like Alan Moorehead, are more remembered for their non-fiction work. Some, like Jon Cleary and Arthur Upfield, were successful writers of popular fiction, and are still remembered, albeit probably little read. Women are less evident here, than they were in 1936.

However, this list also includes some significant “literary” writers, like Miles Franklin, Eve Langley and Judah Waten, and others who are remembered today for awards established in their names, T.A.G. Hungerford and Barbara Jefferis. I like the sound of Jefferis’ debut novel. It was set during a single day in Sydney about Miss Doxy, a confidential filing and records clerk. The Barbara Jefferis Award was endowed by her husband in 2007 to commemorate her. 

There were very few literary awards at the time. One that did exist, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, was awarded in 1954 to poet Mary Gilmore for her collection Fourteen men.

Writers born this year included two poets, Kevin Hart and Dorothy Porter, and the novelist Kerry Greenwood. Deaths included, significantly, Miles Franklin.

Overland magazine, to which I often refer, was established in 1954 by Stephen Murray-Smith and Eric Lambert, who had also co-founded, with Frank Hardy, Melbourne’s Realist Writers’ Association.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and the fiction in particular.

Some specific issues

A recurring issue was the cost of books in Australia. A brief article in Adelaide’s Advertiser (January 25) reports on a visit to Australia by Desmond Flower of the large British publisher Cassell & Co. Flower said that English publishing costs had dropped slightly because of reductions in the price of cloth and paper, and the cost of printing was also likely to fall which should bring book prices down in England, “and consequently Australia”. (As an aside, he also noted that book business in Australia had trebled since 1939, which represented a greater increase than anywhere else in the Empire.)

Another discussion concerned the Little Golden Books, and Americanisation of Australian culture. (Nothing new, eh?) Jill Hellyer writing in the Tribune (July 21) argues not only that these cheap books had “pushed Australian authors even further from their precarious position”, when there are excellent Australian books available, but that the books were “full of loose phrases, bad grammar and cheap American slang”. She admits some in the series are good, but is particularly scathing about the Disney versions of classic children’s stories. There was a riposte, in the Tribune (August 11) from a “West Australian mother” who argued that “it is possible to select, from among these books, ones that can be good and useful for our children”. She didn’t mind ‘reading the words “sidewalk” or “cookies” because it provided her the “opportunity to explain this is how people talk in America”. From her point of view, these understandings help us get to know other people and cultures. However, while she disagreed with Hellyer’s specific cultural concerns, she agreed that “some [Golden Books] are very unpleasing, notably the ones based on Walt Disney’s films that were mentioned by the author of the article”.

Censorship was also discussed. The highly-respected Australian librarian John Metcalfe was quoted in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (August 10) as arguing against proposals (from both the right and the left) to extend censorship. The particular target was comic strips and books believed undesirable for children. Censorship, he said, is against the “liberal tradition” and was a “negative approach to the problem”. The Children’s Book Council, he said, “shows that a positive approach can be made in encouraging children to tackle a better type of literature.”

Similarly, a commentator in Wagga Waga’s Daily Advertiser (September 2) expressed concern about plans to extend censorship. Accepting that there there was a “a plethora of cheap and sexy trash on the market” and “an emphasis in some publications on crime and violence”, and agreeing that these can present “a danger to the younger generation and the lesser intellects [defined how?] among the adults”, this commentator believed that “a ban on ‘obscene’ literature is too dangerous to be countenanced”, and goes on to argue the case. There must be other ways, our commentator says, because

Once books are banned or burned, freedom is on the way out.

Some specific books

I could write screeds on reviews of particular books – even though I only read a tiny percentage of the articles I retrieved in Trove – but that’s not practicable, so, I’ll just share a few.

Brent of Bin Bin’s Cockatoos was much approved – and was also recognised by then as the work of Miles Franklin. IM (Ian Mair?) summarising the year’s books in Melbourne’s The Age (December 11) wrote “In the year’s fiction, first must come The Cockatoos … Like all her novels of country life, it has a wonderful feeling for place and period”. Earlier in the year, the writer of the Books Received column in Townsville’s Bulletin (April 18), wrote:

The theme is the universal one of the conflict between the artist and the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously, but the novel is also another Brent of Bin Bin’s memorable recreations of place and period in Australian country life. It is concerned particularly with the problem if the “exodists” — the restless young Australians who fifty years ago sought art of adventure, and in so doing suffered uprooting and exile. 

Oh dear – “the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously”!

There’s superlative praise for popular writers of the time like Jon Cleary and EV Timms. T.A.G. Hungerford‘s Sowers of the wind was also much liked. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that this novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson until 1954 “because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces”.

But I’ll save my last discussion for Eve Langley’s White topee. There were many reviews for this book, which continues the story of Steve from The pea pickers, but most seemed to be variations on a theme, which is to say, they praised its creativity but expressed some uncertainty too. Langley remains a challenging author for many, but her contemporary reviewers did value what she offered.

The Newcastle Sun’s (August 5) reviewer perhaps puts it best, opening with

It is impossible to judge White Topee by Eve Langley according to the established standards as the author has embarked upon the adventure of writing in a way that is completely original and individual.

The review uses headings like “poetic passages”, “heady style”, and “impressionistic”, but also gets Langley:

There are so many strands in this study of the country that the author’s impressions come tumbling with enough dazzling rapidity to suggest eccentricity, but the work on closer examination is revealed to be composite and, the result of shrewd observation and searching frankness.

M.P. in Queensland Country Life (August 5) is more measured, writing that it “could have been an outstanding book” but “is full of ego”. M.P. admires much in Langley’s passion and the writing:

Her love of Australia is deep and emotionally strong, and on the too rare occasions when Eve Langley forgets the poets and calls on her own descriptive powers she gives passages that, with their beauty and strength, are pure classics.

M.P. concludes that when Langley “extricates herself from the morass of sentimentality and confusion of mind she will write a book that is truly great”.

R.J.S., reviewing in Cairns Post (August 14) admired the book. S/he starts by saying “it has brilliant descriptive passages and much originality of thought but lacks a plot and is not a novel when judged by the usual standards”. S/he make a strong case for the work’s value:

To date no one has interpreted Australia and its people as Miss Langley has done in “White Topee.”

R.J.S. advises that the novel “cannot be skipped through” and suggests that “the careful reading it deserves will disclose that the writer has opened a new furrow in the field of Australian literature”.

I’ll leave White topee there, and will conclude my introduction to 1954 in Australian fiction with popular non-fiction author, Colin Simpson, who is quoted in Grafton’s Daily Examiner (December 23) as saying:

If one person in three would make one of his or her Christmas gifts a book by an Australian author, that could sufficiently enlarge the market to make authorship economic for more than just a few of us. The effect on our national literature could be very considerable.

Plus ça change?

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1954 Club?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bibliomemoirs

Book cover

At the end of my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I mentioned that Brona (This reading life) had described it as a bibliomemoir, which was a new term for me. As it turns out it is a reasonably new term, full stop. Readings Bookshop says that

defined by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times in 2014 as ‘a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate tone of an autobiography’, the bibliomemoir offers unique and personal insights into people’s relationships to their books.

This is not to say that the “genre” is new – because it certainly isn’t – but that it now has its own name.

Website/blog Book Riot also wrote about them recently, saying

Most readers love books about books. We also love snooping through other people’s bookshelves for the thrill of the possibility of discovering a whole person in a stack of books that they chose to read. Bibliomemoirs offer both. These books combine the confessional, intimate tone and personal approach of memoirs and autobiography with, well, books, and sometimes literary criticism.

And, apparently, says Kate Flaherty in The Conversation, Gabrielle Carey has, herself, described the genre:

Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.

It’s not surprising, then, that Only happiness here is a good example. In it Gabrielle Carey looks at Elizabeth von Arnim’s life through the prism of her works and draws conclusions about her own life through those same works. In doing so, she also offers literary criticism, through both her own views and those of others on von Arnim’s books.

The first example of this genre that I can remember reading – before it had its name – is non Australian, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books (2003)*. Such an intelligent, moving – and political – book.

For keen readers, the bibliomemoir, when done well, and particularly when written by and/or about favourite writers, can be engaging (if sometimes disheartening!) reading. They can also be enlightening because they explore the way we use books to understand our own lives and/or to understand the lives of others. They are about the way we use books, for example, for solace, for self-education, for the safe exploration of other ideas and feelings.

Readings, in the page linked above, shares a few bibliomemoirs selected by their Hawthorn store bookseller, Mike Shuttleworth. Not all were Australian, but as most of you know by now, these Monday posts are devoted to Australian literature, so my list here includes his two Aussie selections and others selected by me:

  • Debra Adelaide, The innocent reader: Reflections on reading and writing (2019) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading, writing, remembering (to be published July 2022)
  • Ramona Koval, By the book: A reader’s guide to life (2012) (Lisa’s review)
  • Michael McGirr, Books that saved my life: Reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure (2018) (Brona’s review)
  • Judith Ridge (ed.), The book that made me: A collection of 32 personal stories (2016)
  • Jane Sullivan, Storytime: Growing up with books (2019) (Lisa’s review)
  • Brenda Walker, Reading by moonlight: How books saved a life (2010)

Book Riot says, “A bibliomemoir is like an insightful, bookish dinner guest — and a recipe for an exploding TBR”. On the other hand, bibliomemoirist herself, Jane Sullivan, shared a different viewpoint in The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2014. She wrote that British journalist Rachel Cooke, while liking what bibliomemoirs were doing, was also worried. Cooke, wrote, she says:

These books, however endearing, funny and insightful, strike me as just another form of talking about books rather than actually reading them. Go to the text! I want to shout, bossily.

So, with all this in mind, do you like bibliomemoirs? And, if so, care to share any favourites, Aussie or otherwise?

* Coincidentally, while researching this I discover that Nafisi has a new book out this year, Read dangerously: The subversive power of literature in troubled times.

POSTSCRIPT : An interesting, brief discussion of bibliomemoir at Boston Bookfest. Argues that:

Much like microhistory, bibliomemoir upends a specific, traditional cultural structure—in this case the kind of authoritative perspective (rooted in entrenched power structures) that conventional criticism upholds. In this sense, it is an inherently political genre—a liberal or democratic genre.