Monday musings on Australian literature: Currawong Publishing Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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