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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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