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: on 1922: 1, Bookstall Co.

I haven’t done many Trove-inspired posts lately, but, I do enjoy pottering around Trove’s Newspapers and Gazettes database, so thought that for today’s Monday Musings I’d have a little look at what was happening in the Australian book world in 1922. My broad search retrieved around 8,000 articles! I can’t read them all, but I found several items of interest, to me at least, that I’d like to share, which I’ll do over the year.

For my first post, I’ve chosen a new publisher to me. In the Books Received column in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times of 8 March, the columnist refers to the N.S.W. Bookstall Company, writing “now that publishing difficulties have eased, the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. proposes to add rapidly to its popular Australian fiction series”.

Who was this company I wondered? Well, they were “notable” enough to have a Wikipedia page, and the man who turned it into a successful business, A. C. Rowlandson, has an entry in The Oxford companion to Australian literature. The Companion tells me that in 1991, the book, The New South Wales Bookstall Company as a publisher, by Carol Mills, was published. The Publishing History website also devotes a page to them.

So, the company … It was started by Henry Lloyd around 1880 as a newsagent, with its first foray into publishing possibly being racebooks for the Hawkesbury Race Club around 1886. The Wikipedia article stops with a discussion of World War Two, which suggests that the company folded soon after the war, but I haven’t confirmed this.

I have however found out a bit about Alfred Cecil Rowlandson. He started with the company in 1883 as a tram ticket seller, presumably from one on the company’s bookstalls. Wikipedia says that “the greatest part of the company’s business consisted of retailing local, interstate and overseas periodicals, postcards (Neville Cayley produced a series) and stationery from its eight city shops and fifty-odd railway stall outlets”. Rowlandson worked his way up, and in 1897, bought the company from Lloyd’s widow. He ran it from then until his death in, coincidentally, mid-1922.

From the Bookstall series. Image: Publishing History website

He was clearly a visionary, because, as the Companion says, the company became “one of Australia’s most successful book-publishing and selling ventures, publishing in paperback about 200 titles by Australian authors and selling four to five million copies”. The above-linked Publishing History page lists some of its books in chronological order, while the Wikipedia page lists a selection by author’s name. The authors include names familiar to me like Louis Becke, Charles Chauvel, Norman Lindsay,  Sumner Locke, Vance Palmer, and Steele Rudd.

Rowlandson came up with the idea of selling Australian books at one shilling each, and created the Bookstall series in 1904. Wikipedia says that despite his belief in a market for cheap Australian books, the prospects were not encouraging, because Australians had not shown much faith in the the work of their own novelists.

However, Rowlandson put his money where his mouth was. He paid £500 for the publication rights for Steele Rudd’s Sandy’s Selection. It was the largest sum paid in advance for an Australian book at that time. Rowlandson also apparently spent “comparatively large sums in readers’ fees”. And, he believed, it seems, in bright catchy covers, employing artists and cartoonists as illustrators, like Norman Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith, cartoonist Will Dyson, and war artist George W Lambert.

The Companion says that “the remarkable sales of of these Australian books confirmed Rowlandson’s intuition that the Australian reading public was keen for local reading matter, and the impact of his company on the development of Australian writing was considerable.”

Now, back to Trove. The columnist of the aforementioned Kandina and Wallaroo Times, writing, remember, in 1922, says “now that publishing difficulties have eased, the N.S.W. Bookstall Co., proposes to add rapidly to its popular Australian fiction series”. My guess is that these “publishing difficulties” stem from the war. The Companion says that during the war, due to the shortage and cost of paper, the “bob” (or “shilling”) price was increased by threepence, but Rowlandson – good for him – reverted to the “bob” after the war.

Anyhow, our columnist wrote that three new novels were in the presses, and that “the enterprising publishing house” had nearly 20 more under way. One of the books was S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island. It’s “of the Islands adventure class, but, like its predecessor, is off the beaten track”. Our columnist says that the predecessor, Powell’s first novel, The maker of pearls, was “one of the best of last year’s contributions to Australian fiction”. Still 1s 3d at this stage. 

Rowlandson died in June 1922 at the age of 57. Soon after, in July, Freeman’s Journal advised that the Company’s intention was to “continue the publication of Australian novels at popular prices, as during the life of the founder, Mr. A. C. Rowlandson, the late managing director”. Founder? Not correct. And so inaccuracies creep into the historical record, eh?

Freeman’s columnist goes on to say that

The late Mr. Rowlandson had profound faith in the literary resources of the Commonwealth, and during his life was wholly responsible for the publication of at least 150 Australian novels, the sales of which have totalled nearly four millions. During recent years the standard of the series has been steadily improved; and the manuscripts now in hand show still further improvement. 

And, s/he announces that the next book is Vance Palmer’s The boss of Killara, which is “an entertaining story, … most entertainingly written, and … true in every detail to Australian, bush-life”.

Trove provides information about more books published in 1922, including:

  • J.H.M. Abbott’s Ensign Calder, which contains stories which originally appeared in the Bulletin. These are historical fiction, being set in the nineteenth century during the governorship of Macquarie. The Western Mail‘s correspondent says that the stories “are very faithfully rendered, and … highly amusing”.
  • Hilda Bridges’ The squatter’s daughter, which interests me because it’s an adaptation of a 1907 play pf the same name by Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan. The play was adapted into film twice, one silent and one talkie, as well as into this novel. The Midlands Advertiser says it’s “capably written, and gives a faithfully and permanent record of the play”
  • Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven from, says Freeman’s Journal correspondent, “one of the most popular Australian authors”. It’s set in “the wilds of New Guinea” and is “a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise”. A volume of “wholesome adventure”!

Of course, there were also reports of Rowlandson’s death, funeral and estate, but I’ll end with some comments on his legacy from the The Australian Worker:

Some of the writers taken up by A.C.R. have since capitalised their ‘bob’ start, and made overseas reputations. Rowlandson, by instinct and practice, was a tremendous live-wire hustler, and probably his business intensity contributed to his all too early death—a death which will grieve hundreds of thousands who enjoyed cheap local fiction of exceptional merit as a result of his enterprise, and by scores of young writers who never would have been heard of only for his faith in local literary products, his kindly and sympathetic disposition, and his never-resting determination to give Australian literature a show.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

I have written a few posts over the years on the publishing of Australian classics, including one in 2014 in which I mentioned Allen & Unwin’s Australian Classics series. That series seems to have disappeared, but the publisher does have another initiative, House of Books.

Here is what Allen & Unwin say about this series (or, imprint):

The House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements, and the digital revolution is helping bring us all closer to the books and writers of Australia’s literary tradition.

The House of Books makes accessible a library of authors and their books at affordable prices to a whole new readership. Some books have long been out of print, some have recently slipped into oblivion but the House of Books should be the first stop for all readers of Australian fiction and non-fiction.

I can’t find out much about the history of all this, because the books listed on their House of Books page all seem to have been “published” over 2012, 2 years before I wrote my post referencing the now apparently defunct Australian Classics series in 2014. Does “House of Books” now include rebadged “Australian Classics”. Seems likely.

What makes this imprint interesting is that it uses a slightly different publishing model. All books, they say, “will be available simultaneously as ebooks and print editions (using POD  – print on demand technology)”. This means, of course, that bookshops don’t have to carry expensive stock of book titles likely to have low throughput.

So, I decided to test out whether these books – around 90 of them and all, as far as my random checks can tell, published eight years ago now – are still available. First, I went to Readings (online), because it is mentioned on the page as a source. I searched for a few of the titles and they all said “This item is not currently in-stock, but it’s available to order online.” So, I ordered a Thea Astley print version, and, well, so far, so good! I haven’t got it yet, but, fingers crossed it will arrive.

Book coverI then checked Booktopia, which is also listed on the page as a source. I searched for Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. They provided this message: “This product is printed on demand when you place your order, and is not refundable if you change your mind or are unhappy with the contents. Please only order if you are certain this is the correct product, or contact our customer service team for more information”. Readings didn’t say this, but I’m presuming their copy will be POD too.

The prices seem to range mostly from $14.99 to $19.99, though some are more expensive.

House of Books books

But now, what you’ve been waiting for – if you haven’t clicked on the link above already – that is, something about the books available. They are listed in a strange order – alphabetical by title, with all book titles starting with “A” appearing under “A”, and “The” titles under “T”. Really? For me, the best order would be by author, so I could see, for example, all the Astleys they have, all the Cusacks, and so on. Also, very few of the book descriptions include original publication date which pedantic me would really like to know!

Book coverWhinge aside, the list is an exciting albeit serendipitous one, including many books barely remembered these days. There are, for example, Kylie Tennant’s memoir The man on the headland, and her autobiography, The missing heir. There are four by Thea Astley, eight by Dymphna Cusack (including the Newcastle-set Southern steel, which interests me), and four by Xavier Herbert.

Book coverOther treasures, in terms of their place in Australian literary culture, include Dal Stivens’ 1951 political (and debut) novel, Jimmy Brockett. Stivens is little known now, but, as Wikipedia tells, he won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for A Horse of Air, was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1981 for his contribution to Australian literature, and in 1994, he was given a Special Achievement Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Book coverAs you’ll have realised from the Tennants above, the books include non-fiction, like Australian historian Russell Ward’s memoir, A radical life. There are also books of poetry, such as AD Hope’s Selected poems, and short story collections.

More contemporary writers in the list include Nick Earls and Mandy Sayer (both born, coincidentally, in 1963).

I’d love to know if any of my Australian readers know of this series? The cover style is a little familiar to me, but I am certainly not as aware of them in the shops as I am of the wonderful Text Australian Classics series. My guess is that this is due to the publishing model they are using. Any comments?

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!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Pitch days

When I was researching last Monday’s post on development programs for writers, I came across several references to publisher “pitch” days. As someone who isn’t writing a book, and who has no plans to, the concept of a “pitch” day was something that hadn’t made a big impact on me, though of course I knew what it meant.

If you are a writer who’s tried to get a book published, you know there are various ways of going about it. One is to find an agent who will tout/pitch your book to publishers. Another is to win a prize that involves publication – not that there are many of those! Yet another is to send your manuscript, unsolicited, to a publisher and hope they will read it. We’ve all heard stories about what happens then. They end up in a pile, and more often than not don’t get read. What authors want, of course, is some sort of guarantee their work will be read. This is where “pitch” days come in.

So what, exactly, is a pitch day? Most publishers have always accepted unsolicited donations, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but their pitch days offer two specific things: the publisher clearly identifies what they are looking for, what the writer needs to submit, and how; and they (mostly) offer some sort of guarantee that the work will be read and the time-frame within which this will happen. These pitch days are a fairly new thing, I believe, and stem partly from the possibilities offered by digital publishing.

Here are some of the programs I’ve come across, and that I believe are currently operating:

  • Allen & Unwin’s The Friday Pitch has been running for 6 years or more, and is open to writers for adults, young adults and children. They ask writers to “email a short synopsis or outline of your chapters and contents, and the first chapter of your work and related illustrations if relevant” on any Friday. They say that “if we like what we read … we will get back to you within a fortnight”. They don’t say, but I think imply, that they will read everything. They also say that Friday Pitch has discovered some bestselling authors, including Fleur McDonald, Helen Brown, and Mary Groves, though I must say that I don’t know these authors myself.
  • HarperCollins’ The Wednesday Post started in 2013. Writers can send fiction and nonfiction submissions each Wednesday, for print and digital publication, and digital-only publication. They say they will respond to authors within three weeks if they are interested. According to Writing WA, HarperCollins wants to find “new adult and YA titles and is particularly interested in ‘exceptional contemporary women’s fiction'” from new and established writers.
  • Pan Macmillan’s Manuscript Monday is a “new” initiative (though I don’t know when they wrote that statement). This process only occurs monthly on the first Monday of the month. They “accept submissions between 10am and 4pm that are sent electronically” and comply with the guidelines available via the link above. They say they will read every submission within three months of receipt, but won’t provide reasons for their decision nor give any feedback. And you can’t ring or contact them to chase up your submission. I think this includes pitches for Momentum, which is PanMacmillan’s “digital first imprint”.
  • Penguin’s Monthly Catch was created because Penguin “is keen and excited to read new work from Australian authors”! This program operates over the first 7 days (that is from the 1st to the 7th, regardless of days of the week) of every month. Only electronic submissions are accepted, and only works for adults. They say they’ll read every manuscript, and will get back to successful authors within three months. They do not provide feedback.

These are just a few of the programs out there. There are, for example, some genre-specific ones, such as for Romance writers. And some conferences run pitch-to-the-publisher programs, such as GenreCon and the Perth Writers Festival.

What these publishers won’t accept is fairly consistent. Poetry, plays, and educational works are frequently identified as not wanted. Some exclude works for children and young adults, while others will accept these. Authors need to check each publisher’s guidelines to make sure.

If you are interested in reading more about pitching, you might like to read the experience of two authors: Patrick Lenton who was published by Pan Macmillan’s digital arm, Momentum, and the above-mentioned Fleur McDonald who was published by Allen & Unwin. I also enjoyed reading this blog post on the “art of pitching to publishers”.

As always, I’d love to hear if any readers here have used “pitch days” … or have any stories about being published.

 

Monday musings on Australian literature: Translated fiction, Australian-style

Having just read and reviewed Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly essay, Lost in translation: In praise of a plural world, I thought I’d research the state of translated fiction in Australia. Jaivin doesn’t spend a lot of time of this particular issue, but in her concluding plea she says:

Publishers need to consider how to prise open their lists in order to let more translation in.

In other words, while she argues that students should learn foreign language/s, she also recognises that we can’t be across all languages. We should therefore have easy access to translated literature. However, in my experience and I’m sure that of Australian blogger Tony, who specialises in translated fiction, it is not easy to find material here and so, all too often, we turn to overseas publishers and distributors.

That said, there are some local sources of translated fiction. And there are – and have been – Australian translators of foreign fiction (besides, of course, Linda Jaivin). I have written before on this blog about poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell who translated Russian poetry into English.

The easiest type of translated fiction to find in Australia is of course the classics. It is not hard to find Russian, French and other classics in English in most decent bookshops. It is also relatively easy to find translated works by the better-known contemporary writers from non-English cultures. Random House Australia, for example, has published Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. But they do not make it easy to find their translated books. They categorise fiction by genre/form, so if you search under crime, say, you will find translated works by, for instance, the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. It should be easy enough for them to add a category for translated works to help those of us who’d like to seek out non-English-centric works.

Many of Australia’s smaller independent publishers also publish translated fiction. For example, Text Publishing, probably the largest of the small presses, is currently publishing Diego Marani (whose The last of the Vostyachs I reviewed recently). On Text’s Fiction page is the category Translated, which takes readers to a list of around 60 titles.

Other small presses publishing translated works include:

  • Brandl + Schlesinger lists translated works as one of its focuses. Its list includes Russian author Igor Gelbach, and Hungarians István Örkény and György Dalos.
  • Giramondo specialises in “innovative fiction” and, while it is one of the smaller publishing houses, it includes translated fiction in its list including a work by French-Australian Catherine Rey.
  • Scribe, which has won the Small Publisher of the Year award four times since 2006, publishes foreign language authors such as Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker. Bakker won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Twin, which is one of his books published by Scribe.

I have to admit that I don’t know all these authors, but it’s great to know they are here!

As I was researching for this post, I came across the website for the Australian bookseller, Booktopia. Of course, as an Australian reader, I’ve known about them for some time, but I was pleasantly surprised when they popped up in my Google search for “translated fiction Australia”. Booktopia, I discovered, do, like Text Publishing, include translated fiction in their side-bar categories though, intriguingly, the click-through categorisation goes like this:

Books
|- Fiction
|- – Fiction in Translation and Short Stories (in a box labelled Subjects)
|- – – Fiction in Translation

Odd, that, the grouping of “Fiction in Translation” and “Short Stories” but at least Booktopia provides a path for readers to find translated works. Go Booktopia I say! They currently have 1862 titles in their list. There’s a lot of crime there, but they also carry classics, popular contemporary fiction (by such writers as Allende and Zafón), and books from independent publishers like Peirene Press, which is well regarded as a publisher of European literature in translation.

It’s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but why not include some translated works in your summer (or holiday) reading plan? Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of sourcing and reading translated literature.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Specialist presses

I’ve written Monday musings before about publishers, including posts on small presses and university presses. Today I’m bringing you another – about publishers which specialise in a certain “type” of literature. As with my other posts of this type, this won’t be comprehensive, but will comprise a selection whose specialties interest me! Here they are – listed in their order of longevity, as far as I can tell.

Currency Press

subtitles itself, “the performing arts publisher”. It’s the one I’ve known for the longest, which is partly due to the fact that it’s over 40 years old and partly because its subject area crossed my professional life. It started in 1971 as a publisher of plays, but has expanded significantly since then to “screenplays, professional handbooks, biographies, cultural histories, critical studies and reference works” in the performing arts area. In 2011, its 40th year, Currency Press received an AWGIE Award for its outstanding contribution to the performing arts. Among their new releases is a book that was launched at the Sydney Film Festival today. It’s by film academic, Sylvia Lawson, and is about my favourite Australian documentary, The Back of Beyond (1954). If you want to find the script of a film or play by Australian greats like, say, Andrew Bovell or David Williamson, Currency Press would be your first stop.

Five Islands Press

is one of several small publishers which specialise in Australian poetry. I’ve chosen them to represent this special interest area because it is one that I often see around the traps though I haven’t yet reviewed any of their publications. They were established in 1986, and aim to publish both established and emerging poets. In 2012 they published Lisa Jacobson’s verse novel, The sunlit zone, which was shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Stella Prize.

Magabala Books

describes itself as “Australia’s oldest independent Indigenous publishing house”. It was established in 1990, and is located in gorgeous Broome. It is a non-profit organisation that aims “to preserve, develop and promote Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures”. It has, to date, published more than 100 titles in a wide range of forms and genres from children’s picture books to adult fiction, from poetry to contemporary non-fiction. Their list of authors is extensive and would be a great place to start, particularly for authors not well-known in the mainstream.

Spinifex Press

describes itself as “an award-winning independent feminist press, publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge”. I’ve read a few books from them during my blogging career – Merlinda BobisFish-hair woman, Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue, Sefi Atta‘s A bit of difference and, just yesterday, Susan Hawthorne’s Limen. According to the About Us page on their site, the press was established by Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein in 1991, one year after Magabala, and now has over 200 titles in print. They were, they say, the first publisher to set up an interactive site based on a book (for Building Babel in 1996) and the first small press in Australia to release eBooks through an eBookstore attached to their own website. They publish Australian and overseas writers, including many works in translation. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the books of theirs that I’ve read. Their books aren’t all overtly political but all deal in some way with women’s experience. Spinifex seems to be a good example of what a small publisher with a very focused goal can do.

Spineless Wonders

is a relatively new kid on the block, having been established, as far as I can tell, around 2011. (Don’t you wish all organisations included a little bit of their history on their websites?) Anyhow, Spineless Wonders is “devoted to short, quality fiction produced by Australian writers … [to] brief fiction in all its forms – short story, novella, sudden fiction and prose poetry”. Their name refers to the fact that their publications are “delivered to readers via  smart phones and laptops”, but they do publish in print form, and also audio. Check Litblogger Angela Meyer’s interview at crikey.com with the founder, Bronwyn Mehan, for some background to her philosophy.

To conclude …

That’s five, and probably enough to get you thinking about the breadth of publishing out there. There are plenty of others, including publishers for genre fiction (such as Pulp Fiction Press), children’s literature (such as New Frontier Publishing), regionally-focused publishers (such as Backroom Press in the Kimberleys), not to mention education publishers, religion publishers, and so on.

Do you have any favourite specialist presses you go to for specific reading interests?

Monday musings on Australian literature: University presses

I was inspired to write this post last year when commenter Wendy Borchers mentioned Catchfire Press and described it as being associated with the University of Newcastle. I’d never heard of it. It is a community-based press primarily run by volunteers, but their covers, they say, are chosen by competition between senior design students at the University of Newcastle. The link is perhaps a little tenuous though there may be other connections not mentioned on their website. Whatever, they look like a delightful press with a wonderful heart doing something good for a local community, and they reminded me to look at the role university presses play in Australian publishing.

So, let’s look at some of the university presses which are out there promoting and publishing Australian literature – and I’m going to focus mainly on fiction. There’s probably a lot going on that I’m not aware of, but there are a few publishers who for me really stand out, and the grandma of them all is …

UQP, or the University of Queensland Press

Way back in the 1980s when I rediscovered Australian writers, and particularly Australian women writers, it was UQP that brought some of the best to me, like the wonderful Olga Masters who died way too early. Their imprint is recognisable and when I see it I know to expect quality. But then, they’re Queenslanders and so am I! UQP has apparently been going since 1948. They started as a traditional academic press but moved into more general publishing of fiction, poetry, indigenous writing and children’s literature. They published the early works of writers like David Malouf, Peter Carey and Kate Grenville and are now moving into digital publishing. Check out the authors page of their website and you can’t help but be impressed at their contribution to the Australian literary landscape.

Now, jump three decades and we come to the next university press to make an impression on me, and that is …

Sydney University Press

This was the first publisher to send me books to review. It was a new thing for me, and Lisa of ANZ Litlovers, and it was new for them. That was in late 2009 and what they sent us was their first lot of books in their Australian Classics Library, some of which they had already captured and published via their SETIS digital program. They introduced me to writers like Price Warung, encouraged me to read CJ Dennis, and gave me another Jessica Anderson to read. Their focus is still, I think, more traditionally academic, but I love and appreciate their commitment to some lesser known Australian classics.

And then, in just the last week or so I heard, via Twitter from bloggers Marilyn and Yvonne, of

Australian National University

And its ANU E Press which is publishing, electronically and free of charge, books in its ANU Lives Series in Biography. You have to buy the print versions but the online versions are free. These aren’t fiction – being biography – but are of interest to me with titles like Maori and Aboriginal women in the public eye and Transnational ties. I need to keep an eye on them.

That’s three but I’m sure other Aussies can point to more … and I hope they do because universities are well placed to offer different spins on publishing as these three examples do. It looks to me as through each is operating under different economic imperatives but achieving something important in our local publishing scene.

And here I will close, well aware that it is now nearly Wednesday … My excuse is that I am currently on the other side of Australia and my personal time clock is out of whack! Or something like that ….

Oh, and I will add more links when I am back in my more comfy computing domain …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Popular Penguins at a Perfect Price

Penguin with No. 1 ribbon

Since Penguin never responds to my copyright queries (Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com)

You all know Penguin Books – and perhaps something about the company’s origin. The story goes that Allen Lane, standing on a train platform in 1935 and not being able to find “something good” to read, decided that there existed “a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price”. He staked all he had, apparently, and a publishing giant was born.

Over time though, prices have climbed and so a few years ago, Penguin decided to introduce plain covered (much like the original orange and white covers) editions of popular titles. The first set was published (here, anyhow) in September 2008. The price, in Australia dollars, $9.95. I like them – their bindings are easy to open, they are light and easy to carry, they look classic, and they are inexpensive. What’s not to like?

Content-wise – and fair enough, since reading should not be not an exclusively nationalistic activity – the majority of the offerings are non-Australian. However, each release of new titles includes a small selection by Australian authors, and it is these that I look out for and buy if I don’t already have them (because some nationalism is good!). Here is a list of what I believe are the currently available Australian titles published as Popular Penguins:

  • Astley, Thea It’s Raining in Mango
  • Carmody, Isobelle Obernewtyn
  • Clarke, Marcus For the Term of His Natural Life
  • Conigrave, Timothy Holding the Man
  • Courtenay, Bryce Power of One
  • Cracknell, Ruth Journey from Venice
  • Drewe, Robert Bodysurfers
  • Drewe, Robert Our Sunshine
  • Garner, Helen Monkey Grip
  • Garner, Helen Postcards from Surfers
  • Hartnett, Sonya Of a Boy
  • Hartnett, Sonya Surrender
  • Horne, Donald Lucky Country
  • Hyland, M.J. How the Light Gets In
  • Jolley, Elizabeth The Well
  • Leunig, Michael Curly Verse: Selected Poems
  • Lindsay, Joan Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • Marshall, Alan I Can Jump Puddles
  • Niland, D’Arcy Shiralee
  • Park, Ruth Playing Beatie Bow
  • Park, Ruth Harp in the South
  • Richardson, Henry Handel Getting of Wisdom
  • Stow, Randolph Merry-Go-Round in the Sea
  • Turner, Ethel Seven Little Australians
  • Winton, Tim In the Winter Dark

That’s twenty-five titles, mostly novels, but some non-fiction as well as poetry and short stories. A couple of the novels are children’s or young adult.

The temptation of course is to quibble with choices like this, to argue for one’s favourites, or on other grounds for why some other title/s may be more worthy … but why bother? The point is that it’s good to see an interesting variety of Australian titles being re-published in an affordable format – and, since the series seems to be popular, we can only expect that more Aussie titles will be published in the future. Meanwhile, non-Australian readers looking for Australian titles to read would not go too far wrong by choosing (according to their own interests) from this list.

A little postscript

I’m (well Whispering Gums, anyhow, is) 2 years old today. I can’t quite believe how quickly these two years have gone. It’s been great fun writing this blog, responding to comments on it, and reading the blogs of those I’ve met through blogging. Thanks a bunch for sharing your thoughts and ideas. And thanks especially to those who helped me get going in my early days. You know who you are and, while I won’t out you here, I want you to know that I greatly appreciate you! Roll on year 3 …