Introduction

A brilliant career on the edge

WHEN HE APPEARED  to accept his fourth Miles Franklin award in the elegant surrounds of the Mitchell Library, Tim Winton seemed to have popped in from another world redolent of the remote coast that has informed his writing for decades. It was mid-winter in Sydney, but Winton's aqua Hawaiian shirt, strong, tanned arms and diffident demeanour filled the giant screen and spoke volumes of a distinctively Australian sensibility. ‘Sorry, I can't be there tonight...it is a bittersweet thing, I feel like the kid who's left holding the parcel when the music stops,' he said, acknowledging the other contenders.

Winton's speech was not the usual platitudes of a prizewinner, but a passionate analysis of how the Australian literary landscape has developed in the twenty-five years since he first won the nation's premier literary award and his eldest child was born.

‘The cultural cringe died a long slow death while I was a kid. I was the beneficiary of a new optimism and confidence in Australia. By the time I was twenty-five the expat experience had become a lifestyle choice, not a professional inevitability...My twenty-five year old son has never known an Australia of cringers and whingers, snobs and bolters, compelled to ape the accents of their betters from another hemisphere.'

‘At last,' the gathered literati whispered as Winton, looking like someone with the poise and presence to stand his ground in a Perth pub brawl, limbered up to execute an elegant series of blows against the Productivity Commission's ‘long shadow'. The commission's inquiry into the book industry had, between the many speeches, been the main subject of conversation all night.

Winton argued that the single most important factor in ‘decolonising Australian letters has been the advent and gradual acceptance of territorial copyright...the unheralded basis of our literary success' which enabled ‘Australian writers to be honoured at home and treated as equals abroad'.

‘Thanks to an agency of our own government Aussie rights are now in jeopardy. I am anxious we stay awake and consider the distance we have all come since Miles Franklin's day and what we now stand to lose. Our brilliant career really could go bung and if it does the work of generations will have been wasted.'

It was a witty conclusion for an audience familiar with Miles Franklin's 1946 satire My Career Goes Bung,which pricks the pretensions and superficiality of literary fame.

 

STELLA MARIA SARAH Miles Franklin is best known for her youthful novel, My Brilliant Career, ‘a story from life that illustrates the misery of being born out of one's sphere', and the award that bears her name which celebrates ‘any phase of Australian Life', which she saved for many years to endow.

This suggests a simplistic ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie' nationalism, but her understanding of any phase of Australian life was much more complex and nuanced, as Jill Roe's masterful biography, Stella Miles Franklin (Fourth Estate, 2008), illuminates. Franklin treasured distinctive Australian characteristics, but she was also cosmopolitan, actively engaged with the world – unlike other comparable national prizes, hers is not restricted to local citizens.

The process by which My Brilliant Career was published still reverberates. The Productivity Commission's inquiry is a timely reminder that the place of local stories in a global industry is fraught and likely to become more so.

In 1899, when Franklin's manuscript was swiftly rejected by Angus & Robertson, the only significant local publisher, she did not give up, but sent it to authors and editors she admired. Henry Lawson was sufficiently intrigued by what he recognised was ‘a big thing' to arrange to meet the author, so he could see if it was written by a ‘mate or a mere Miss'.

As Lawson had given voice to the world Franklin grew up in – ‘the gums, the bush, the creek' – it is easy to imagine her delight. He was the ‘perfect big brother of our dreams...a spontaneous mate' and she was grateful when he took a copy of her manuscript with him to England.

Lawson may have created an image of Australia that resonated with Franklin, but he was acutely aware of the limits of colonial life. In an essay published at the end of 1899, ‘Pursuing Literature in Australia', Lawson concluded with advice he was about to take: ‘My advice to any young Australian writer whose talents have been recognised would be to go steerage, stow away, swim and seek London, Yankeeland or Timbucktoo rather than stay in Australia till his genius turn to gall or beer.'

Lawson was initially feted as a colonial exotic in the capital of the empire and quickly wrote three collections of distinctively Australian stories. He also used his stature to find an agent for Franklin and a publisher for My Brilliant Career. Edinburgh-based Blackwood, ‘a successful empire-wide publishing company', accepted the book, but required that anti-imperialist passages be removed. Lawson advised Franklin to accept the cuts, assuring her that ‘nothing essential' had been lost.

When it was released in 1901 British reviewers praised its ‘youthful vitality and innocent audacity', it was TheSun's Book of the Week, and Franklin was likened to Zola and the Brontës. But at home the local reviews, with the exception of The Bulletin's, were grudging and churlish; it took a year before the book arrived in substantial quantities in Australia. All the boxes of colonial publishing were ticked.

 

FOR LAWSON THE danger of losing genius in beer and gall was not geographically limited, but his advice to go continued to be taken even after he had returned. In 1905 Franklin left for the United States and spent much of the next four decades overseas – an active protagonist in the radical movements which swept the world.

She was not alone. Between 1900 and 1940 nearly two thousand Australian authors were published in Britain, according to research by John Arnold. Yet only a handful – Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Martin Boyd, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, John Harcourt, Jack Lindsay, Arthur Upfield and Patrick White – wrote explicitly Australian stories. Most wrote popular crime and romances designed to appeal to English audiences and earn a living from the circulating libraries.

The cultural cringe came at a real cost – Australian authors were paid a cut-rate colonial royalty (a rate which still applies to those who do not assert their territorial right). After the war the publishers of the declining British Empire and those of the ascendant American divided the world along old colonial lines. Australia remained a key British market – at the time it accounted for almost a fifth of all British book sales – while local books made up only fifteen per cent of all books sold here.

Publishing is a practical business, and the invisible strictures of the industry were crucial in the selection and distribution of books and the more subtle processes which ascribed prestige. A book first published in London had much greater cache than a locally produced book, at least until 1957, when They're a Weird Mob sold 130,000 copies in its first year and kept selling. Well into the 1950s there were only three Australian publishers.

Australia remained a British territory until the Traditional Market Agreement collapsed in 1975 and it continues to be an important market for British publishers, accounting for at least a third of their export sales revenue, according to research by the British literary agent Hannah Westland. It took another sixteen years before Australian territorial copyright was finally asserted and accompanied by regulations to mandate the timely publication of international books.

This removed any lingering sense of national inferiority and provided an industry framework that rewarded initiative and enterprise, and enabled publishing to operate successfully with low levels of subsidy, unlike other cultural industries. As a result small and mid-sized publishing companies have grown, and the transnational giants have invested more.

Australian books now account for sixty per cent of books sold here and Australian authors have growing international stature, with no need to apologise for an Australian accent or to live in fear of genius turning to gall or beer – or a career going bung. (The decision on the Productivity Commission's recommendations, which could dismantle the industry's framework, was still pending as we went to press.)

 

THE IDEA THAT fiction can define national identity is deeply ingrained, thanks to the businesses that have grown up around territorial copyright. It is a notion that is challenged in this cosmopolitan, digital age. Margaret Atwood has noted that all writers are born and die somewhere, but this is no longer sufficient to determine identity.

The linking of storytelling to national identity is likely to become more fraught in coming years as digital distribution erodes territorial boundaries and forces a reappraisal of business models that have meant that authors, publishers and booksellers could make a living. At worst it could mean that the stories which define us to ourselves, make sense and provide pleasure will derive from America – at best it will mean a truly global melting pot of stories with many layers of identity and nuance, and countless opportunities for insight.

The truth is that the best Australian writing has always had a cosmopolitan edge, grounded yet engaged with the world – as befits a land of migrants where people are constantly coming and going – and the shortlists for the 2009 Prime Minister's Literary Awards demonstrate this.

Miles Franklin's cosmopolitanism was not unlike that of Edith Campbell Berry, the central character in Frank Moorhouse's trilogy and the lead story in Griffith REVIEW's first fiction edition. Edith and many of the other characters in this collection are at home here and overseas – but their Australianness, like Tim Winton's style, gives them a certain edge that we recognise.

 

GRIFFITH REVIEW HAS always been committed to providing opportunities for new and emerging writers. We have now formalised this with the inaugural GREW prize, supported by Text Publishing and Varuna Writers' House. The award includes a week's residency at Varuna, manuscript appraisal and mentoring. The winners have been selected from those writers published in Griffith REVIEW this year who have not previously published a book.

The winner of the fiction award and the Frank Moorhouse pen is the Melbourne-based writer Georgina Luck, whose story ‘Paul's first day' appears in this issue.

The winner of the non-fiction award and the Marcia Langton pen is the Perth-based writer Mark Welker, whose story ‘Greyfields: Notes on the death of a shopping centre' was published in Griffith REVIEW 25: After the Crisis

 

10 October 2009

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