Review of Richard Nile, ‘The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination’

By Susan Sheridan

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What counts as Australian Literature? What if, instead of the modernist view of a tradition developed by individual creative writers, it were to be seen as the product of the publishing industry, or of the population’s reading practices, or of changing critical frameworks? These three alternative perspectives on the making of the cultural institution known as literature have been developed over the last decades of the twentieth century. Critics and theorists have investigated the way a changing canon of great works is produced and taught in educational institutions; cultural historians have extended their long-standing interest in what famous people read to broader studies of reading practices; thirdly, emerging as a key element in any materialist analysis of culture are studies of the book publishing industry – the conditions under which writers produce texts and publishers make books (a vital distinction made in Martyn Lyons’ introduction to Volume Two of A History of the Book in Australia).1

The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination touches on all three of these perspectives, but is mainly concerned with twentieth-century literary publishing practices and their effect on writers and their works. In this book Richard Nile builds on his studies (with David Walker) of the British stranglehold on the Australian book market and of the long-overlooked phenomenon of Australian-produced mass-market paperbacks in the early decades of the twentieth century.2 He also draws on his doctoral thesis, ‘The Rise of the Australian Novel’, but this book extends across the whole of the twentieth century and incorporates new archival research on the Commonwealth Literature Fund and its successors, and on censorship both sexual and political.

Part One examines the powers of the British publishers’ cartel (formed in the 1890s and still going strong) to determine the price and range of books they exported to the Australian market and the conditions under which they published Australian works. It moves on to tell the story of how Angus and Robertson, in Sydney, tried and did not try hard enough to become the national publisher. Part Two traces the rise of fiction (serious and mass-market) as the predominant literary form, shouldering verse out of its market prominence (Paterson, Lawson, C.J. Dennis), until it is challenged by cinematic fictions late in the twentieth century. In Part Three Nile focuses on the writers – how they saw their role in creating a national culture, the setting up of writers’ unions, issues of professionalism and relationship to the universities. State intervention into the conditions under which literature was produced and distributed, in the form of both subsidies and censorship is the subject of Part Four.

The most important innovation of this book is its elaboration of the thesis that if bestsellers and genre fiction were taken into account, the face of studies of Australian literature would be changed. Of course studies of colonial literature, which preceded the distinction between serious and commercial or popular fiction produced by twentieth century consumer capitalism, have already had to consider all comers to the table of fiction. But in Nile’s proposed big picture of the twentieth century, detective fiction (and I would add, romance3), plus semi-documentary tales of travel and adventure, rather than the novel and poetry, would be the preferred genres for scholarly study. Major names would be Ion Idriess, Ernestine Hill and E. V. Timms rather than Katherine Susannah Prichard and Henry Handel Richardson. Who would be the equivalent best-selling names in the post-war decades? Nile mentions Morris West, Colleen McCullough, Bryce Courtenay in passing, but only discusses in any detail Thomas Keneally’s and Peter Carey’s successful crossing of the boundary between serious novels and commercial success. Although a major strength of the book is the author’s detailed knowledge of the first half of the century, there is disappointingly little new research on the postwar decades, where the development of the thesis thins out.4

The validity of this central thesis about fiction would be severely limited if it were confined to quantitative arguments about popularity, as Nile sometimes implies (eg. on poetry publication, p. 110). Is the market to decide all questions of value (as we are so often advised in these days of economic neo-liberalism)? Yet some key issues of publishing economics are not addressed, for example the well-known fact that most Australian (and probably other) publishers cross-subsidise literary and scholarly works with their much larger general lists of books (Australiana, cooking, gardening etc). There are confusions between ‘books’ and ‘fiction’ (and subsequently misleading claims about the size of the markets under discussion, eg. p. 74). ‘The novel’ is used to refer to all fiction rather than being seen as a genre with its own aesthetic (this is, admittedly, a contentiously Jamesian definition, but could at least have been considered in the attempt to understand the aesthetic as well as the nationalist assumptions of writers like Nettie and Vance Palmer). Another definitional problem is Nile’s habit of referring to the Palmers, Prichard and other Left-wing and Communist intellectuals of the 30s and 40s by the bland epithet ‘socially conscious writers’ (p. 70 et passim). On several key issues, The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination lacks the conceptual clarity that is needed to establish its important thesis successfully.

The editorial shortcomings of this book are many, and constantly distract one’s reading. Footnotes in the form of a composite Note on Sources for each chapter can be effective, but they must be discursive enough to indicate clearly where all sources can be located, and identify direct quotations in the text. These Notes are unsatisfactory on both counts, and this will severely limit the usefulness of the book to students, not to mention fellow scholars. Structural editing could have vastly improved the presentation of arguments. The standard of copy editing is appalling. Key names are mis-spelled (examples include Wighton, p. 90, Couani, p. 95, Semmler, p. 168, Rose-Soley, p. 223, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, p. 292). Page references in the Index are frequently wrong. The superfluous comma interrupts many a sentence. Wrong words, not all of them typos, include ‘contrived’ for ‘connived’ (51), ‘credible’ for ‘creditable’ (71), ‘attributed to’ for ‘suggested for’ (75), ‘coherently’ for ‘cogently’ (126). Mis-usages include ‘euphemism’ (p. 127) and ‘to fight shy of’ (p. 161). But this one – can it be blamed on a feral Spell-Check? – made me laugh and laugh: ‘bedsitting sin’ for ‘besetting sin’ (p. 158). Seriously though, you have to wonder how an experienced editor of books and journals like Richard Nile, and an eminent publishing house like UQP, with which he has worked a great deal, can have between them overlooked so many errors. Ironically, the state of this book illustrates Ramona Koval’s protest about fiction publishers’ neglect of ‘the stuff printed on the page’: ‘Why have minuscule amounts of cash been allocated to simple copy editing while the real work of structural editing goes by the way? Answer: Greed and Ignorance. They may as well sell sausages for all the interest taken in language, ideas and quality…’ (quoted by Nile, p. 282).

The promise of drawing together some major threads in the history of the book in Australia and weaving them into a narrative that could cover the whole twentieth century is not, unfortunately, fulfilled. Nile tells some good stories, though, and there is an exciting moment in chapter 12 when he seems to be on the brink of revealing a hitherto unknown literary murder mystery involving a woman writer ghosting as Australia’s best-selling novelist and an exploitative husband about to get his come-uppance…. Now read on.


Susan Sheridan is Professor of Women’s Studies at Flinders University and has published widely in Australian literary and cultural history.

Richard Nile’s The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2002.


1 Martyn Lyons and John Arnold, A History of the Book in Australia. 1891-1945. A National Culture in a Colonised Market. Vol. 2, University of Queensland Press, 2001, p. xv.

2 ‘The “Paternoster Row Machine” and the Australian Book Trade 18890-1945’ and ‘The Mystery of the Missing Bestseller’ in Lyons and Arnold, eds, A History of the Book in Australia. 1891-194.5 A National Culture in a Colonised Market.

3 Margaret Murphy’s bibliography, Women Writers and Australia (University of Melbourne Library, 1988) lists some hugely prolific women writers of genre fiction, especially romance.

4 It’s unfortunate that this book more or less coincided with, and so could not have drawn on, Jacqueline Kent’s valuable picture of the publishing industry during this period in her biography of Beatrice Davis, A Certain Style (Penguin, 2001).

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