Reprint: Adelaide Booksellers on Australian Books by Elizabeth Leigh

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   When I am gone, I hope it may be said
   His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.

             -- Hilaire Belloc.

Many years ago now Henry Kendall, that lost child of a mellower civilization, bewailed the hardships which befall "a man of letters here." There is no New Grub street in Australia, but the reporters' room of a newspaper, and the ledger of a city firm here and there might tell of inkier servitudes than those of Gissing's sombre heroes in the murk of London's literary underworld. "Genius," says one critic finely, "though it may often desire money and fame, is never silenced by the lack of either," and there is always a comfortable tradition that poets will be poets in spite of us. What is there to hinder a man dashing off a three volume novel on his Saturday afternoons or late nights at the office? Tolstoy, who had an austere belief in the sweat of the brow, would even have held that an author was the better for it. Australian writers, however, have not flourished under these conditions; and it is even beginning to be suspected that leisure, or, in other words, the assurance of an income, is a favourable condition for good literary work. Few men, in setting out to write a masterpiece, can quite free themselves from the ignoble anxiety of how they and their dependants are to live in the meantime. In Australia the settled income is still almost exclusively associated with families newly enriched by commerce, which circles; however valuable their contributions to trade, have not often displayed leanings to literature. The would-be man of letters, bereft both of the princely patron of old and the unearned increment which is his substitute in older civilizations, relies for his leisure on democracy's interest and appreciation. Has democracy any interest and appreciation for Australian literature?

Views from a Bookshop.

Adelaide booksellers, deep in preparation for Australian Authors' Week, expressed varying opinions on the question. Mr. F. W. Preece, President of the Associated Booksellers of Australia and New Zealand, was, unfortunately, too ill to be interviewed; but Mr. E. H. Lowe, secretary of the Adelaide Association, who is also the manager of the Methodist Book Depot, suggested that if Australians did not appreciate Australian books after Authors' Week it would not be the book sellers' fault. He explained that in Melbourne the Associated Booksellers were working through press, platform, and wireless, and had given prizes for a "slogan." The competition had resulted in such bright ideas as 'Buy books by Australian writers now and by and by,' and 'Australian writers write the right books; buy one by one.' Adelaide booksellers clung to the Adelaide tradition that dignity and dulness were not synonymous, and preferred a quieter poster. They were all supporting Authors' Week in proportion to their smaller numbers, and relied on a joint advertisement and window displays of nothing but Australian books to capture the bookbuyers' interest.

As manager of the Methodist Book   Depot, Mr. Lowe could not express an opinion on the general attitude to Australian books. He could only indicate the attitude of Methodists, which was to show interest in books by ministers' daughters, but restricted enthusiasm in other directions. "Take," he said, "this fairy book by Pixie O. Harris. It is a delightful thing, but we can't sell it. Our people do not care for fairy tales. We can sell any number of Bible stories and copies of "Pilgrim's Progress," but fairy tales sent out for children's prizes are almost invariably returned. In fact, we don't send them now. The novels of Miss Dorothy Langsford have a great sale among our people."

Speaking, not as the manager of the Methodist Book Deport, but as a bookseller of wider experience, Mr. Lowe held that there was a distinct prejudice against books by Australian writers. "Unless there is some strong personal interest, or interest in the historical events described, Australian readers don't want them."

At Tyrrell's.

Mr. S.J. Stutley, happily at home in the bookish and delightful atmosphere of Tyrrell's, Limited, responded in a manner befitting the surroundings, which always seem to suggest that even in this hasty and commercial age there is still room and leisure for talk on general ideas. "I suppose," he said candidly, "that you know as well as I do what the public's attitude has been to Australian literature, It has been apathetic. It is only just lately, since the war in fact, that bookbuyers have realized that Australians can write. Now Angus & Robertson have printed at least half a dozen novels, which have been as well received as English novels of the same type, and as well read as if they had been published in England with all the advantages of the advertising of well-organized publishers. In England, too, the tide has turned. At least two leading firms of publishers, Hodder & Stoughton and Hutchinson's, have representatives in Australia, keeping a lookout for Australian novels.  

"A good example of changed, conditions is the fate of Katherine Susannah Pritchard's "Working Bullocks." That is a really fine thing, outstanding among Australian publications. Her "Pioneers" met with very meagre success. This is a much more mature work, showing real   power, and it has been readily recognised both in Australia and England. It is a novel of the dairy districts, and very realistically written. Jonathan Cape, who brought out the English edition, wrote asking her to tone down the expressions used in some of the dialogue, but she cabled, in effect, "What I have written, I have written," and they thought so highly of the work, that they accepted her ruling. We have just cabled to England for more copies-- a thing most rare with an Australian novel-- and have received a reply that more are being printed so that apart from its Australian success it has made an impression in England." Mr. Stutley touched on Australian publishing, and expressed the opinion that at present it was best for Australian writers to publish in Australia, with the prospect of an English edition if their venture proved successful. It was the hardest test. The Platypus series of cheap reprints were going to make a difference, he thought, to the Australian prospects.

Fairy Books and Others.

Mr. J. Morley Bath, manager of Rigby's, Limited, is one of the most enthusiastic workers for Australian Authors' Week. He believes intensely in encouraging Australian writers, and shows his belief very practically by publishing their books. The Australian text books published by Rigby's are well known, and include works by A. Grenfell Price. Gordon L. Wood. M.A., and Cyril M. Ward, M.A. Their publications, however, are often in lighter vein, and Mr. Bath, rejoices in the distinction of being Pixie O. Harris's "Fairy Publishers," and appearing in her marginal illustrations complete with bowler hat. umbrella and wings. He also published Maud Renner Liston's "Cinderella's   Party"' Mr. Bath has been most anxious that Adelaide should do its part in Australian Authors' Week, and has worked hard in the cause.

Missing Colour.

Mr. B. B. Beck, of Cole's Book Arcade, has seen many changes in the public taste for books, and is now slow to predict. He thinks, that the readers he is most in touch with care little for Australian, or even for English books, compared with the American novel.    

"There," he said, "they find picturesque scenery, the romantic events of two wars, the glamour of Red Indian life, and adventures among primitive conditions. We have as yet no distinctly Australian colour. Most of the novels written here might be written about any part of the continent. Mr. Gask, the dentist, writes detective stories, which are translated into three or four languages, but they are translated because they are detective stories, not because they are Australian. Mrs. Doudy's "Magic of Dawn" sold because of the interest in historical events connected with it. We have as yet no distinctly Australian architecture, no Australian costume even. Australian readers will read more Australian books when they have the interest of strong local colour."  

From all of which the aspiring Australian author may or may not, draw comfort.  

First published in The Register, 10 September 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 22, 2012 9:10 AM.

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