Forgotten Australian novelists

J.W. Heming

J.W. Heming – Source: Collecting books and magazines.com

How do books/novelists get forgotten? I’ve been pondering this for a while now and have come up with a formulae. Well, the ingredients for a formulae and someone needs to assign values and calculate. I think it would include, in no particular order (that’s for the formulae writer to decide):

Early death of novelist. An original/exciting/groundbreaking novel is published. Word is getting around the traps and then the author dies before establishing a reputation. A perfect example is Deirdre Cash (1924-1963). Writing as Criena Rohan, the young Australian published two novels The Delinquents and Down by the Dockside and would be almost completely forgotten if her first novel had not been made into a 1989 movie. If she had not died so young, the mysterious third novel The House with the Golden Door would definitely have survived and hopefully been published, helping to establish a less tenuous reputation.

Gender bias, if the novelist is a woman, leading to a lack of reviews and recommendations and later anthologising, as examined at length in Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers by Dale Spender. (Although things are now looking up as the shortlist for the 2015 Short Story Prize for emerging writers is made of 8 women and only 4 men).

The writing style of the author and/or the changing tastes of the reading public Was it avant garde? Too extreme for the masses that were the reading public of, say, 1924. If we could only get a hold of that elusive book written in 1923 we would discover that it’s author should never have been forgotten. See my review of Jean Curlewis’s Beach Beyond.

A reclusive and/or difficult author. As pointed out in the excellent article: Turning Pages: The lost or forgotten classic novels that should be back in print – a difficult author can sabotage their own fame and that of their novels. “Some authors might have been better-known if they were less reclusive (Gregory Day’s pick, the poet George Mackay Brown, spent most of his life in the Orkney Islands); or less independent and bloody-minded (Geordie Williamson’s pick, the eccentric James Hamilton-Paterson, is admired by Michael Ondaatje​ and Barry Humphries).”

Not successful in winning any major prizes or competitions. Once your novel has won a competition such as the Miles Franklin your name is registered for all time and your book guaranteed a place in Australian literary history. Although at Sydney Review of Books Nicolas Jose eloquently states: “There is a difference between literary history and living literature. Winning the Miles Franklin may gain you a place in the historical record. But there’s no reason why today’s reader should be bound by the decisions of yesterday’s judging committee. It is as interesting to ask why a writer or a book may not work for us as to insist that it is a great work because someone once gave it a prize.”

Meeting the needs of the moment only. This generally won’t ensure a book’s long term survival. A very good example of this is the Australian pulp fiction (yes Australian!) of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As Andrew Nette explains at Kill Your Darlings – “It was throwaway fiction in every sense of the word: cheap; printed on rough paper; featuring lurid cover art designed to make the books stand out at news stands and kiosks. It also had a healthy dose of cultural cringe, with the majority of the stories set elsewhere – usually America.”

Of course tastes change and not even quality writing can always be assured of survival. In my research on the 1920s I came across some Forgotten Australian Women Novelists. Of course the 1920s is a long time ago so I moved my research period forward and began to wonder who were the top male and female authors 1940-1950. From publication listings accessed by the very helpful AustLit we have below a list of the top five male Australian authors:

J.W. Heming
Carl Dekker
Bob Mackinnon
Kevin M. Slattery
Philip Richmond.

The top five female authors for the same period are:

Maysie Greig
Jennifer Ames
Marie Ford
Mary Mitchell
Edna Finlay

I’m afraid I’ve never heard of any of them. Their popularity hasn’t saved them for posterity. Luckily over the last ten years or so there has been a concerted push by a number of institutions to save selected worthy books and novelists from being completely forgotten. There is the excellent Text Publishing Classic Series, Sydney University Press’s Classic Australian Works, Allen & Unwin’s recently launched House of Books, and other reprints.

I and my fellow colleagues at Australian Women’s Writers Challenge are also doing our bit to help raise awareness of underrated or forgotten novelists. Sue at Whispering Gums has recently reviewed The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Henshaw wrote one of my all time favourite books by an Australian – Out of the Line of Fire. The novel burst into our consciousness in 1988 and was one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1980s. And then the author disappeared from the literary world. Another forgotten novelist is Fredric Manning who wrote, (for me anyway) the unforgettable WWI novel The Middle Parts of Fortune which thankfully Lisa has reviewed at ANZ Litlovers. Hopefully her review will lead to more readers of Manning’s thought provoking novel and the publication of The Snow Kimono, a host of new readers for Henshaw.

Just in case you are wondering, here are details about our top two novelists from AustLit “John Winton Heming was the author of some 50 pulp novelettes and claimed to have written perhaps two thousand short stories. Heming published in different genres and under a variety of names and pseudonyms.” And our top female. “Maysie Greig was a journalist with the Sydney Sun newspaper from 1919 to 1920. There is some evidence that Greig published the same works, often under different titles, under different names in England and the United States.”

I am currently reading The Drowning Maze by Jean Curlewis published in 1922. Watch this space for the review. The only trouble is, I will have to add the book first. Jean Curlewis, is a forgotten novelist as far as Goodreads is concerned, at least until recently and yours truly.

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