Category Archives: australian

Kabuff or Wunderkammer?

Fictional publishers often appear at international book fairs. The setting gives writers the chance to introduce new characters, engineer plot twists and inject the frisson of drunken conversations and illicit sex. The Frankfurt Kabuff, Blaire Squiscoll’s recent work, adds a new twist to this, functioning as a mesmerising deconstruction of what it means to be a publisher and what it means to hang out with publishers at such events. It combines many old publishing tropes, sometimes seeming to be more of a Wunderkammer than a Kabuff.

The central character, Beatrice Deft, is not a publisher but she is someone who loves books, believes in their power to change lives.  She is old school: she smokes, she drinks, she eats meat (there is a flashback subplot of violence against an immigrant at a chicken shop in Australia – don’t ask), she flies. Deft enjoys sex (and Sekt) with Caspian, the hunky German cop, of whom we learn little except for his badge number (6969) and the way he wields his impressive baton.

After a violent intervention by the right-wingers surrounding a publishing firm called White Storm – put down with the help of Tante Fran and the knitting book club – the old left-wing publisher Kurt Weidenfeld steps down from his position at Linksphilosophie Verlag in favour of Adriana, Lotte Frankel takes over from the wannabe demagogue Kristoff Weil, and Beatrice begins a new career as an international publishing consultant, travelling the world to protect international books from future terrorist attacks. The publishing patriarchy is being overturned.

As Beatrice prepares to jet off on her new mission, the familiar figure of a strapping blond catches her attention. There will be further adventures, but they had better hurry, because this old world of international publishing will soon be brought to a juddering halt, not, as this story suggests, by the threat of right-wing terrorism, but by the surveillance state it has created, the security apparatus it spawned, and – in this time of climate breakdown – the impossibility of sustaining all that smoking, drinking, meat-eating and carbon-fuelled travel that are at the core of the international book fair circuit.

Blaire Squiscoll, The Frankfurt Kabuff, 2019

Penguin…and all the other things we once thought mattered

Kif, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, is writing a novel, but it’s going nowhere when his old pal Ray gets him the job of ghostwriting Ziggy Heidl’s autobiography. That’s how he and Ray ‘drifted into that world of publishing and celebrity‘ and meet Gene Paley and Pia Carnevale at the venerable firm of Schlegel TransPacific (known as Transpac or STP). As so often in contemporary novels, the golden age of publishing (including the downtown prestige offices) are part of the backdrop.

It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquors cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfilment, and supply chain management had connected like tightening coils in the hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent, say, of Red Army canteens in Kabul, circa 1979.

Ziggy’s story is complicated and violent, but the book eventually gets written and published. Kif still has no success writing novels, but he moves to writing for TV where he has a stunning success.

Pia, the books editor, goes on to ‘survive the clearfelling of publishing companies that proceeded apace over the next few decades, finding at each point in the ever-diminishing forest another, higher tree which to climb. She ended up working at Penguin Random House in New York, the last of the great publishers in the last of great European cities [sic] and all the other things we once thought mattered.

First Person is published under the Chatto & Windus imprint, a part of none other than the Penguin Random House group of companies, where there is, no doubt, an editor – or perhaps more than one – who identifies with Pia.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, 2017

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What can an editor trust?

“All I knew now, in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion, was that my heart was beating very fast indeed. Rereading the fragment, I felt that excitement in my blood which is the only thing an editor should ever trust.”

So says Sarah Elizabeth Jane Wode-Douglass in Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake. Is she exhibiting exactly the kind of error of judgement that tempts Weiss into his error over the McCorkle hoax? Is this a lesson for writers on how to blag your way into print or a warning to over-eager editors?

Peter Carey, My Life as a Fake, 2003

Publishing and Power

The unexpected use of “good Anglo-Saxon names” makes the characters like people “you meet in the street”, and adds to the tension and terror in Thomas Keneally’s The Tyrant’s Novel. Here a writer from an unnamed country calling himself Alan Sheriff, seeks asylum and tells how the leader of his country, ‘Great Uncle’, enlisted him in the service of his political goals.

Great Uncle said again, I want you to do me a favour, Alan. I want you to do, that is, the state a favour. I don’t pretend it won’t be demanding. The situation is this. In four months the G-7 meet, as I say, in Montreal. My plan is to release a book in New York at that time, published by a bona fide publisher, bearing my name, which displays to the world the suffering of my people, and their patriotic inventiveness in the face of sanctions. You can put it better than that, I know. I want it to be a subtle novel, with heroes and some villains. I want it to be a book an American would enjoy reading.

Everything is set up –“ Pearson Dysart in New York have the publisher primed, but they insist they need three months to get the word of this extraordinary literary coup into the market and to attend to publishing the book. And, of course, to let it leak into the market that they have signed a contract with the notorious Great Uncle, and that the manuscript of the novel is very good.

Alan conceals the fact that he has buried the only remaining copy of his recently completed manuscript (paper and computer file) with the body of his wife, who has suddenly died of a cerebral aneurism. It is eventually exhumed. In another part of the story a friend already in exile writes to tell Alan that a package that “claimed to come from the University Press” contained the head of his “former file manager from the Cultural Commission”. Earlier a friend of Alan justifies submitting his book to the censor: “How much different is it, he asked, than having a Western publisher who wants to smarten up a manuscript according to what’s fashionable?

When the book is complete, the Great Uncle proposes making Alan his “storyteller laureate”, “Shostakovich to my Stalin, Molière to my Sun King”. Books and publishing are shown as powerful forces in international affairs and writers can produce texts to order in both totalitarian and commercial contexts. When he escaped, the only thing Alan carried “which resembled a document was a folded-up dust jacket from the American edition of my book”, showing that it is Alan’s publishability that is important to all concerned. It may also be what enables the writer to escape the tyrant’s clutches.

Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel, 2004

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