Category Archives: australian

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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