Miles Franklin judge and award–winning editor Craig Munro discusses the Australian publishing landscape: “it’s never been stronger”.
The Australian literary canon is partly formed by the following authors, championed by University of Queensland Press (UQP) in the 1970s and 80s: Peter Carey, David Malouf, Barbara Hanrahan, Olga Masters, Murray Bail. Indeed, so many stunning writers – add Elizabeth Jolley, Hugh Lunn, Gerard Lee, Rodney Hall – were picked up by UQP in that era that those decades of poetry, short fiction and unusual novels have come to characterise the literary ‘flavour’ of modern Australia. Of course, there are others of that era – Frank Moorhouse, Patrick White, Tom Keneally – and additional contemporary voices – Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Tim Winton – but the UQP backlist is astounding in its rich talent and fearless creativity. Coaxing these writers’ words onto the page was Craig Munro, fiction editor (and, later, publishing manager) at UQP in that vital period. In 1971, at the age of 21, Munro abandoned his Courier Mail cadetship and began working at UQP. His sidestep of the reporting route led to a varied career – as editor, as scholar, as writer, as founding chair of the Queensland Writers’ Centre – which leads him to us to now. When Munro speaks to The Adelaide Review, he is down to the final dozen books in a longlist of 66 for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Munro has been judging the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most lucrative and coveted literary prize, since 2012. He spends his summers reading two or three local novels a day. It is an experience that confirms his belief: “Australian writing has never been stronger than it is now”. “Just look at fiction,” he says. “The number of good novels that were published each year in the 1970s was two or three or four. Nowadays, even in a lean year, there’ll be a dozen or more, 15, and the range of what people are writing about now is just so much wider.” He is encouraged by the creativity of new Australian voices, of the willingness to play with form and experiment with historical settings, multiple narrators and interwoven time-frames. Munro divides responsibility for the vitality of the Australian literary scene between readers, publishers and festivals (and the skill of the writers, of course). Cultural cringe, for example, has diminished. “My own sense is that readers since the 1990s have probably had a preference for Australian writers, and also for those writers who they encounter at writers’ festivals,” says Munro. “In the 1970s, there was really only one writers’ festival and that was only every two years – the Adelaide Festival – whereas now even small towns have writers’ festivals and writers’ weekends. “I think, because readers are used to that kind of close familiarity with writers, by listening to them speak or even meeting them and getting their book signed, certainly Australian writers are at an advantage compared to where they were in the 1970s.” Small encouragements – to explore short fiction as a form, for example – are among the slight changes between then and now. “Geoffrey Dutton – who, of course, was a well-known Adelaide arts figure and started Australian Book Review – wrote to Peter Carey in 1971 or 72 that the short story was dropping out of favour everywhere – except in Russia and The New Yorker,” recalls Munro with a quiet chuckle. “Just at the moment he wrote that to Peter, Peter was writing a short story every couple of days as a writing exercise, because he had these four wrist-slashing novels that he’d not been able to get published.” Luckily, the young writer didn’t heed Dutton’s letter, and Carey’s 1974 short story collection The Fat Man in History rocketed him to fame. In Munro’s recently published memoir, Under Cover, he recounts sending Carey his first copy of The Fat Man paperback – which would reach bookshop shelves at the bargain-basement price of $1.75. By 1978, nearly 10,000 copies of Carey’s first story collection had sold. Under Cover is filled with these details, little crumbs gathered from the seams of Australian publishing history. Munro recounts – with no little mischief – redacting chapter titles (‘Bible-Bashing Bastard’) and descriptions (‘cunning as a shit-house rat’) from Hugh Lunn’s biography of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He describes sweltering in sharehouses, and frolicking at Glenelg, while in Adelaide for Writers’ Weeks of years gone by. He remembers with sincere fondness and admiration the strengths and vulnerabilities of Olga Masters and Barbara Hanrahan. “Of course,” says Munro, “all of the really good stories I wasn’t able to tell.” Craig Munro is a guest of Adelaide Writers’ Week. He will appear in conversation with Nicholas Jose on Thursday, March 3 at 10.45am. Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing Scribe Publications (2015)