Bringing Lit Back Home Hilary McPhee recalls Australian publishing's heyday, when local voices spoke louder than balance sheets

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Hilary mcphee spent much of the summer of 1963-64 below ground in a long, dark chute known as "The Squeeze." The University of Melbourne history student had been invited to join an archaeological expedition to Koonalda Cave, on the Nullarbor Plain, where, each morning, she would clamber 60 m down a rope to brush away the lime dust that coated ancient finger marks on the cave walls. Motherhood made McPhee swap her studies for a job at Penguin Books, but that expedition set a precedent. As she recalls in Other People's Words (Picador; 308 pages), for the 15 years McPhee and her friend Di Gribble subsequently ran their eponymous publishing house before selling it to Penguin in 1989: "We were chipping away at the coalface of postcolonial publishing relationships with our bare hands."

McPhee is not the first insider to pen an ode to a small, editorially driven publishing firm subsumed by a profit-driven juggernaut. But Other People's Words has a wider purpose than did the recent cris de coeur of her American counterparts Andre Schiffrin and Jason Epstein (both once with Random House). The story of McPhee Gribble needs telling now, McPhee says, because it provides a "window on some of the big issues"-such as how to retain a distinctive creative voice-faced by a "tiny culture in a very large country at the bottom of the world."

Now one of Australia's preeminent women of the arts (she has chaired the Federal government's principal arts funding and advisory body, the Australia Council, and is her alma mater's inaugural Vice Chancellor's Fellow), McPhee didn't let a lack of experience deter her from setting up a publishing house with the "vague hope of becoming a kind of antipodean Hogarth Press"-the British "hobby" firm that first published T.S. Eliot. While that gung-ho idealism was a product of the '70s era of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, looking back, McPhee was "surprised to discover that publishing was something I had been preparing for since childhood," when books were "the most important things" at home and "ŒWhat are you reading?' was almost the first question asked."

McPhee Gribble's first venture-having the Practical Puffins children's series written and illustrated for Penguin-may have sold 3 million books worldwide, but it was creativity, not moneymaking, that drove the imprint. Helen Garner arrived, to "tell us rather diffidently that she thought she might have written a novel" (Monkey Grip); Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey sang their Puberty Blues song; and soon the publishers were nurturing A-list authors like Tim Winton. Even after the 1987 stock market collapse, when they had to endure round after round of meetings with potential investors, the partners still failed to convince themselves or their staff to cut corners and produce books that they rated only "seven out of 10."

If today's editors aren't as altruistic, or skilled, the fault, McPhee writes, lies with new publishing structures, which are ruled by the maxim "the reader is a mug and the writer is a commodity: sell 50 thousand copies before anyone discovers [the books] are not much good." But McPhee Gribble's story is as much about what Australia's creative enterprises have lost as about how they might regain it. Whether they turn out films or fashion, the key to survival is to "control the means of transmitting or disseminating," says McPhee. "We've got to start talking about Australian-content rules," or cultural globalization will muffle the quirks and nuances of local voices.

Submerged in the culture of the British Empire, McPhee grew up thinking Australia was a "literary terra nullius." Eavesdropping on Meanjin founder Clem Christensen and writers like Patrick White and Judith Wright during a student stint at the literary magazine, she realized that "Australia's literary tradition was a struggle to be heard." It was quite a revelation. Since then, McPhee has championed literature "embedded in accent, in place, in history"-from Brian Matthew's biography of 19th century feminist Louisa Lawson to Elsie Roughsey's An Aboriginal Mother Tells of the Old and the New-books that seek to address the "silences and holes" previous generations left in Australia's culture and identity.

It's an admirable ambition. But when it comes to revealing herself, McPhee is reticent: readers wanting more memoir and less philosophy may be disappointed. That's not the story she needed to write, McPhee says: she set out to include only those aspects of her life that related to books and publishing. But the paucity of detail sometimes comes across as glib. (Of her third husband, Don Watson, a historian and speechwriter to former Prime Minister Paul Keating, she writes: "The office had unwritten rules about love affairs with authors. But the book emerged unscathed and we lived happily ever after.") If McPhee has lived in other people's words, they have taught her well. Now that she has the past off her chest, we can look forward to reading more in her own voice.