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Posted on 9 Feb 2021 in Non-Fiction |

CRAIG MUNRO Literary Lion Tamers: Book editors who made publishing history. Reviewed by Bruce Sims

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Craig Munro examines the author-editor relationship through the lives of four Australian editors.

Like most editors, sometimes I wish that I had a whip that I could use with authors. However, as Craig Munro demonstrates in his engaging tour through Australian letters, this is rarely a tactic that works. Though a few editors use what has been called the ‘arm-wrestling’ style of editing, most prefer a more cordial relationship with writers, if possible.

The book ranges widely over the Australian literary scene with asides on icons like the Miles Franklin Award and the corporate history of Angus & Robertson, or Anguish and Robbery as many termed it. It concentrates on four editors: AG Stephens, ‘Inky’ Stephensen, Beatrice Davis and Rosie Fitzgibbon. About a third of the book is devoted to Stephensen, which is slightly unbalanced and it is arguable that Davis (described as ‘Australia’s most influential postwar editor’) contributed most of the quartet.

But that is a quibble. What the book does best is explore the power relationships between writers and publishers/editors. Those relationships are presented as much more subtle than the ‘lion taming’ image of the title suggests. The ‘whip hand’ is indeed with the publisher, who holds the right to publish or not, but without the writer there is nothing to publish.

That power imbalance is demonstrated in a small way by Frank Moorhouse, who pops up often in the book, a sign of his central place in Australian writing, who once said about dinners that it is important to look out for ‘who holds the pencil’, that is, the right to sign for the meal. Publishers and editors often use the expression ‘my’ authors, which displays a more proprietorial relationship than is warranted, especially nowadays. However, in most cases, the power of the purse is with the publisher, though these days they are more likely to hold a card than a pencil.

AG Stephens’s major achievements are the enduring successes of Steele Rudd and Joseph Furphy, though Munro makes a very good case for his mentoring role at The Bulletin and afterwards, including his championing and publication of poet, John Shaw Neilson. His somewhat cavalier attitude to editing goes rather further than most editors would now:

With poetry, it was not unusual for him to tinker with words and phrases, even substituting whole lines of his own. Stephens fancied himself as a writer and connoisseur of verse, and his intrusive editing style was not always appreciated by the poets whose books he published.

A reconstruction of Furphy’s Such Is Life would be welcome if anyone had the courage and fortitude, but perhaps the filleting of the original by Stephens and the author was wise. The relationship with ‘Rudd’ was rather gentler and considerably more profitable, right down to the recent past with the University of Queensland press reissues.

PR Stephensen was a fascinating ratbag, though his publishing and editing achievements are debatable:

Only someone of Stephensen’s irrepressible and unpredictable temperament could have balanced his new job as a publisher with his commitment to the communist cause.

Munro’s account of his life doesn’t cover him in glory. Munro paraphrases Xavier Herbert’s opinion:

… the most discredited Australian who ever lived – a poor inoffensive hack-writer with dreams of becoming Führer.

Stephensen was willing to make use of an ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic sponsor to continue in business, but he was also responsible for Herbert’s Capricornia seeing the light of day.

Beatrice Davis’s decades with Angus & Robertson made her probably the most effective and influential editor in Australian history. Some tributes from authors when she left A & R show why:

Tom Hungerford: Her hand of iron was concealed within a glove of velvet … So quiet was she, so self-deprecating and humorous …
Kylie Tennant: Davis was able to ‘transform something unreadable into a book whose native grace shone through’.
Thea Astley: the capacity to advise without hurt and to help transform a manuscript without the author feeling ashamed or inadequate.

Astley’s description is part of the editorial skillset and Rosanne Fitzgibbon is praised for her skill at it, even with her own sister, Marion Halligan:

… who warned her little sister not to ‘tinker’ with her prose. ‘Look Marion,’ Rosie replied, ‘I’m the editor. It’s my job to tinker. You’re the writer – it’s your job to ignore me!’

Rosanne was the champion of Gillian Mears and many other fiction writers. She was also the first recipient of the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, which honoured Davis with an award allowing an Australian editor to travel to New York. Literary agent Mary Cunnane:

… remembered Rosie as an outstanding publisher with the great quality of nurturing her authors. One of the ways she did this was to cultivate relationships, not just with writers but with their agents as well …

In a commercial setting, maintaining relationships is easier said than done. For example, since I started freelancing in 2000, I have worked with over 150 authors. If I kept in touch with all of them plus those I worked with at Penguin and Magabala Books, I wouldn’t have time for any other friends or time to do any work. Nonetheless, some of them are quite close friends and others would be happy never to hear from me again.

Munro frames the stories with his own experiences as a student, writer, editor and publisher. His doctoral thesis, which became a book on ‘Inky’ Stephensen, informs his account of this mercurial man. Perhaps all editors are mercurial in some way. Few of us are dull, in my experience, and neither is this book, which is a very good read and an impeccably researched history.

Craig Munro Literary Lion Tamers: Book editors who made publishing history Scribe Publications 2021 PB 288pp $29.99

Bruce Sims has been editing since 1970 and worked for Penguin Books Australia and Magabala Books.

You can buy Literary Lion Tamers from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.