Section 31 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 31

Booksellers and publishers

A nation culturally passive — culturally self-classified as second-rate — culturally dependent on another nation — in brief, culturally abject — is one which will exalt mediocrity and drive genius into silence or exile: precisely what Australia has done for almost forty years past, since the first florescence of national mind became nipped in the bud. To those who would refute this thesis by pointing to the fact that poets such as Mary Gilmore, and prose-writers such as Ion Idriess, have had no lack of publication and appreciation here, I would reply that such a contention exactly illustrates my meaning. Mrs. Gilmore and Mr. Idriess are competent and entertaining writers, but, as I view it, they are not profound, nor finally significant, writers. It is a good thing that, at a certain level, Mrs. Gilmore is esteemed for her poetry and Mr. Idriess for his prose: but it would be a tragedy if this level were fixed as the highest to which Australian writers could aspire, or as the highest to which Australian writers have, in fact, attained. We must not judge English literature by the prose work of Warwick Deeping, nor American literature by the poetical works of Edgar Guest! Yet there is (or was a few years ago) some danger that literature in Australia would come to be judged in terms of its most boosted products rather than of its best.

The great Australian book-selling, or book-distributing firms have traditionally, and by a natural logic, been concerned mainly with the sale and distribution of imported books, rather than of “Australian-made” books. When such firms, occasionally and as a sideline, began to undertake the publication of books by Australian authors, their attitude would be naturally that of the bookseller rather than that of the book-publisher. The bookseller, accustomed to “to giving the public what it wants” (like a newspaper editor) has a tendency to give the public (or rather sell to the public) books of a familiar pattern, safe books, books beyond criticism, conservative books.

So it must be with all who follow rather than create a concept of Public Taste. A bookseller could “handle” an unusual, unorthodox, indecent, or even a radical book, if somebody else had published it, and thus had taken the responsibility of putting it into print. But a bookseller with 20,000 or more customers, most of them “regulars,” would (like a newspaper editor) think very carefully about what he published with his own imprint: would be, in fact, ultra-cautious as a publisher, and could not be blamed for being so cautious. It is more than fifty years ago since, in England, the functions of bookseller and of book-publisher finally became quite separate.

The Publisher’s frame of mind is much more venturesome than that of the Bookseller. The Publisher, in the course of his business, does not hesitate to take risks, not only financial but “literary.” He has that in his nature which makes him desire to give the public, not only what it wants, but what it ought to want. Any publisher worth his salt will take up a “new” author, an unorthodox author, an outrageous author, a rebellious author, in the hope that ultimately he will discover a Shaw, a Wells, a Galsworthy, as the rebel matures. But a Bookselling Firm with a respectable connection could not take the risks of sponsoring a young Shaw, a young Wells, or a young Galsworthy: or any new writer who would curdle the innocent blood of maiden aunts.

So it is that in Australia a “safe” policy has been followed by the booksellers who undertook publishing as a sideline. The late George Robertson was the most typical of these. This kindly, shrewd Scotsman was one of the greatest booksellers the world has ever known. Few, if any, bookshops in Britain sold as many books as did his shop in Sydney. Glasgow-trained, he knew bookselling as a fine art. He ventured into book-publishing in Australia not from any urge to intensify and focus the national culture, but merely because the function of publishing was forced upon him, as it were, through an absence of other publishers. He was confronted many times, I feel sure, with manuscripts which he would, as a man, an artist, and a booklover, have been delighted to publish: but his policy, as Bookseller Paramount was caution: and who could blame him? It may fairly be said that, as a publisher, he did nothing to advance the cause of high poetry or of the literary novel in Australia. His oft-repeated advice to novelists was to send their work overseas. A cautious man, I think he very seldom lost money on a book which he published, or “took any chances” to foster a young genius. He was a businesssman and not a literary foster-father.

He lacked the “gambler’s instinct” without which a publisher cannot deserve the name: the illogical desire to get a meritorious author into print, at the risk of going “broke,” which has made the fortunes of publisher after publisher in other countries. Only once, I think, did George Robertson achieve full status as a publisher: and that was in the publication of The Australian Encyclopaedia, a magnificent effort and gesture of faith in his adopted country, an effort which will stand as his monument when his work as an importing-bookseller has been forgotten.

I refer to George Robertson in this connection because he was a Man of His Time. He naturally regarded Britain as “Home” and had a tendency, in what he published here, to stress “colonial” subjects and treatments. From We of the Never-Never to Lasseter’s Last Ride, he showed a preference, in the prose works he published, for “descriptive” books rather than for creative or contentious fiction. His preference in poetry was for “sellers” such as The Sentimental Bloke rather than for any of the finer (but more “difficult”) poetry, such as that of C. J. Brennan, which would have brought him much more lasting renown, and much less immediate cash, if he had put his name on an edition of it. It was during George Robertson’s régime as Publisher-Paramount that Australian books came to be regarded naturally as “colonial” and as inferior to the imported product. The reasons for his policy of choice were perfectly natural, and comprehensible, and justifiable, in terms of the man himself, his primary occupation as a bookseller, and his period. But a new phase is coming, or has come, in Australian book-publishing: a phase of a greater venturesomeness.

I stated the principles of this new development three years ago as follows: Books evoke readers; readers do not evoke books. For those to whom this principle is not self-evident I would explain that it throws the onus of “creating a market” for Australian books upon the authors and publishers rather than on the reading public. The reading public is as latent as a mass of unleavened dough. It does not know what it wants. The Australian public does not “want” Australian literature; or anything else in particular. It takes what is offered to it, or what it can get; and hopes for the best. Slowly, by the publication of Australian books of quality, the Australian public will come to realise that it wants Australian books. But there is a period of “education” to be traversed — which is being traversed at the present time.

For forty years past, however, the nation has been, as I have said, culturally passive, culturally dependent on overseas supplies of book-fodder. As a result, major novelists such as Louis Stone and Arthur Adams have been unpublished in our midst. Others, such as Brent of Bin Bin, and Henry Handel Richardson, have gone “home” to Britain to be published — and their works have not had an adequate distribution here, their appreciation being confined to the cognoscenti. As for poets, although we have had Baylebridge, Brennan, McCrae, Jack Lindsay, and Shaw Neilson in our midst, where are their works? Read, I venture to say, by not one person in a hundred who ought to have read them!

Dowell O’Reilly and Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford and E. J. Brady — have such fine writers as these, for example, reached the summit of appreciation which their merit and national value deserves? In Dowell O’Reilly’s daughter, Eleanor Dark, Australia can boast of a novelist undoubtedly of world calibre: and there are probably a dozen other first-class contemporary novelists, besides Eleanor Dark, living in Australia and not yet lured overseas to join the Anglicised Australian best-sellers such as Philip Lindsay and Helen Simpson. Australia could boast of its writers — but does Australia boast? Ah, no. Our pathetic intelligentsia, particularly the feeble “university” type, read T. S. Eliot, longing for the “sophisticated English” culture which they imagine that this Bostonian émigré represents. There is more poetical sophistication in a page of Brennan, of Baylebridge, of McCrae, or of Jack Lindsay, than in a whole volume of Eliot. But it is difficult or impossible to buy the poetry of Brennan, of Baylebridge, of McCrae, or of Jack Lindsay. Whereas Eliot, like Warwick Deeping, or Zane Grey, is properly marketed here.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 106-111

Editor’s notes:
cognoscenti = people who are experts in a particular subject, especially in fine arts, fashion, and literature; connoisseurs

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