Under Cover, Adventures in the Art of Editing, by Craig Munro is a book that – as you’d expect since it’s been written by a book industry insider – has been widely reviewed by book industry insiders. (Here’s Geordie Williamson’s in The Australian and one on the ABC where the reviewer seems to know that ‘Craig is such a lovely man’.) But for me, reading the book as an outsider looking in, it’s perhaps a different experience. I didn’t have to worry about whether I featured in it!
In 1970 UQP (the University of Queensland Press) began its transition from a traditional university press founded in 1948, with a poetry series called Paperback Poets (edited by Roger McDonald and featuring poets like Rodney Hall and David Malouf). It then branched out into literary fiction, and as the fiction editor from 1971 to 2005, Craig Munro brought us books by authors that are household names today.
Even a quick look through my library shelves shows just how many authors are from the UQP list: Peter Carey, David Malouf, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Murray Bail, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital, Kate Grenville, Beverley Farmer, Lily Brett, Olga Masters, Randolph Stow and Elizabeth Jolley. Some of these authors stayed loyal to the company and others moved on after getting their start, but there is little doubt in my mind that Munro was instrumental in guiding literary taste in Australia for over a quarter of a century.
Other reviews have made much of Munro as the editor who ‘discovered’ Peter Carey who went on to win the Booker twice and even be suggested as a potential Nobel laureate, and the book is certainly rich in Carey anecdotes, but if you’ve participated in my annual Indigenous Literature Week you’ll probably guess that I was most interested in the story of how UQP came to set up the David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers. I have just read this year’s winner Not Just Black and White by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams, (see my review) and I’ve read a good many of the previous winners too: Alexis Wright, Philip McLaren, Jeanine Leane, Marie Munkara, Tara June Winch, Larissa Behrendt, Robert Lowe and Doris Pilkington, not to mention the award-winning Melissa Lucashenko who also features in UQP’s Black Writers list…
Goodness me, what a name-dropper I am in this post! But it’s the nature of books like this to drop names, tell chatty anecdotes, even gossip a bit. Some of the most revealing asides are a reminder of how times have changed since the days when an exchange of contracts took a week by mail, and Munro had to get permission from his boss to place a trunk call because they were so expensive. But what’s also different now is a different sort of corporate mentality, the rise of the literary agent who is another sort of ‘gatekeeper’ in the process of getting published, and of course the whole global industry, the rise of ePublishing and the self-published author.
If you’re wondering whether this book will appeal to the general reader, my answer to that is to quote this passage about Olga Masters, that wonderfully talented ‘late bloomer’ who started writing at 62, and tragically died of cancer before she could realise her ambition to publish one book for each of her seven children.
At the time I recommended Olga’s stories to UQP, I still knew very little about her. Only later did I discover that she was sixty-two years old and had grown up in poverty on the south coast of New South Wales. Her first job was with a local newspaper, The Cobargo Chronicle, whose editor had encouraged her writing ambitions. She had first begun writing fiction in the 1930s, aged just fifteen, making her even more precocious than Peter Carey. Married at twenty-one to a schoolteacher, she raised a family of seven children, continuing to work part-time as a journalist.
Olga had lived through some of the harshest years in Australia’s history, including the Great Depression and the social upheaval of wartime Sydney, subjects she later wrote about so movingly. It was not until her fifties, when most of her brood had left home, that Olga was able to indulge her passion for writing. After The Home Girls was published, two novels and a collection of linked stories followed in quick succession, and Olga announced that she wanted to publish a book for each of her seven children. Yet she insisted to me on more than one occasion, ‘My children are my finest books.’ (p.147)
For those of us who love Olga Masters’ books, it’s a privilege to read this kind of insider knowledge.
It’s also good fun to learn that one of the judges in the year that Peter Carey missed out on the Booker was livid that her co-judges didn’t choose his book when she couldn’t make the final meeting due to theatrical commitments. So much for a confidential judging process, eh?
The sub-title is important: Munro believes – as perhaps you’d expect him to – that editing is an art, and one that makes the book better. Obviously it requires tact and persuasion as well as an understanding of what it is, that makes a book great. I’ve read enough badly edited books recently to know that we owe a great deal to editors like Craig Munro – and dare I say it? Yes, I think I will: I think Munro’s academic background in literature – as distinct from ‘cultural studies’ et al – is part of the reason for UQP’s high standards over time…
Author: Craig Munro
Title: Under Cover, Adventures in Art of Editing
Publisher: Scribe, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Scribe
Fishpond: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing