Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 27, 2016

Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers (2016), by Ryan O’Neill

Their Brilliant CareersIf you enjoyed Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy (see my review) you’ll probably enjoy Their Brilliant Careers. 

The title is a satiric allusion to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career but the brilliant careers in question are, as the blurb says, invented.  There are sixteen chapter length biographies of Australian authors who never existed, but who apparently bear uncanny resemblance to well-known figures from the Australian books and publishing landscape.  Ambition and ego are common threads in all of them.  Part of the fun is working out whose brilliant, or not so brilliant career is being parodied.

The question is, therefore, is it enjoyable reading if the reader doesn’t know the ‘well-known figures.’  And is it a spoiler to identify the ones I do recognise?

I’m going to tread carefully and stick to a couple that I know are safely dead.  The bio of the sci-fi author ‘Rand Washington’ made me think of prolific authors of pulp like Frank Clune and Ion Idress   who were published by  P R ‘Inky’ Stephensen, who was like the fictional Rand Washington, xenophobic and racist, and notorious for his political views which morphed from communism to the far-right.   ‘Addison Tiller’, an upper-class English twit who wrote countless stories of bush life starting with ‘Hacking out the Homestead’ (featuring Pa and Pete) without ever venturing out of Sydney, is, I think, a parody of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection starring Dad and Dave.  (See my unimpressed review).

Fakery is also a common theme in other bios too.  There is, as you’d expect, a riff on the Ern Malley hoax and there’s a droll story of a customs officer who purloined all the copies of significant works coming into the country and then made a comfortable career by rewriting them as his own (Ulysses/Odysseus and so on).

But I have to confess that even though I’m quite widely read in OzLit, there were some that seemed like an in-joke that I was missing.  These ones I read for what they were: far-fetched nonsense parodying the kind of celebrity ‘dirt’ that trashy magazines offer.  Some of them raised a chuckle, some of them were a bit flat.

That’s not the book’s fault: I obviously know less about the Australian literary scene than is necessary to ‘get’ the jokes.  Maybe you need to know more about editors and publishers than an ordinary reader knows.

So I checked out other reviews to see if others fared better than I did.

Cameron Calwell at The Writers Bloc thought that O’Neill had created a satirical, funny alternative history to Australian literature, an exercise he has achieved admirably and with brilliance.  (Interestingly, he thought that Addison Tiller was Henry Lawson.)

Elke Power at Readings Monthly thought that while the intensely intertextual nature of this collection will reward the well-read, the stories also work as tight, standalone comic pieces in their own right. 

There’s an extract at Meanjin.

Author: Ryan O’Neill
Title: Their Brilliant Careers, The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers
Publisher: Black Inc Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958639
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books

Available from Fishpond: Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers


  1. In jokes get up my nose. Think I might give this one a miss! Appreciated your Steele Rudd review though, Rudd is an important contributor to the 1890s scene but I hadn’t really considered how unfunny Dad can be. Also, I listened to Dad and Dave serials on 3WL as a kid but don’t think Rudd was to blame for them.


    • Ah, but I think you might like this. You’re much better read in classic OzLit than I am, and I think you’d have a good chuckle over it.
      Question: do you think Steele Rudd was the Eddie McGuire of his time representing a kind of Boys Own humour that some people disapproved of but others liked?


      • That’s not a fair question – I seriously dislike McGuire who takes himself and gets taken far too seriously. Rudd, with Miles Franklin, followed closely after Lawson and Paterson in developing an Australian style of writing, which included I think, humour in the face of adversity, but not “Boy’s Own”. He was aware and wrote of, the hardships facing his mother.


        • Agreed, I think he’s deplorable and I don’t understand why he’s still on air after some particular incidents. But alas, he must appeal to a certain type of person or he wouldn’t be there.
          I just looked up Steele Rudd in Vernay’s ‘Brief Take’ and it puts him with the Bohemians of the Bulletin (Vance Palmer, Louis Stone and Brian Penton (I’ve never come across these two); Norman Lindsay; and Joseph Furphy, all “born in opposition to the colonial romance”. And it says he wrote three novels recycling his life story as fiction, but it doesn’t name them. Do you know them?


          • I’ll be home in a bit, but the two I have are On Our Selection, and Our Other Selection. I also have Bohemians of the Bulletin – a collection of sketches, one or two pages essays and a drawing of authors he met while he was a cartoonist there (it’s where my MF sketch comes from)


          • Home. That’s Our NEW Selection. Wiki lists these two as short story collections and lists also 11 novels and 11 more collections, so I’ve got some reading to do!


  2. Hmm… I’m not sure of the point of these kinds of books. In jokes are a form of elitism. Plus, if I read this it would make me feel stupid because I wouldn’t recognise anyone! 😱


    • I bet you would. You probably know more about Australian publishing and editing than I do…


      • Well, I’m not sure about that. I feel woefully unread in terms of classic Australian authors, though trying to change that slowly…


        • I read and really enjoyed this book, and I’m not all that well read in Australian literature. As well as being a parody of various writers, it’s also a detective story – all the profiles have clues in them, as does the index and the acknowledgements – and it’s great fun trying to figure it all out. So it’s not a regular novel by any means, but it’s also hilarious on its own merits and a great brain teaser. And a lot of the parodying is of Australian culture and Australian literary culture more generally, rather than specific writers.

          Liked by 1 person

          • LOL #EpicFail I missed the detective novel aspect of it altogether.


  3. […] “Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers” by Ryan O’Neill, see my review […]


  4. […] Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers, see my review […]


  5. I feel uncomfortable with the kind of book that relies on in jokes. It seems to send a message that if I don’t ‘get’ the reference I’m not clever enough to be a reader of this book.


    • It’s not all that long ago since I read it, but I can barely remember it now.
      (And I don’t feel particularly guilty about that!)


  6. […] Fiction: Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill (see my review) […]


  7. […] “Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers” by Ryan O’Neill, see my review […]


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