Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2020

‘The People Novels Write’ by Barbara Jefferis, in The Australian Author, 1969-2018, Vol 50, No 2

I’ve always been a unionist because I believe that people can have power collectively that they cannot exercise as individuals.  I belonged to the Australian Education Union (under various different names) throughout my career, and I joined the Australian Society of Authors soon after I had my first paid article published, long ago in 1987.  And it was because I was a member of the ASA that I have a copy of a great literary treasure: the last print edition of The Australian Author, 1969-2018, Vol 50 No 2.  It is a treasure not because it is the last, but because it is a commemorative edition, featuring selected reprints of articles by a pantheon of great Australian authors, from the birth of the ASA over half a century.

This collection is a ‘dip-into’ sort of book.  It lives on my desk and I dip into it when the computer is booting up or otherwise playing with itself.  I get half way through it, and then revisit earlier essays, I’ve muddled around in the later essays and not yet got to the middle.  Some of the pieces appeal to my sense of history: as a long term recipient of both CAL* and ELR* who pay me money for my books that are in libraries and get photocopied, I find it fascinating to read Colin Simpson’s 1969 argument for why these schemes to support authors should exist and how they could work. The essay has a postscript stating that the proposal to introduce PLR* was vetoed by the Gorton government but the ASA was not taking ‘No’ for an answer.

PLR was eventually introduced by, you guessed it, the progressive Whitlam government in 1975, and the collection includes a stirring speech from April 1975 entitled ‘Australia’s need for better writers who are better off’ by then Prime Minister The Hon. E. G. Whitlam QC, MP.  Addressing the ASA, he stated that PLR is not a privilege or a benefit but a right, and he concluded by reminding the audience that it was crucial to guard and preserve it because it was not invulnerable to attack.  Authors who were paying attention will know that

As a result of the Administrative Arrangement Order introduced on 5 December 2019, the functions that were previously the responsibility of the Department of Communications and the Arts have been transferred to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications as of 1 February 2020.

The ASA will no doubt be eyeing this development with concern, and they will be using member contributions to defend authors’ rights.  If you are a writer, whether you receive rights payments like this or not, you ought to be a member of the society…

Anyway, what prompted me to take up my pen, so to say, was not to spruik membership of the ASA, but having revisited Barbara Jefferis’ essay ‘The people novels write’, from July 1969.  Though she was the author of eleven books, I haven’t read much of Jefferis’ oeuvre, only Three of a Kind though  I have a novel called Solo for Several Players which I tracked down a couple of years ago.  (I just love the white gloves in that cover image!!) So this essay in The Australian Author is a treasure, and it shows what a very insightful writer she was.

Her topic is the creation of character and the public misapprehension that characters are based on real life people.  She begins like this:

There was a time, and not very long ago, when every novel had a line in the front which said, ‘All the characters in this book are entirely imaginary, and have no relationship to any living person.’ Nobody believed it.

Fashions changed and the line was dropped, but novelists still violently deny that they are drawing characters from life.  Nobody believes them.  And yet there’s nothing that irritates the working novelist more than his non-writing friend’s suggestion that he ought to put old so-and-so into a book.  It irritates him because it shows him that his non-writing friend hasn’t the least idea what he’s up to in his book.

Whatever you take a novel to be—a mirror held up to life, a prose fiction of 50,000 words or more, or the non-poetic statement of a poetic truth—the one sure thing is that a novel is a piece of art, and art is not life.  Homo fictus, as E M Forster has said, is a totally different species from Homo sapiens.  (p, 14)

I love her testiness about this, especially her application to critics of the term ‘non-playing coaches who write at such length about technique [and] are often nearly incomprehensible to the practitioner‘.  She explains how they are obsessed with stance and swing and follow through, or with structure, and she debunks the lot of them:

I don’t believe that there is a proper way of constructing a novel, a proper way of making character, a proper point of view from which the novelist must see his characters, or indeed a proper way of doing anything else that the author does.  (p.15)

Jefferis says there are two kinds of sub-species of the species Homo fictus: ‘Dial-plate people’ or ‘Endogenous people’ and they are either built up from the outside’ or they grow from within’.  

The dial-plate novelist uses a lively talent for recreating life’s surface textures, using a powerful visual imagery supported by idiosyncrasy and mannerism to create a vivid illusion of life. (p.16)

She cites Dickens, Scott, Wells and Galsworthy and acknowledges that good and lasting novels can be written this way but she doubts that great novels can.  (Of course we today are all noticing that all four of her examples are men, just as we noticed that her working novelist from the introductory paragraph featured the male pronoun.  You may have noticed that whenever I refer to a novelist in general rather than a specific novelist, my novelist always defaults to the female pronoun. This is not a criticism of Jefferis.  She was writing in 1969.  But we have moved on.)

‘Endogenous’ people turn up in novels written from the ‘inner workings’ of the novelist’s mind.

He rarely if ever has to give you a physical description of his characters.  He doesn’t depend on a hooked nose or flaming red hair or tricks of speech or manner to ‘set’ his character in the reader’s mind.  He goes about it in a much harder and more rewarding way, trying, by everything his character says and does and thinks, to make the reader discover for himself what sort of person this character is.  (p.16)

(Yes, the ‘reader’ is male too, but let’s not get distracted.)

Living people, says Jefferis, are useless to the novelist.  Living people are too many-faceted, too complex, too crazy and too unpredictable’.  She cites Henry James telling us that Life is all inclusion and confusion.  Art is all discrimination and selection.’ Jefferis agrees, and she says that what novelists do is to choose half a dozen of the more significant and spectacular facets  and to ignore the rest.

(This is perhaps why poor old Horace Walpole was upset about his characterisation in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale.  Maugham chose some idiosyncrasies and exaggerated them, and didn’t use the aspects of Walpole that had formed their friendship over many years.) George Eliot, Jefferis tells us, was very indignant when accused of drawing Adam Bede from life, quoting her as saying ‘No-one who is not an artist knows how experience is wrought up in writing in any form of poetry.’ 

The reason Jefferis differentiates between the good books of the ‘dial-plate’ novelist and the great books of the ‘endogenous people’ type is that whereas the dial-platers may well get their characters by ‘pruning their friends’, the inner-workings novelist gets his ideas from himself.

He is the only person he can know anything about positively and from within.  He has to be the source of all characterisation built on personality rather than surface characteristics.  If you agree that drama consists of passion and not of incident, then the whole stuff of fiction is there inside him.  It’s inconceivable that he should ever want to portray an emotion that he himself has never felt, or the simple reason that there’s no way of his conceiving it.  All he is doing is drawing on his own past emotional experience, but changing the circumstances, the people, their sexes, changing the impact, changing the emphasis to create a fictional person who will act in unison with the other elements of the book to make a whole that expresses something of the author’s personal view of life.’

If he has drawn well, people will think they recognise their bosses and their brothers and their aunts, but all they are really seeing is a piece of the author’s personality and experience altered, extended and manipulated to work for him.  (p.17)

(Which might be why books written by very young writers with little experience of life’s slings and arrows can tend to be a bit unsatisfactory, and why most authors get better and better at their craft as they age.  It might also be why authors who are not really very nice people could be terrific at creating horrible characters!  I once wrote a short story where the characters’ identities were not revealed until the very end, the one telling the other exactly what she thought of him, in the kind of adolescent street language that I have never used out loud in public, much less in any professional context.  The one dishing it out was the teacher, giving in to her rage and frustration with the student.  I was too embarrassed to hand in that little fantasy for assessment, but it felt great to write it!)

Fresh from reading one book which I didn’t really make sense of and in the throes of reading another that’s stretching my recalcitrant brain, I was also interested in what Jefferis has to say about how it is never easy to express a complex thought in simple words.  It’s very much easier to tart it up with trick inversions and fancy polysyllables so that nobody is absolutely clear about its meaning.  She concludes by quoting Cecil Day Lewis explaining that a novelist can’t recycle what has been done before because one has only learned to get the better of words for the one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it.’

(And if I may digress again, do notice how that lovely soon-to-be-obsolete impersonal pronoun ‘one’ is genderless.  Why are we disposing of it, when it is so perfect for its purpose???)

But (back on track)…

I do think it’s fun to play in the sandpit that has trick inversions and fancy polysyllables.  I don’t mind if I don’t always understand what’s going on.  Bill from The Australian Legend expressed exactly how I felt about a book we’d both read: I’m sure I didn’t make much sense of Hollow Earth but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Barbara Jefferis was a real gem.  I must read the essay by Ruth Park soon!

* CAL is  administered by the Copyright Agency Limited.  It monitors photocopying in educational institutions and pays authors on the basis of the usage rates per item.  ELR is the Educational Lending Right and PLR is the Public Lending Right.  They monitor which books are in educational libraries and public libraries and they pay authors on the basis of the number of copies held in the library, on the principle that a book gets read multiple times in libraries and each copy is a sale foregone by the author.  While for many of us these amounts are not huge, there was one memorable year when my Indonesian teaching resource books were bought and used by every Australian school teaching that language, and I bought my very first-ever brand new car with the proceeds.

Contributors: see the cover image
Title: The Australian Author, 1969-2018, Vol 50, No 2
Featured articles selected by Emily Banyard
Published by the Australian Authors Association, Ultimo

Availability: scour the Op Shops for this one!


  1. What a treasure of a book. I will keep a look out on my meanderings through the OP Shops.


    • Absolutely.
      Actually I’ve just read the Tom Keneally piece in the interim, and it is hilarious. Talking about the ‘shape’ of a novel he says ‘What avails it a writer to produce a novel shaped like an hourglass, a side of pork, or even Diane Cilento? he can’t take it to bed with him.’
      My, how things have changed in half a century, eh?


  2. Jefferis appears to be saying all characters in novels are fictitious and then going on to explain how they are all drawn from either the author’s observations or from within herself. I know genre novels are usually just stories, amusing but unimportant, but literature I think always comes from within, is a slice of the author’s life re-presented.


    • She likes (and expands on) George Eliot’s use of the word ‘wrought’, because it conveys the way the writer transforms what she begins with so that it is entirely new.
      But I think you’re right about genre: I haven’t read enough of Galsworthy (or indeed read him for the best part of forty years) so I can’t be sure, but I think today we could put HG Wells and Sir Walter Scott in with genre novelists. Dickens OTOH is trickier. I am trying to remember the elegant way I dissected his characterisation for my seminar at Melbourne Uni… he is often accused of writing caricature, and it’s true that some seem to be while others are more IMO like archetypes, which is not the same thing. And then there is the characterisation of David Copperfield which, it seems to me, is ‘from within’.


      • Yes, Wells and Scott are (very good) story tellers. We don’t really have a genre for story tellers, except maybe ‘general fiction’. And I know Scott wrote Hist.Fic and Wells SF. It’s interesting because some of the good novels each year are stories rather than literature and we don’t often look at the distinction.


        • That’s true, we need a better word really, or else we could just stop trying to sort and classify books.
          But then again, if we’re going to talk about them, and really, what is there that’s better to talk about than books, we need language to describe them. I tend to use genre to lump together all those commercial novels that churn out stuff to a formula, and is unabashed about their entertainment value which is what lots of people like, including me when I’m occasionally in the mood.
          But then when I’m writing a review I have to go to some trouble to explain to myself why this historical novel is genre and that one isn’t even though it’s historical storytelling. Why Hollow Earth is SF but isn’t really. And then of course we all get tied up in knots by genre-bending books like Jane Rawson’s.
          Labelling anything ‘genre’ of course, can get me into trouble with hardliners who think I’m being judgy about commercial genre fiction and they think I’m judging them not the book. Which I’m not. It’s none of my business what other people want to read.
          But we do IMO need language and descriptors that enable us to differentiate between books we might have mutual admiration for, and the ones that I like and you don’t, and vice versa. Reviewers who are mealy-mouthed about this are no use to anybody, I reckon.


  3. What a rich and wonderful post. Thank you, Lisa. Incidentally, one way to avoid the gendered pronouns is to make the subject of the thing plural (novelists, writers, readers).


    • Thanks, Carmel…
      Yes, that is one way of being non-specific about gender, but I think it’s a pity that a useful pronoun has been abandoned in a clear case of inverted snobbery. For some bizarre reason it has become associated with upper class English (I blame The Two Ronnies & John Cleese sketch) and its use is mocked.
      Its value is that it is entirely neutral and allows for the expression of indirect propositions. It’s also extremely useful for making cutting remarks while maintaining a veneer of politeness, as for example when one might say in a context where it would be rude to discuss politics, ‘Oh, one can’t possibly holiday in Hawaii any more…’


      • Yes, ‘one’ is problematic. Not, of course, as dire as ‘we’.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating post, Lisa. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but my first job was working with the one of the people involved in developing the PLR scheme back in 1975.

    Like Fay, obviously, I’d love to read this volume. It sounds as though it has some great essays. I particularly love Jefferis’ comment that living people are useless because they are “too many-faceted, too complex, too crazy and too unpredictable”. I think I’ve heard that before, and it makes good sense to me. That said, I’ve always thought that if either of my kids became writers I need to be prepared for various foibles of my own to be laid bare, even if no-one else recognised them!

    I completely agree with her about there not being “a proper way” of writing novels etc. If there were it really, I think, wouldn’t be art.


    • Thanks, Sue:)
      I felt that this essay would resonate with a lot of us who both read and write reviews so it was good to share it. I plan to do the same with some of the other essays in due course….
      But you know me and plans!

      Liked by 1 person

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