Academic journal article Hecate

Writing the Morality of Gentlemen

Academic journal article Hecate

Writing the Morality of Gentlemen

Article excerpt

This book was my first novel. It came out in 1984, several years after I finished it and it was hard to get it published. It's always worth talking about the conditions of literary production because we tend to think books just pop out of the publishing ether. But there's often a struggle behind how they get published.

The book was sent to several major publishers who rejected it. They had two arguments: one that there was no market for a political novel, and the other that it was much too contentious and someone might sue them. Finally it was published by a small left wing publisher in Sydney called the Australian Publishing Collective which, interestingly, was run by a radical American, David Cleaver. David was about seventy, and he published non-fiction, particularly a lot of early stuff on the environment. But he felt so strongly about this novel, and that it was being in effect censored by mainstream publishers, that he went to the Literature Board of the Australia Council which at that time had a sympathetic board that gave APCOL a small publishing subsidy under its assistance program. So the subsidy covered the printer's costs, and I guaranteed APCOL against potential loss. In fact they made a modest profit.

When the book came out it was well received; there was no litigation because I had been very careful and APCOL had given it to a leading Sydney barrister to vet--which he did for nothing because he supported APCOL's publishing program. Some mainstream literary reviewers like Geoffrey Dutton in The Bulletin gave the book a good run; that helped a lot and in fact it has never been out of print. It was re-printed by Picador in 1990 and again by Vulgar Press in 2002. So that's how these books are produced, and gain credibility and an audience, and often it's not the mainstream route. Small publishers take the risks and then when the bomb doesn't go off, the mainstream publishers will pick up the book and reprint it later.

I want to discuss two things: how I came to write The Morality of Gentlemen, and how I came to the aesthetic decisions I made about the form of the book.

I grew up on the waterfront in Hobart where the events on which the novel is based took place. Several members of my family had been union officials, including in the Waterside Workers' Federation; a couple of them had also been, at various times, members of the Communist Party, although they no longer were by the time I was born. Like many people in the Communist Party they had found reason to quarrel with it. But they were strongly of the Left--the women, for the most part, as much as the men. My mother worked and I was looked after by my great grandmother, and her line of small talk was to tell me political anecdotes about her life in Queenstown, a mining town on the northwest coast of Tasmania (at one time very big, with over eighty pubs) and in the electorate of King O'Malley. O'Malley was a minister in the very first Federal Government in Australia and founder of the Commonwealth Bank. He was a flamboyant American, very tall, who used to wear a white suit and big ten gallon hat. This mining town in Tasmania was in his electorate; he used to hold regular public meetings which were like evangelical tent meetings, and it was great fun to go along. There was no television or movies, and people used to go for entertainment and listen to him report to the electorate. So Gran used to tell me all about O'Malley as well as about other politicians like Ben Chiffley, the Australian Prime Minister, and how he was a labour rat because he put the troops in the mines when the miners went on strike. Now I hadn't started school at the time, and couldn't therefore have been any older than five, so it was a pretty unusual set of conversations to having with your granny at that age. For some children politics enters their perspective not as something they learn about when they become adult but something that's absorbed osmotically in their childhood. …

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