Academic journal article Antipodes

The Difficult Business of Writing: The Story of Return to Coolami's Publication

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Difficult Business of Writing: The Story of Return to Coolami's Publication

Article excerpt

In Eleanor Dark's archive, there seems to be an infinite number of royalty statements, contracts, and letters between her, Curtis Brown (her literary agent), and American and British publishers.1 In her article discussing the ill-fated publishing history of Prelude to Christopher,2 Drusilla Modjeska does an excellent job of untangling a story from such documents, piecing together Dark's persistent and frustrated attempts to get Prelude reprinted in Australia, Britain, and America. Modjeska's article provides me the essential bones and background for unraveling Coolami's publication story from this confusing papery mess, for Prelude seems to have competed against Coolami throughout time: the author's favorite text vs. the public's and the publishers' favorite; the literary novel vs. the popular novel; the macabre theme vs. the predictable gratifications of the romantic plot. Modjeska says that she turned to Dark's archive to work out what caused the author's formal retreat from modernism, as represented by her Timeless Land trilogy (76). Her essay thus traces how Dark's modernist experiments were hampered by publishers' expectations as to what a female colonial writer can or should be writing (79). I am turning to Dark's papers primarily to get a sense of Coolami's publishing "success" over time, as background for my research on how the novel might have been understood by its original readers. Whilst the data in these papers does not tell me what the novel "meant" to these readers, it does show how many people thought the book worth buying, whilst offering insight into what publishers identified as the novel's "qualities." The following paper is intended to supplement Modjeska's essay on Prelude's publication history with detailed information on Coolami's fate.

The correspondence regarding the publication of Return to Coolami seems to begin in October 1935, with a letter from Collins Publishers regarding the proofs of the novel.' By March 1936, Collins was writing to Dark to congratulate her on the "particularly good" sales of Coolami: 1,840 had been sold at "home," and she had achieved 1,110 Colonial sales.4 (Could anything make Dark's "Antipodean" status clearer than how these figures were divided and named?) Collins stated that hers were "very good figures for a first novel," adding that Coolami had been accepted by Macmillan in America. Collins also commended Prelude, but noted that it would not be "so easy to handle" as Coolami, though everyone was "very interested" in it. Collins added that Dark's new unpublished novel, Gnome in Sunlight,5 was thought by its in-house readers to be "more disconnected" and "not quite so good" as Coolami. At the end of March, Dark replied to Collins with thanks, telling him that her own readers of Gnome all agreed "it was considerably better" than Coolami.6 She also declined an invitation to visit England due to everything seeming "so unsettled": she and Eric did not want to "risk" leaving work and their sons "when it might become difficult if not impossible to get back to them." This shows how shifts in European politics were, even before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, perceived from Australia as being both significant and dangerous. Dark also pleaded for understanding in regards to her rate of production: "I am working hard at my new novel, but I write slowly and with truly awful difficulty!"

In a letter to Collins in April, Dark described Coolami as "cheerful,"7 and hoped that Prelude's winning of the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal would make way for its Australian re-release. (Coolami was printed before Prelude in Britain; in Australia, P. R. Stephensen's original 1934 edition of Prelude sold only 500 out of 1000 copies.8) In July, Collins wrote to Dark expressing the hope that Prelude would have even better reception from the press than Coolami.9 Modjeska seems to see Coolami's success as overshadowing Prelude's potential and perhaps, in America, it did. …

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