Craig Munro, Under Cover: Adventures in the art of editing (Scribe 2015)
‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.
That’s from E M Forster’s essay, ‘Aspects of the Novel’. The point he’s making is that plot is about causality rather than mere sequence, that plot engages readers’ imaginations: they have to ‘remember incidents and create connecting threads between them’, and that sustains their interest over the long haul.
A memoir needs some element of plot as well, but perhaps inevitably it will include quite a lot of detail just for the record. Under Cover has a central theme, announced in a epigraph quoting Beatrice Davis, perhaps the most famous of all Australian book editors: ‘It is essential that authors and editors are capable of being temperamentally in tune, even of becoming friends: to be otherwise would be damaging or disastrous.’ We follow Craig Munro’s editorial career, mainly at University of Queensland Press, as a story of friendships, of what Munro, quoting Melbourne editor Mandy Brett, describes as intense affairs-of-the-mind. And then there’s the broader sweep, the history of the publication of Australian literature as seen through the lens of the part played by the memoirist.
In some ways the backbone of the book is the relationship of Peter Carey with UQP and Munro: Munro was responsible for bringing Carey’s first book to print, and the memoir maps the ups and downs (mainly ups) of Carey’s career against his changing relationship with the publishing house and the editor-become-friend. The small independent publisher discovers and nurtures a writer, who out of economic necessity moves to a better resourced London publishing house. As he becomes more successful, his books are published simultaneously in the US, the UK and Australia, sometimes typeset separately for the different editions: we get to see some of the inner workings of that set-up, including one spectacular error that took years for anyone to notice. (Did you know that if you read an early Australian or UK edition of Oscar and Lucinda you missed out on a whole chapter that was in the US edition and later Australian and UK editions?)
It’s not a kiss and tell memoir. There are no scandals, no grand revelations. But we get personal glimpses of David Malouf, the famously touchy Xavier Herbert, Barbara Hanrahan, Olga Masters in a marvellously magisterial moment, and others. Munro’s account of the infamously disorderly 1985 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner is just wonderful, names and packdrill included.
Sometimes the fine details on print runs, quotes from Munro’s and others’ reports on manuscript that were to become wildly successful books, and from reviews of those books on first publication, become cumulatively tedious. And really do we care that Peter Carey was mildly sarcastic to a reviewer who described Illywhacker as old-fashioned? But these moments are easily forgiven.The queen doesn’t die of grief, but Australian publishing lives on in spite of adversity. The authors of the recent Productivity Commission Report on book publishing would have done well to read this book.