Covering a century of Australian literature, author and editor Craig Munro has assembled a somewhat motley crew of characters, to celebrate a handful of key figures from the world of publishing and editing. From A.G. Stephens, the “three initialled terror” of the critic world, to Munro’s former colleague, the late Roseanne Fitzgibbon, Literary Lion Tamers takes readers on a whistle stop tour of Australia’s literary history.
Celebrating each editor with both back story and biggest success, Munro channels memoir, biography, and a good dose of literary detective work into a book that is interesting and entertaining in equal measure.
The common thread of an unwieldy and unpublished manuscript penned by an uncompromising author is established fairly early on. And, Munro takes great delight in exploring the myriad ways each editor handles the novelists in their care. Stephens took on the handwritten, thousand page behemoth that would eventually become Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life, while P.R. Stephensen and Beatrice Davis wrestled with Xavier Herbert. Fitzgibbon, it seems, got off lightly with Gillian Mears. Meanwhile, cameos from the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Louise Mack, Miles Franklin, James Joyce, and Peter Carey play a starring role in fleshing out the tales.
If there’s complaint to be made, it’s that Literary Lion Tamers leans heavier into Stephens and Stephensen than it does Davis and Fitzgibbon, who combined receive around a third of the book’s total focus. It’s understandable in a way. They’re more recent figures after all, and their lives aren’t quite so eccentric. But, Davis in particular feels a little left out, with more made of boardroom drama at her firm, Angus & Robertson, than the literary soirees held by Davis herself.
There’s something about Munro’s mis-matched collection of literary heroes that feels distinctly Australian. From the ambitious and the opportunistic, to the patient and the nurturing, these literary larrikins all had an eye for an unlikely success story and went about securing it in their own unique way. Bound together by Munro’s own recollections – whether as editor, publisher, or researcher – and cut through with a gentle sense of humour, Literary Lion Tamers is an accessible and entertaining exploration of the world behind-the-scenes of Australian literature.
Craig Munro’s Literary Lion Tamers is out now, published by Scribe.