A review of Hilary McPhee’s Other People’s Words

 McPhee Gribble was a powerful voice in Australian publishing in the 70s and 80s, and their unique style of working, the partnerships with their authors, the intimacy, as well as the pitfalls they encountered, make for fascinating reader for anyone interested in books.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Other People’s Words

by Hilary McPhee

Picador Australia

May 2001, RRPA$35.00, 312pp
What has gone wrong with the world of publishing? Has it truly become just a marketing and sales machine for a commodity no different than cosmetics or stocks? Is the Internet and other forms of media like television and video threatening to reduce our children’s literacy and wipe out the world of books forever, or at least change the way we see and use them? In our internationalised and commercially run world, can there be such as thing as national voice; an indigenous literature? These are some of the larger issues raised by Hilary McPhee’s autobiographical account of the small independent publishing house she started with partner Diana Gribble. McPhee Gribble was a powerful voice in Australian publishing in the 70s and 80s, and their unique style of working, the partnerships with their authors, the intimacy, as well as the pitfalls they encountered, make for fascinating reader for anyone interested in books. There are many layers to the story. McPhee Gribble was a firm run by two women, and their children played alongside them, or in the creche they set up in the backyard. There were relationships, and intimacies; attempts to be taken seriously, and most importantly, the meticulous way in which Hilary and Diana involved themselves in each text they took on, helping to shape the words, to form the book into the best possible. The story moves from McPhee’s early relationship with books and stories, through her apprenticeship at one of Australia’s foremost literary journals, Meanjin, to her work at Penguin Australia, through the setting up of McPhee Gribble, and finally through its sale back to Penguin, and ultimate dissolution.

The book itself is well written, as one would expect from an author with 25 years of experience pulling together other people’s books, and contains some gems which illuminate, in a single sentence, the heart of the issues she raises, such as ” [Australia’s] meanings were not readily consumed and, once away from the cities, its ancient landscape required a response beyond words”, or “There was writing and painting and performance in this new Australia that had different sounds and rhythms, that spoke, in voices and images that often had their origins in other parts of the world but were recognisably our own, to audiences who were here.” 141

McPhee’s life is certainly an interesting one, touching as it does, on the history of Australian publishing, the seminal authors in the Australian literary life, a taste of Australian life in the 70s and 80s, and the worldwide impact of commercialism and technology on the world of literacy, books and the reader: “The gulf between literary and commercial publishing could only get wider as cultural literacy levels plummeted and the much more visual mass media took over”. 191. While McPhee’s vision of the future of the publishing industry is bleak, her autobiography itself is an enjoyable read, educational, illuminating, and offers both an insider view of the publishing industry, and an insight into what makes a great book. Despite the warning she issues, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, and Drusilla Modjeska are still producing great work, and authors like Carey, Malouf, and Keneally are publishing their novels to worldwide acclaim. Australian quality fiction is selling like never before, and the fresh, exciting, and original material which McPhee cites, supports and fights for, is very much a part of the worldwide literary scene. So perhaps the impact of McPhee Gribble was greater than Hilary McPhee gives herself credit for. In any case, this book is an interesting story in itself, entertaining the reader, while raising some difficult questions about the future shape of the world of the literature.

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