‘Other people’s words’ by Hilary McPhee

2001, 312 p.

Most people writing an autobiography (or even more risibly, having it ghost-written) announce that it is ‘in their own words’.  The title of this book is a little disingenuous.  The book certainly is in the words of the author, Hilary McPhee, but it is the story of her time dealing with other people’s writing as editor and proprietor of McPhee/Gribble books- a small, relatively short-lived, but influential publishing house in Australia.

As you might expect from someone immersed in other people’s words, the book is very well written.  It is divided into two parts.  Part I is largely biographical, pulling on a few family history strings, and contextualizing McPhee’s life as an Australian, swept up in the political and social changes of the Whitlam era and afterwards.  It establishes her as an intelligent, middle-class, educated young woman who seemed to fall into the publishing industry almost inadvertently, although her love for reading was a constant throughout her life.

Part II commences many years later as she settles down in the Melbourne University archives, reopening the files of the defunct McPhee/Gribble company which had been donated to the university.  As she does so, the emotions evoked by memories sweep over her- elation, bitterness, cold disappointment.  The company was started by two Australian women, in a male-dominated industry still hidebound by the copyright and marketing constraints of the colonial publishing market.  And for a golden moment, it worked. They were young, they had children, it was exciting and new and different.  Somehow, in a less performance-driven time, they managed to combine what sounds like a creche with the sensitivities of working with authorly egos and wading into an international industry where Australia was only a minor player.  It ended in tears, of course and quite literally, as most people reading this book would probably know.

In this regard, I find myself wondering whether the first part of the book was even necessary.  Apparently McPhee herself found the arc and voice for Part I only after writing Part II, and while it helped to contextualize the story of the company and its main actors, I would have been quite happy just to have had Part II.

This is a real reader’s book.  McPhee/Gribble developed an enviable list of writers- Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Murray Bail spring immediately to mind- but there are other writers here too that, after reading this book several years ago, I rushed out to read (e.g. Glen Tomasetti’s Thoroughly Decent People). Or at least, I bought their books to add to the to-be-read pile (e.g. Rod Jones’ Julia Paradise, and Gerald Murnane).  She occasionally gives the opening paragraphs of the most famous of the books they published and the words hit you with a rush of familiarity and affection, as if they are old friends from way back that you  weren’t expecting to see.  I haven’t read all the books she mentioned by a long shot, but I’d heard of most of them, and while the book could descend into name-dropping in less skilled hands, I certainly didn’t feel that way.  I found myself scouring my bookshelf, and pouncing on the McPhee/Gribbles I found there – “aha! there’s one”- and perusing the little logos on the spine in a way that I hadn’t before.

The book ends wistfully and rather pessimistically as the book industry becomes more depersonalized and more market-driven. I hadn’t realized the consequences of industry policies before globalisation- I was aware of the difficulties of Australian authors getting published, but less aware that the British dominance of our industry meant that American titles were rarely released here.  And since globalisation, she describes a scenario (that one suspects in drawn from real life, unfortunately) of a young writer’s first book being rushed through into a marketing schedule before it was ready and sinking silently as the next product was pushed through.  I suspect that things have not improved, ten years later.

Look- she has a blog where you can read a chapter of the book, a transcript of a 2006 interview and there’s a 2010 interview on Radio National’s bookshow.

My rating: 8.5/10

Reason read: Face-to-face bookgroup (the ladies who say oooh, except that they don’t anymore.)

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One response to “‘Other people’s words’ by Hilary McPhee

  1. Pingback: Vale Diana Gribble | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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