Review of Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine by Paul Sharrad.

Abstract

There is no doubt that Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine will, for many years to come, be an indispensable resource for scholars writing about the works of Thomas Keneally. Of course, Keneally continues to produce new works – in 2020, for example, he published a new novel, The Dickens Boy – so, over time, Paul Sharrad’s scholarly monograph will be seen as increasingly incomplete. Indeed, the most recent of Keneally’s works that receives meaningful coverage in the book is the 2014 publication of the third volume in Keneally’s unique history of Australia; the series is titled Australians, and this volume is subtitled ‘Flappers to Vietnam’. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a future scholar writing about any of the works produced in the first fifty years of Keneally’s career (Keneally’s first book was The Place at Whitton, which was published in 1964) without referencing Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine; the depth and quality of the research is just that good.

Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine, by Paul Sharrad. Anthem Press, 2019.

There is no doubt that Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine will, for many years to come, be an indispensable resource for scholars writing about the works of Thomas Keneally. Of course, Keneally continues to produce new works – in 2020, for example, he published a new novel, The Dickens Boy – so, over time, Paul Sharrad’s scholarly monograph will be seen as increasingly incomplete. Indeed, the most recent of Keneally’s works that receives meaningful coverage in the book is the 2014 publication of the third volume in Keneally’s unique history of Australia; the series is titled Australians, and this volume is subtitled ‘Flappers to Vietnam’. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a future scholar writing about any of the works produced in the first fifty years of Keneally’s career (Keneally’s first book was The Place at Whitton, which was published in 1964) without referencing Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine; the depth and quality of the research is just that good.

Sharrad is very clear about his intentions for Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine: it is meant as a contribution to the field of career studies. Sharrad notes that ‘career studies largely developed in relation to early-modern British and American modernist writing’ (2). He furthermore observes, ‘In Australia, this area of research is relatively new, with only David Carter’s book A Career in Writing: Judah Waten and the Politics of a Literary Career (1997) preceding the more recent collection, Literary Careers in the Modern Era (2015), edited from Australia by Guy Davidson and Nicola Evans’ (2). Therefore, one of the book’s many contributions to scholarly knowledge can be described as the development of career studies in an Australian context.

Sharrad is, of course, aware that his interests overlap with other scholarly fields; in the book’s introduction, for example, he mentions literary studies, cultural studies, celebrity studies and book history, in addition to career studies. The book is ‘concentrated on describing a pattern of production and reception’ of Keneally’s works, which makes it especially closely aligned with the methodologies used by book historians (213). For example, a single, randomly chosen page from the book – in this case, page 33 – contains details about Keneally’s book sales, pre-orders, royalty agreements, advances, Public Lending Rights, foreign rights, book production quality, book reviews and literary awards. This is the stuff of book history. However, Sharrad is not focused on contributing to the scholarship of future book historians.

Instead, he writes in the book’s conclusion, ‘I confess that my interest in writing this book stems from anomalies that mostly concern only literary scholars, mainly those who have worked in Australia’ (213). Sharrad clearly sees the audience for this book as scholars with an interest in Australian literature. However, Sharrad’s choice to focus his contributions within the field of career studies means that his audience is perhaps even more limited than he assumes: it is limited to scholars with an interest in Keneally’s works. That might seem obvious; after all, this is a scholarly monograph all about Keneally and the works he has written, ranging from novels and non-fiction to scripts for theatre, television and film. But it did not have to be that way.

In order to understand how Sharrad has limited the audience for Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine, it is first necessary to say something about Sharrad’s research methodologies. His archival research is truly impressive and includes both author and publishers in locations ranging from Brisbane and Canberra to London and New York. By trawling through correspondence, bank statements, royalty statements, thousands of book reviews, and more, Sharrad unearths specifics related to the ‘production and reception’ of an author’s works that are difficult to come by. For example, Sharrad describes how Keneally’s civil war novel Confederates (which was Keneally’s thirteenth novel when it was published in 1979) was rejected by five American publishers, even though Keneally had been able to find American publishers for every one of his books since his third, Bring Larks and Heroes in 1967 (76). After Keneally finally found an American publisher for Confederates, 1,463 copies of the initial hardback print run were remaindered within twelve months (77). However, the American paperback edition of Confederates, which was accompanied by a strong advertising campaign, went on to sell 558,500 copies in the first two years (77).

Sharrad uses these sorts of details to weave a story about a defining feature of Keneally’s career. He writes, ‘Tussles between seeking literary recognition . . . and garnering a viable income . . . become a hallmark of Keneally’s career’ (55). Sharrad depicts Keneally ping-ponging back and forth between ‘so-called serious literature and commercial novels’ in an effort to achieve some sort of balance, and how this then presents problems for publishers in terms of the contracts they can offer Keneally, how to market his books, and more (2). Ultimately, Sharrad is determined to show that ‘the poles of literary value and the genres associated with so-called high and low cultures are not the primary factors in determining the picture we get of Keneally’s career’ (8–9). When Sharrad mentions ‘the picture we get’, he is referring to the impression of Keneally held by Australian readers, which he says is characterised by the following conundrum: ‘Australia’s supposedly “best-known” and “most loved” author is frequently neither our best-reviewed nor our most bought author’ (213). Sharrad argues that this picture is the result, not of ‘old distinctions between high and low, literary and popular’, but rather of ‘national and transnational publishing dynamics’ (213). For what it is worth, this reviewer is convinced by Sharrad’s argument and has no doubt that is represents yet another important contribution to scholarly knowledge.

However, by framing this argument using the themes that have defined Keneally’s career, Sharrad has produced something that is extremely specific to Keneally. It is hard to see opportunities for scholars to generalise from Sharrad’s research to the careers of other authors. Furthermore, comparing and contrasting Keneally’s career with that of other authors is unlikely to be productive since Keneally’s career is, by anyone’s account, highly unusual in the field of Australian literature. This explains the previous assertion that Sharrad’s audience is limited to scholars with an interest in Keneally’s works.

There were ample opportunities for Sharrad to balance his archival investigations into the specifics of Keneally’s career against robust engagement with the latest conceptual frameworks advanced by book historians, which would have ensured a larger audience for his book. Sharrad’s reluctance to take this path is surely not due to a lack of awareness, since he mentions some of these conceptual frameworks. For example, he mentions James English’s Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, but the influence that this book had on Sharrad’s own does not appear to extend beyond this single paragraph (106). Indeed, Sharrad rarely discusses the work of other scholars in the body text; instead, they are confined to the endnotes. This reviewer was surprised to get to page 60 before encountering an explicit discussion of another scholar’s work, and this was but a single sentence about David Carter and Roger Osborne’s research on the subject of Australian writers being published in the United States.

Simone Murray’s The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation, as well as Beth Driscoll’s The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century, are two other books that would seem to have a lot to offer when it comes to understanding Keneally’s works. These two books, along with English’s Economy of Prestige, are representative examples of the latest conceptual frameworks advanced by book historians, which could have been applied to Keneally’s success with literary awards, the adaptation of his books for the screen and his courtship of middlebrow readers. These books (and others like them) would have allowed for Keneally’s unique relationship with their subject matter to be put into dialogue with the case studies found in their pages, thus involving both Keneally’s works and Sharrad’s book in a broader scholarly conversation. Instead, Sharrad focuses on Keneally’s career in isolation.

Fortunately, there is more than enough that is of interest about Keneally’s career to keep readers turning the pages of Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine. This reviewer especially appreciated the unexpected inclusion, towards the end of the book, of data and insights derived from interviews with literary festival attendees (200). This section also includes data mined from AustLit and MLA bibliographies that speak to Keneally’s reputation among academics (201–4). While this section represents a departure from the methodologies employed elsewhere in the book, Sharrad is consistent when it matters. In particular, he is a consistently rigorous researcher who can tell a fascinating story about one of Australia’s most fascinating storytellers.

Published 28 October 2021 in Volume 36 No. 3. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Book history, Publishing process, Reception, Thomas Keneally, Career studies.

Cite as: Henningsgaard, Per . ‘Review of Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine by Paul Sharrad..’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.e209728015.