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THE BOOK TRADE

The Australian Literary Breakthrough

July 09, 1989|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — With all the force that cold-water fusion wished it might have mustered, the writers of Australia have descended upon the American reading public.

"Australia is going through an enormous literary renaissance," said Ed Iwanicki, who first began publishing Australian authors for Penguin more than a decade ago. But as Iwanicki, director of group publishing for Penguin USA, readily conceded, "People can't put their fingers on why it's happening at this time."

The ripple of interest in authors from Down Under has reached near-flood proportions. Between now and October, at least six major U.S. publishing houses will be offering novels from Australian authors. In the first six months of this year, more than a dozen U.S. cloth houses printed books by Australian authors. On the paper front, reprints have flourished, giving authors such as Thea Astley, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley and Janet Turner Hospital top visibility in the competitive U.S. market.

Some Australians are startled by the way their literary community has begun to prosper.

"Fifteen years ago, books by Australian writers were in the back of the bookstore under something called 'Australiana,' " said Glenda Adams, an Australian novelist, who in 1987 won her country's top writing prize, the Miles Franklin Award, for "Dancing on Coral." Adams' new collections of stories, "Games of the Strong" and "The Hottest Night of the Century," were published in this country in May by Cane Hill Press. Australians had a kind of literary inferiority complex, Adams said. "One always looked to England for the 'real' writers."

As a fledgling author 20 years ago, Adams said she would try to sell her fiction in New York, only to be rebuffed when "people would say, 'we're not interested in Australia.' " Starting out, she remembered, "I actually had a story called 'Young Woman With Kangaroo.' " In New York, "People said, 'Be serious. No one is interested in kangaroos.' " Now when U.S. editors and publishers look at her fiction, Adams said, "they say, 'Can't you put in more kangaroos?' "

Not that everyone in this country associated Australia only with wallabies, boomerangs and, more recently, Paul Hogan. "I think possibly there has always been an awareness of Australian writing, largely because of Patrick White, who won the Nobel Prize. But it was an awareness in that monumental way," said Daphne Merkin. Merkin is associate publisher and vice president of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and served as the editor of "Forty Seventeen," a novel by Australian writer Frank Moorhouse that came out last month.

One reason that Australian fiction may have grabbed such a hold on the American imagination, Merkin suggested, is that "they are such a mixed society. There is that macho streak, and then there is the marginality of the whole thing. It produces an interesting mix."

"There are a lot of affinities between the two countries," Anne Summers observed. "We come from similarly multicultural countries. There are a lot of immigrants in both countries, many nationalities living together."

Those who have watched the growth of Australian literature say that a major element in the explosion is traceable to conscientious and loving nurturing from that country's government. For some years the Literature Board of the Australia Council has handed out generous grants to writers, and has even kept an apartment in Paris for writers to use.

"I think it's very important that Australian writers began to get a view of the world," said Jim Silberman, publisher of Summit Books. "Somebody realized that a lot of Australian writing had been very local, very parochial. They began to send people out and make them know what the literary world outside Australia is about."

Not every book that sails north from Australia will find such an enthusiastic reception, Silberman cautioned.

"There is still an enormous amount of their output that simply is not suitable," Silberman said. "It's self-reverential and, well, broody about problems that are uniquely Australian." But Silberman added that this country's fascination with titles from Down Under is likely to continue. "I think the interest is here to stay, for the best of Australia," he said. "I don't think Australia is over by any means."

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