Essay: Craig Munroon Peter Carey and Xavier Herbert

Protesting 1938 & 1988 – from Capricornia to Oscar & Lucinda

I first read Xavier Herbert’s remarkable novel Capricornia in 1972 – the year I was married – and it led to several heated discussions with my newly acquired father-in-law. Later I discovered that his grazier forebears had been – for their time – enlightened squatters. Around 1900, they commissioned Steele Rudd’s father, the ex-convict Thomas Davis, to write a memoir of his early days on the Darling Downs. As well as a frank account of frontier violence, it included an extensive glossary of Aboriginal words.

Literature about Indigenous history continued to politicise me during the 1970s and 80s. With the prospect of a bicentennial orgy of settler triumphalism, I decided to use my position as University of Queensland Press publisher to amplify voices suppressed for two hundred years. My UQP colleagues supported me in developing an Indigenous writing list alongside our annual David Unaipon Award, launched in 1989.

David Unaipon
Formal 1920s studio photograph of writer and inventor David Unaipon (1872-1967). Photographer unknown. Source Australian

A Ngarrindjeri Elder and early Indigenous-rights advocate, David Unaipon was the first Aboriginal writer to have a book published – in 1929. The first to reach a wide readership, however, was Kath Walker whose poetry volume We Are Going was published in 1964 by Brisbane’s Jacaranda Press.

In 1980 my PhD research took me back to Capricornia.  I discovered that the paradoxical ‘Inky’ Stephensen had helped Indigenous activists organise a Day of Mourning protest in Sydney – to mark the 1938 sesquicentenary of British colonisation. As a further provocation, Inky planned to publish — on 26 January that year — Xavier Herbert’s controversial novel about black–white relationships, Capricornia.

Inky Stephensen had become an adviser to the recently formed Aborigines Progressive Association, an all-Aboriginal organisation demanding not only citizenship rights but also equal opportunities for education, employment, and social services. He’d appointed himself honorary secretary of a white support group, the Aboriginal Citizenship Committee. On his weekly Sydney radio session, Inky interviewed the APA president, former boxer Jack Patten, as well as the secretary, Dubbo shearer William Ferguson. Posters and handbills announced an ‘Aborigines conference’, the Day of Mourning Congress, to be held once the protest march concluded at Sydney’s Australian Hall.

Poet and activist Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal, 1920-93), 1960s. Photographer unknown. Source

This invasion-day protest was also supported by the Melbourne-based Australian Aborigines’ League, which had been established in 1934 by tireless activist William Cooper, who spoke at the Sydney conference. Cooper’s great-nephew, Pastor Doug Nicholls, was later one of the founders of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), formed in 1958. Kath Walker led FCAATSI in Queensland and used her public profile to campaign for constitutional change, meeting with prime ministers Menzies and his successor Holt during the 1967 federal referendum. Twenty years later, Kath marked the Bicentenary by adopting the Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal. While white novelists such as Xavier Herbert and Katharine Susannah Prichard had exposed Australia’s long history of racism and dispossession, it was Kath Walker’s much-anthologised poem ‘We Are Going’ that raised the consciousness of Australian schoolchildren – including me.

Around the time Kath wrote ‘We Are Going’, Xavier Herbert was a guest at the 1962 Adelaide Festival. There he gave an entertaining account of the writing of Capricornia in a London garret during the Great Depression. Standing before his appreciative audience, Herbert casually remarked that the story of the novel’s publication was even more bizarre and that perhaps he’d be invited back ‘next year’ to tell it. Herbert did return for the next Adelaide Writers Week – in 1964 – and gave a brief account of Capricornia’s publication, but for fear of legal action did not even name the man responsible for its appearance in print.

The production and reception of Capricornia remains one of the most controversial episodes in the annals of Australian literature. Its lengthy gestation takes us back to 1930 when the peripatetic Herbert embarked for London – determined to finish his Northern Territory novel and to find a publisher for it. Capricornia took at least eighteen months to write – not the six weeks Herbert later claimed – and ended up an unwieldy half a million words. No publisher in London would touch it, so Herbert returned to Sydney where he approached the Endeavour Press – a new company run by former Queensland Rhodes Scholar PR ‘Inky’ Stephensen.

The Endeavour office was on the third floor of the famous Sydney Bulletin building in George Street. Herbert was impressed by Stephensen’s style as a businessman and even more by his dedication to Australian literature. Unfortunately this dedication was not shared by the Bulletin management who were far more concerned with the profitable Woman’s Mirror magazine than with the Endeavour Press.

In July 1933 – two months before he left the fledgling book company – Stephensen wrote to the first-time novelist:

Dear Mr. Herbert,

I think it is absolutely necessary for you to revise, shorten, and retype ‘Capricornia’ before we can give you our decision on it…

In its present state the story is over-loaded with far too much detail, and with too many explorations of side-tracks. I would like to see you shorten it, with a ruthless blue pencil…

Whatever the difficulties, I hope you will prune and retype the work and then let us have it for serious consideration…

A first book, to be really up to world standard, needs a tremendous amount of planning, re-writing, again and again, and diabolical persistence.

Instead of persevering with the Endeavour Press, Herbert retrieved his manuscript and offered it, unrevised, to Angus & Robertson, who were unimpressed by its prolixity.

Hearing that Stephensen had left the Endeavour Press to set up his own firm in nearby Bond Street, Herbert again approached him, towards the end of 1933. Once more Herbert climbed the stairs to a publisher’s office with his dog-eared and now much-travelled typescript. At Bond Street he found Stephensen much preoccupied with floating P. R. Stephensen & Co. Limited. Generously however, Inky agreed to advise him on the revisions to Capricornia. During December and January, Xavier and his editor worked together on the raw and unruly novel, spending long evenings and marathon weekends at Stephensen’s flat in Raglan Street, Mosman.

Herbert brought along to each editing session his London typescript. Together they pored over the pages, Herbert reading passages aloud to Stephensen who identified the novel’s structural faults and advised on the necessary revisions. In later years Stephensen said he had made it clear to Herbert that ‘it needed completely rewriting, in shorter paragraphs, with more dialogue, and much more careful story-plotting’. As it stood, the novel was ‘chaotic and useless’. Herbert, on the other hand, in a letter published in 1961, stridently claimed that no one but himself had edited Capricornia. In a letter to Stephensen back in 1936, however, Herbert recalled: ‘Remember those all-night sittings when I used to unfold the plot? Remember those days and nights at Narrabeen …’

Herbert began redrafting Capricornia in February 1934 and Stephensen visited him several times, often staying for the weekend at Narrabeen and reading the revised sections as they were completed. It was such a substantial rewrite that Stephensen later reported, by way of publicity for the novel, that it was entirely rewritten – not once but twice – while Herbert was living at Narrabeen. In 1961, Herbert grudgingly acknowledged that Stephensen had made a few suggestions for revision, but the novelist’s primary evidence for denying any significant editorial assistance was that Stephensen had not put pen or pencil to his manuscript.

The only version of the Capricornia manuscript known to have survived is held by the National Library. Mostly handwritten (on the back of what appear to be discarded typescript pages from earlier works), it follows the narrative sequence of the published version of Capricornia. It undoubtedly represents the first redrafting Herbert made under Inky’s guidance between about February and April 1934. A further clean typescript would then have been copy-edited at P. R. Stephensen & Co. before typesetting commenced.

Herbert and his editor shared a fascination for Aboriginal culture and history as well as a sense of outrage at their mistreatment. Inky Stephensen’s publicity circulars suggested that Indigenous culture should be treated with respect, describing Aborigines as ‘ancient and wise’ people who had conserved the country’s resources and practised many arts – including ‘poetry, music, painting, drama, and religion’. Herbert’s involvement with the Aboriginal cause was less theoretical than his editor’s. He had seen Blacks treated as slaves, chained by the neck at night to stop them running away, and had lived with Aboriginal communities.

Before long it became apparent to Herbert that PR Stephensen & Co was seriously undercapitalised, and that Inky’s small staff had been accepting shares in lieu of salary. Inky was in fact desperately trying to stay afloat – even warning his wife Winifred to state that everything in their flat was her property should any ‘gentlemen’ from the court call. Preoccupied as he was, Stephensen was unaware that Herbert had secretly offered the edited manuscript of Capricornia to publisher Lovat Dickson in London. After an anxious wait however, Herbert received Lovat Dickson’s criticisms of the novel. Their readers had taken issue with the characterisation and, once again, with the length. It was a further crushing failure for Herbert, who wrote bitterly to a friend that he was considering a trip into ‘eternal obscurity’ in the North, convinced he would never succeed as a writer.

Just before P. R. Stephensen & Co. went into voluntary liquidation, Herbert offered Capricornia again to Angus & Robertson, this time in standing type, but once more they rejected it as too long and depressing. So the two tons of printer’s type were melted down, dissolving all its author’s hopes and ambitions. On Australia Day 1935, Herbert headed north once more, returning to the frontier territory that had inspired his fiction.

In Sydney meanwhile, a wealthy eccentric – William John Miles – became interested in Stephensen’s views on politics and Australian culture. He’d read Inky’s long essay in the first issue of the Australian Mercury – another Stephensen venture that had stalled for lack of capital. Inky hoped this cagey old patron might help him resurrect the Mercury. Instead Miles was only prepared to underwrite the publication in book form of an expanded version of Stephensen’s ‘Foundations of Culture in Australia’ essay, and this was published by W. J. Miles in 1936.

Languishing on a comfortable ten pounds a week in Darwin, Herbert still hoped to find a publisher for Capricornia and was prepared to follow up any possibility, however remote. He was also having problems running the local Aboriginal compound. He was accused of punching one boy and resorting to a stockwhip in order to control a fractious ‘halfcaste’ girl. Even so, Herbert had widespread support from the Aboriginal community and planned to set up a ‘Euraustralian League of Halfcastes’.

By the middle of 1936 Herbert had left his compound job, and Stephensen was now being paid a regular allowance for assisting with a new polemical journal of ‘Australia First’, the monthly Publicist. From Miles each Friday he received five pounds, out of which Winifred paid their rent, with just enough left over for food and bills.

After the appearance of the Publicist, Herbert and Stephensen began to exchange letters, Herbert imploring his former editor to send a long letter every week. In mid-November 1936, Herbert sent Stephensen the original galley proofs which Inky cut up into pages. At Christmas W. J. Miles finished reading this specially bound proof copy of Capricornia, and the news that he was prepared to back an edition of a couple of thousand copies – without thought of profit – seemed to Herbert almost too good to be true. By the time Xavier had booked his seat on the plane to Sydney, all his old excitement had been rekindled. On arrival, he was the toast of the small group which gathered at the boisterously informal Yabber Club – including Eleanor Dark, Frank Dalby Davison, Miles Franklin, Lionel Lindsay and Tom Inglis Moore.

Soon after his return to Sydney in February 1937, Herbert read the original Capricornia proofs and made some minor revisions. Typesetting then commenced and Stephensen carefully supervised the production of the book, often visiting the Stafford printery. At last he had found a sympathetic printer, for which he recorded his appreciation, taking the unusual step of acknowledging by name the two compositors and three pressmen on the final page of the first edition of Capricornia.

1938 proof page from Capricornia showing the corrections made by Xavier Herbert to the PR Stephensen & Co 1934 edition which had stalled at galley proof stage. Source Xavier Herbert Papers, National Library of Australia. Photograph by Craig Munro.

The September Publicist ran a major article on the novel, calling it ‘one of the greatest ‘finds’ in Australian literature to date’ and giving notice that it would appear in a limited edition on rag paper as well as in a cheaper format. The November issue recorded the formation of the Aborigines Progressive Association, mentioning that ‘Our particular interest in this submerged national question has been aroused by Xavier Herbert’s masterly novel of North Australia – Capricornia – which is now in the press and will be published shortly’. As Capricornia was nearing completion at the Publicist’s printery in Chippendale, all this support for the Aboriginal cause made good sense. Miles Franklin wrote to Herbert that Stephensen was in a ‘state of jubilation’ over Capricornia’s entry for the federal government’s sesquicentenary novel prize of 250 pounds. Inky had ‘raised such a ballyhoo about Capricornia ,’ she said, ‘that the judges won’t dare turn it down.’

Stephensen helped organise an Aboriginal Day of Mourning and Protest for 26 January 1938 – one hundred and fifty years after settlement– and on this day the novel was finally published. Despite the almost universal frivolity of the sesquicentenary celebrations, the press showed considerable interest in the APA’s ‘Day of Mourning’. One of the protest meetings featured poet Mary Gilmore. She told her audience that as a child she had seen Aboriginal people ‘massacred in hundreds’. She remembered seeing ‘little children dead in the grass, and scalps of blacks paid for as if they were dingoes’.

Most of the novel’s early reviews highlighted Herbert’s exploration and indictment of Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal population, while the Darwin Northern Standard congratulated him on ‘the most perfect picture in words yet … of the Territory’. There was, however, considerable disagreement about Capricornia’s literary quality. The Age’s reviewer decided it was ‘very badly constructed’, while bibliographer Frederick T. Macartney added, pompously: ‘There are various ways in which a novel may be written, but this is not one of them’. Tom Inglis Moore, an Oxford student friend of Stephensen’s, described the novel’s style as ‘uneven, occasionally awkward, often too staccato’, and concluded that Capricornia was ‘certainly not a literary masterpiece, but it may possibly become a national classic’.

Miles Franklin was almost alone in placing the novel in a broader historical context. She observed that ‘Mr. Herbert writes with satirical humour and the cynicism of the generation disillusioned by the European war’, and numbered Capricornia with ‘the few great Australian novels’. The same day the winner of the Commonwealth novel prize was to be announced, 31 March, the Melbourne Herald published a review quietly hailing Capricornia as ‘one of the most interesting and significant Australian novels that has appeared for a generation’. From a Sydney radio station that evening, it was announced that the judging panel – made up of high-profile novelists Frank Dalby Davison, Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard – had chosen Capricornia as the winner. According to Herbert, at a later dinner in Sydney with the judges, Davison told him they had chosen his novel, not on literary merit, but to embarrass the conservative federal government which sponsored the competition. This was undoubtedly Davison’s wry joke, for Marjorie Barnard remembered they were unanimous that Capricornia was the best novel entered.

Cover of a mint copy of the first, 1938 Publicist Publishing Company edition of Xavier Herbert’s landmark novel Capricornia. Source Rare Books Australia.

Heavily promoted in the Publicist, the six-shilling edition had sold out before the end of the year, Herbert sending the last copy to Miles as a Christmas present. Fifty copies were printed on ‘worthy’ pure rag paper, to be bound in leather, numbered and signed by the author. Copies of this special printing do survive but it is unclear whether any were actually distributed. For the third time, Angus & Robertson were offered the novel – now a saleable prizewinner – and they finally took the plunge. A battler like Inky Stephensen having taken all the risks, the old-established firm then made all the profits on subsequent editions.

Herbert and his editor had patched up their friendship just long enough to see Capricornia in print. When the Publicist and Stephensen’s Australia-First Movement became more overtly anti-Semitic, however, this angered Herbert and his Jewish wife Sadie. An exchange of highly abusive letters in 1941 brought their relationship to an end. The ‘debate’ between them twenty years later in the columns of the Bulletin and the Observer gave tantalising glimpses of the struggle to publish Capricornia. It was also clear that Herbert deeply resented any suggestion that his work needed editing. Stephensen, on the other hand, felt he had not received sufficient recognition for his advice to Herbert and to many other authors over almost forty years.

By the time Herbert came to publish Capricornia’s million-word sequel, Poor Fellow My Country, he was extremely wary of any publisher who might tamper with it. (My 2015 memoir Under Cover: adventures in the art of editing amplifies the uncomfortable role I played in 1974 as the first editor to read and criticise the Poor Fellow manuscript.) With his ‘magnum opus’ Poor Fellow My Country, Herbert was also ready to pay back his former editor. In a highly uncomplimentary caricature, Stephensen is recognisable as the novel’s odious ‘Bloke’. Herbert could now safely defame his old editor and adversary – always a trigger-happy litigant – because Inky had been dead for ten years when the novel appeared in 1975.

Yet from the relatively calm vantage point of 1960 – before he was drawn into the bitter exchanges with Stephensen – Herbert planned to leave a rather different version of events to posterity, on a tape recording for the ‘national archives’. His script for this is in the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library. After reading an extract from Capricornia, Herbert generously acknowledged his debt to his one-time editor with these words:

In conclusion, I want to let it be known that Capricornia never would have been published, but for the faith of P. R. Stephensen, the redoubtable ‘Inky’, in its destiny to become a classic … Australian publishers would no more consider it than would their English counterparts to whom it was alien. It was finally published more or less privately, in 1938, by Inky Stephensen, with the financial backing of one William John Miles, who also believed in its destiny.

Since the 1930s, Aboriginal activism and cultural expression have evolved in ways that literary pioneers like Xavier Herbert and Inky Stephensen might not have foreseen. Black politics in the 1960s was paralleled by the development of Indigenous literary expression in English, though it was not until the 1980s that Aboriginal publishing began, with the BlackBooks cooperative in Sydney.

The success of one particular text, however, rattled the windows of Australian publishing. My Place, published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in July 1987, became the most popular book ever written by an Aboriginal writer. Its author was 35-year-old artist Sally Morgan and it traced her personal journey in search of her family’s long-concealed Aboriginal ancestry. My Place became an instant bestseller, and in 1999 Fremantle released a special edition to celebrate an extraordinary half a million sales.

In 1987, another Western Australian organisation became the state’s first Indigenous publishing company. Opening for business in Broome, in the remote Kimberley region, Magabala Books was a community-based initiative. At the time of the bicentenary, I put up Magabala’s brilliant orange poster on my office door. I also made a passionate plea to my editorial board that although UQP had published numerous white-authored books on Aboriginal subjects, only one Indigenous author featured on our backlist — Kevin Gilbert, whose poetry volume People Are Legends had been published a decade before.

The UQP editorial board endorsed my proposal for an annual David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript – in recognition of this pioneering Aboriginal author. The judging panel of three would all be published Indigenous writers. Not long after this, I went to Adelaide for the 1988 Writers Week, where we were launching the hardback edition of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. I also wanted to visit the Ngarrindjeri community at Raukkan, on Lake Alexandrina, near the mouth of the Murray River. From talking with Adam Shoemaker and Stephen Muecke, I knew how important it would be to consult with David Unaipon’s community and to ask for their permission to name the award after him.

In a rented Toyota Camry, I travelled southeast from Adelaide for a couple of hours, the last fifty kilometres on powdery gravel roads. Compared to the city of churches and boulevards I had just left behind, it seemed as remote as the high prairies of Montana. When the lake came into view, it was vast and forbidding, with a raw wind blasting up from the Southern Ocean over the adjacent Coorong — the setting for the film Storm Boy, starring David Gulpilil.

The inaugural winner of our David Unaipon Award was a Noongar poet from Perth, Graeme Dixon, who’d written a collection of poems when he was in prison, at the suggestion of a visiting social worker. In 1990, another Western Australian, Doris Pilkington Garimara, whose birth name was Nugi Garimara, won the second David Unaipon Award. Along with former Magabala editor Sandra Phillips, UQP editor Sue Abbey worked with Doris to publish her winning novel – the first in a trilogy which we published over the course of the next decade. Caprice: a stockman’s daughter led to Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence which director Phillip Noyce transformed into a highly successful feature film. Doris’s slim book confounded all expectations by selling 60,000 copies in its film tie-in edition. The bicentenary of settlement was a crucial catalyst for Indigenous writing and publishing, culminating in the David Unaipon Award – which will celebrate its thirtieth  anniversary in 2019.

With the Booker Prize going to Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, 1988 was a memorable year, not only for Australian fiction but also for the fortunes of the University of Queensland Press. As I watched a live television broadcast of Peter making his way up to the Booker podium in his dinner suit that night, I thought of the fascinating arc his writing had explored since the early 1960s. Over three decades, his extraordinary literary imagination had travelled from the experimental ‘Wog’, through a speculative-fiction landscape of surreal short stories, to an unlikely nineteenth-century colonial tale of love and compulsive gambling. That Booker win was also, for me, the culmination of a long publishing relationship with Peter, which had begun with The Fat Man in History in 1974.

Oscar and Lucinda 1988 UQP press release (left) and internal illustrated memo (right). Source Oscar and Lucinda folder, UQP archives, Fryer Library, University of Queensland. Photographs by Craig Munro.

In 1986 an excerpt from his work-in-progress – tentatively titled ‘Holy Ghosts’ – had appeared in the Australian Literary Supplement. After reading the manuscript of ‘Holy Ghosts’, I wrote a long report to my CEO Laurie Muller on the novel, highlighting what I saw as its strengths: ‘There are beautiful and powerful scenes, fragments and images, especially about glass as a metaphor … The novel is also about every facet of gambling … There are, too, the echoes of Marquez and South American “magic realism”, of which Peter is a known devotee.’ Fiction editor D’Arcy Randall praised ‘Holy Ghosts’ as a ‘grand and demanding novel in which the story, characters, and themes all move towards a single stunning architectural image’. It was an image that seemed to embody the extravagant follies of Victorian Christianity, fusing the glories of God and Industry with Australia’s violent frontier history.

The day after his UQP contract was signed in July 1987, I wrote Peter a long letter, incorporating D’Arcy’s responses, as well as those of Laurie Muller and publicist Alison Cotes. Laurie thought that the first draft of my letter to Peter was too formal, so instead I sent him a brisk, one-page response, along with five pages of questions and suggestions — more than a hundred in all. Peter’s brief faxed response a few days later indicated that he found our detailed points useful, but the broader comments less so.

‘You (and your three co-editors) sure make my editors in New York and London seem very complacent,’ he quipped.

Peter was always grateful for a close-grained reading of his manuscripts. As he was now becoming more successful in the UK and to a lesser extent the US, however, he had to weigh up the relative merits of three distinct sets of editorial responses – not counting those of his agents in London and New York. His primary editorial relationship on Oscar and Lucinda, however, was with Faber.

In November 1987, UQP made the tactical decision to launch Oscar and Lucinda at the next Adelaide Festival, which began just after the bicentennial celebrations. Carey’s book wasn’t the only title we planned to launch at the festival that year. Adelaide Writers Week would also enable us to promote another historical novel: Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History. I believed that Peter Carey’s grand and unlikely love story Oscar and Lucinda seemed perfectly timed to win for him the widest possible readership. The publication date was set for February 1988, with Faber to follow in April, and the US publisher, Harper & Row, in May. Our publicity plan included posters, brochures, and teaser ads, as it had for Illywhacker.

Early in the new year, the Australian print quantity of 10,000 hardbacks was confirmed. Playwright David Williamson, a neighbour of Peter’s in Sydney, had already read the manuscript, and he agreed to write an enthusiastic endorsement for publicity purposes. Our jacket flap blurb opened with a quote from reviewer Helen Daniel: ‘Luminous and magical … A spectacular achievement.’ This was followed by David Williamson, who described the novel as ‘gently comic, obliquely ironic, and deeply compassionate’, and Geoffrey Dutton, who hailed it as the ‘most audacious and rewarding of all Carey’s novels’.

Perhaps distracted by the nineteenth-century setting, Gerard Windsor’s early review in The Bulletin came to the curious conclusion that Carey was an ‘old-fashioned writer’. According to Windsor, Oscar and Lucinda was a ‘special-effects novel’, though he conceded these effects could be ‘seductive’. Carey responded with a strong letter of complaint to the Bulletin which then dropped Windsor from its reviewing stable – a move that was met with a mixture of relish and disbelief by the local literati.

Don Anderson on the other hand, in the Sydney Morning Herald, was unreservedly enthusiastic: ‘Wonderful is the only word adequate to describe the imagination that begot, and the assurance that controls, this richly comic novel.’ In a lengthy review in The Age, Peter Pierce praised Oscar and Lucinda as ‘an ambitious, joyful work of fiction’. Mark Thomas’s iconoclastic review in the Canberra Times however took issue with Carey’s ‘ponderous attention to period detail’, criticising Oscar and Lucinda as ‘fussy and precious’: ‘Carey is so captured by detail that his story lacks any momentum: both surprise and suspense are largely absent,’ he commented.

Special flat cover of the late-1988 paperback edition of Oscar and Lucinda used for marketing and publicity. Source Craig Munro photograph from his own files.

With the publication of Faber’s UK edition several weeks later, the tally of good notices increased. The Spectator drew attention to the Dickensian flavour of Oscar and Lucinda, while novelist Angela Carter’s review in The Guardian was so good that we would quote it on the cover of subsequent UQP editions: ‘Oscar and Lucinda is a novel of extraordinary richness, complexity and strength,’ Carter wrote. ‘It fills me with wild, savage envy.’

The New York Times was equally fulsome: ‘Magnificent vitality, ebullient delight in character, detail and language that turns a novel into an important book.’ There had been however an unfortunate proof-reading failure in the US-printed copies which came to light when Harper & Row discovered ‘many copyediting errors and omissions’ in their edition of Oscar and Lucinda. Soon after publication, they placed an ad in Publishers Weekly, offering to pay the freight on unsold copies, which would then be pulped ahead of a new, corrected printing. UQP had shared Faber’s typesetting, but the ever-parochial Americans had set their own text as was common in order to modify spellings for their market.

In August — just six months after hardback publication — UQP released a substantial quantity in paperback. It turned out to be an astute move: copies had almost sold out by October, when Oscar and Lucinda’s Booker Prize shortlisting became public. This triggered another major printing, and Peter was buoyed by his Australian sales success as he prepared to leave for London. Two weeks before the Booker winner was announced, Ladbrokes had David Lodge’s novel Nice Work as favourite, followed by Oscar and Lucinda and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses — which had by then been banned in India after Muslim protests.

At the televised awards ceremony on 25 October, Peter discovered that Oscar and Lucinda had won just before he got up to speak. He beat not only Rushdie and Lodge, but also Bruce Chatwin, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Marina Warner. Most of the judges chose Carey, with only the panel’s chair , former Labour Party leader Michael Foot, favouring Rushdie. It was quite a novelty seeing the famously casual Carey in black tie and tight-fitting dinner jacket. As he smiled with his best Bacchus Marsh grin, and accepted this most desirable of British literary baubles, I realised just how far his writing career had carried him.

‘Yes, I love the feeling of having made something beautiful,’ Peter told Sebastian Faulks of The Independent soon after the ceremony. ‘The greatest pleasure is the thing itself. But what a relief! To have reached that point when it’s no longer just the reviews.’

Peter’s Booker win was a huge boost for all his publishers, and Faber printed another 40,000 hardbacks on the strength of it. The news also provided many publicity opportunities for UQP, which had difficulty keeping up with bookseller demand. Our CEO Laurie Muller wrote Robert McCrum at Faber a letter of congratulations, and McCrum responded with generosity. ‘I, certainly, am very well aware that without the University of Queensland Press, you and Craig Munro, Peter would not be the international figure he is today,’ McCrum wrote.

For Peter, the Booker was just the beginning of another brilliant year. In 1989, Oscar and Lucinda won the Miles Franklin and the NBC Banjo Award for Fiction. Following this avalanche of awards, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Queensland.

It was no coincidence that Xavier Herbert’s confronting first novel Capricornia was published on the 150th anniversary of white settlement in Australia – nor that Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda was widely promoted and reviewed during the year-long Bicentenary. Both novels are provocative and exuberant settler narratives, and both generated media controversy which helped establish them as bestselling works of historical fiction. Capricornia in particular became a confronting and influential white text that opened the eyes of its many generations of readers and paved the way for the emergence of black texts later in the twentieth century.

With Bob Hawke’s Labor government in office, there was an extensive Bicentennial Indigenous program and this sponsored Paperbark, the first major anthology of Indigenous writing – published by UQP and edited by both black and white writers. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda was part of this new consciousness, and his latest work of fiction, the rollicking road trip of a novel A Long Way from Home (2017), features an Aboriginal protagonist. Since 1988 however, it is the voices of Black writers that have clamoured to be heard, and Aboriginal authors like Alexis Wright, Kim Scott and Ellen van Neerven have won not just major literary awards, but also mainstream audiences.

This is an extended version of a paper first presented at the 2018 SHARP Conference at Western Sydney University.