I only properly met Frank Moorhouse once. It was the mid-2000s and as a writing and cultural studies student, I had submitted a short story to the University of Technology, Sydney’s annual literary anthology. The story – like this book review – was (perhaps overly) preoccupied with bisexuality. It featured a married couple who are seduced by a sculptor named Voltz; at the climax of the story, the latter ends up taking the couple to bed before a TV explodes. I had lifted the name from Moorhouse’s then recently published Martini: A Memoir (2005), where ‘Voltz’ was one of his key correspondents. The slim volume must have made an impression on me, though I don’t remember much from it now. At some point, after drafting my story, I typed ‘For Frank Moorhouse’ under its title, perhaps acknowledging the loan of a character’s name, but also nodding to the story’s sexual openness, which Frank had been known for. After hitting submit, I didn’t think much more about it. 

When the story was accepted for publication, the editorial team made the decision to invite Frank to launch their anthology at Gleebooks. It was a night of celebration for everyone involved – to Frank, they served a chilled martini as a warm toast – but for me it was pure, unrelenting doom. I had been in psychic distress for months in the lead-up to the event. This had to do partly with the idea that I was outing myself in an overly sexualised piece of short fiction and partly with a spate of life events, including the deaths of my matriarchal grandmother and, less expectedly, of a childhood friend. It was a lot, and I was late into the room, because I had wandered down the backstreets of Glebe, seeking out Broadway, wanting to throw myself into the oncoming traffic of Parramatta Road.  

It turned out that it was another bi-phenomenon – undiagnosed bi-polarity, rather than bi-sexuality – that had me in a hectic tailspin. Still, the internal haywire was down to my rapid ruminations being fixed on the short story and whether anyone would think there was truth to it. I had gone to see a psychologist, who had asked me what the worst outcome of attending the launch would be, to which I replied, ‘Someone will think it’s autobiographical’. After finally getting in the room and reading the story aloud and in front of Moorhouse, a young man approached me and asked, ‘Was it autobiographical?’ 

It was a relief, perhaps, to have my worst fears realised. There was humour in this exchange too. It felt as if the end of the evening was a punchline lifted from the pages of a Frank Moorhouse short story, one of the intertextual correspondence-heavy meta-pieces from the 1970s that evoke literary Sydney and borrow heavily from his own anxieties of queerness. 

I never followed Frank up after the launch, and my frayed nerves had perhaps tanked the chance of his offering anything like it on the night, but recent testimony has suggested that he was unfailingly generous to new writers. Indeed, that is how Frank met his two eventual biographers, and he seems to have enjoyed actively encouraging them over the years to continue with their dual projects documenting his life. He must have looked on me – bug-eyed, sweating, pale, suicidal – with some pity. All I remember was that he asked what I was reading and when I wasn’t able to answer, he filled the void, saying he was enjoying Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives after Susan Sontag’s recent ringing endorsement. 

After Frank’s death, I wondered if this launch speech was in his archives at the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library (I also remember nothing of the speech). The archives were on my mind because they are central to two new biographies of Moorhouse, Catharine Lumby’s Frank Moorhouse: A Life and Matthew Lamb’s Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths. Released in quick succession, both were long in the making and given, it seems, a necessary push by his departure. It felt entirely apt that a writer whose life and work were so centred on dualities – of sexuality, gender, nationality – should be the subject of not one, but two biographies. How fitting, too, that a writer who played in the very borderlands of gender should have both a male and female biographer (leaving the way open for a non-binary and trans reading of Moorhouse’s life and work). And, in a further game of doubles: Lamb’s mighty Strange Paths is the first of a projected two-volume edition, with the second half, Ways of Going, to be released at a later date. 

We can keep going with this line of thought: as an author who primarily worked in two modes – short cultural comedies and literary, political epics – it is apt yet again that one of his biographers has given us a brief, flitting tour through his work and themes, and the other has dropped on us a doorstopper of a book in a comprehensive, multi-part telling of the life. Both Lamb and Lumby – sounding like a couple of gumshoe detectives, which, of course, biographers partly are – had permission directly from Frank to go forth and marshal the material of his archives. Lumby had first rights, if such a concept applies to life writing. She met Moorhouse back in 1990, and after writing a 2004 profile on him for The Bulletin, one of his many old mastheads, she began to consider writing a full biography. Lamb came in later. After winning the Josephine Ulrick Prize in 2012 – an incredibly lucrative award, sadly discontinued in 2016 – he invested the $20,000 prize money into his much-admired Review of Australian Fiction digital publishing enterprise. This entrepreneurialism delighted Frank, who had been one of the judges of the prize, and the two began having lunches and dinners in Sydney whenever Lamb was in town. Through these convivial mealtimes, Lamb became Frank’s ‘accidental biographer’. 

Lumby and Lamb seem to have been in collegial conversation about their respective works (Lamb is thanked in Lumby’s acknowledgments; though Lumby is absent in Lamb’s). There’s no real trace of competitive bitterness between them, and only the slightest sense of there being any race to the finish line.  Indeed, the only writing in either book that seems produced in haste is Lumby’s  epilogue, written after Frank’s death in mid 2022, which features remembrances of Frank from colleagues and friends. Dropped in without much in the way of artful paraphrasing, it reads like a scrollable online condolence book.  

The 2020s has seen a boon for the genre of literary biography in Australia with the commemoration of writers and cultural figures who helped translate the twentieth century. Hard proof of this can be found in Bernadette Brennan’s sensitive retelling of the many tragedies of Gillian Mears; Brigitta Olubas’s ethereal, exhaustive life of Shirley Hazzard; and Ryan Cropp’s smartly dressed and masterful intellectual biography of Donald Horne. (Moorhouse and Horne cross paths in Cropp’s, Lumby’s, and Lamb’s books; the pair appear out lunching together again, reanimated with appetites intact). 

The intent of the literary biographer remains up for debate. In a review of Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life for The Atlantic, novelist and self-confessed Hazzard-tragic Lauren Groff suggested that reading a biography of a writer is a strange act, though much less so, perhaps, than writing one. Groff reached straight for the slightly creaky question about what the facts of an artist’s life can help to illuminate about the art, if anything at all: 

The desire to read one must come from admiration for the writer’s work, but a literary biographer’s central concern isn’t a writer’s work; it’s the writer’s life. And, though the gods of capitalism may grumble at my saying this, an artist’s work and life are radically separate things. 

Groff’s line resulted in a short burst of clap-back from biographers on social media. Lance Richardson – an Australian writer living in America and working on a much-anticipated biography of novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen – mused that for the writer ‘the boundaries between “life” and “work” are so porous as to sometimes not even exist’. For Groff, however, it seemed more a matter of scale. It was the supposed smallness of Hazzard’s life that left Groff gruff enough to write, that compared to her fiction, Hazzard is ‘less interesting, less important, less distinctive’. 

One has to be thankful that Hazzard wasn’t around to encounter that reductive observation. It’s a curious line to take because, to many, Hazzard lived a life with an outsized wingspan. Put it down to American short-sightedness, perhaps: any Australian reader, taking in Olubas’s biography will discover a significant contribution to the understanding of cultural exchange between Australia and America, and the particular weight we put on expatriation. This often one-way street animated as much of Frank Moorhouse’s own fiction as it did Hazzard’s lived migratory patterns. Leave aside the life for a moment and look at the work: Hazzard’s interrogations of the United Nations, and Moorhouse’s proddings of its predecessor, the League of Nations, are equally deserving of the attentions of a skilled biographer who can dig at the material foundations of such fictions. There they might find answers to curious questions, such as why Australian writers might be so invested in themes of global governance?  

The reader can make their own potential interpretations by consuming not one biography, but two, or more. You could read the biographies of Christina Stead, Patrick White, Hazzard, and now Moorhouse too, and it would give you a sparkling cultural picture of Sydney, Australia, and their contemporary worlds. What Groff seems to miss in dismissing literary biography as a worthy genre (marking it down instead as a ‘vulgar mode of curiosity’), is that the biographer of an individual subject – particularly a culturally significant figure – produces work in service of a larger, collectivist historical project. Indeed, the biography of one figure might provide an essential source for the social historian working on a larger canvas, just as a work of social history might prove a useful source for the biographer. In this sense, there is not, pace Groff, a radical separateness between the biographical subject’s life and work, but rather, let’s say, a radical interconnectedness between the subject and the lives and works of many, many others. To contribute to such a project, the biographer needs to rely on much the same skill set as the cultural, social, and political historian, and activate the same interpretative capacities as the literary critic.  

Catharine Lumby, known for her work in journalism and media studies, explicitly states that her book is ‘not a work of literary criticism’ and that it is not comprehensive. Just pages later, however, Lumby closes out her introduction by recalling:  

While I was writing this biography, many people told me they couldn’t understand the relationship between the genres that Moorhouse worked across: short stories, essays, comic essays, historical novels, journalism. This biography is also my attempt to answer that compelling question.  

How does one begin to untangle and demystify Moorhouse’s many genre-crossings – to take a tilt at that ‘compelling question’ – without engaging in some form of literary criticism? To deny Frank Moorhouse: A Life’s status as a work of criticism is an unnecessary act of self-abnegation because Lumby conducts plenty of canny, careful readings of Moorhouse’s work. Lumby might avoid outright judgement – the stock-in-trade of the newspaper review – but she’s skilled in pulling quotes from Moorhouse’s novels and short stories and pushing them into broader cultural criticism, bringing in a wide range of sources to bolster her readings.  

It might have worked in Lumby’s favour to have admitted that her book isn’t really a work of biography at all, instead of waving a white flag and calling it ‘selective biography’. Frank Moorhouse reads instead as a set of roving ‘critical essays’, which take in some aspects of Frank’s life and work, but, in truth, it concentrates on the wider socio-historical movements of his time. A fragmentary approach such as this is a perfect way to approach Moorhouse’s corpus – evoking as it does his own use of what he termed ‘discontinuous narratives’ – but it is less so when it comes to documenting his life. Moorhouse lived like a protagonist in a classic picaresque novel, never quite settling, even late in life, and that requires a stricter chronological arrangement for the reader to make sense of the man.  

Chronology might seem quaint – too stuffy and straightforward in a writing world beholden to experimental personal essays – but it is undeniably practical. It’s how we live our lives, after all, and a straight line can be more complex than it at first seems. A biographer, like the popular historian, has to ask the question: where to start the line? How far back do you go? In her sorely overlooked life of Philippa Cullen, The Dancer, the great literary biographer Evelyn Juers takes her reader on a reverse-gear drive into settler history, starting her book in the 1700s and only getting to Cullen’s birth on page 101. It was pointed digression rather than meandering detour, the extended prologue foreshadowing the preoccupations that would later shape Cullen’s brief working life. Hitting a similar vein, Lamb gives us his ‘prehistory of Frank Thomas Moorhouse Jnr’, writing up pointed, potted colonial histories of censorship, obscenity trials, copyright issues, author pay, short fiction, cinematic presentation, literary magazine production, and sexuality. When Frank finally makes his debut in his own biography, we are primed to understand his driving obsessions. 

Lamb knows too that what the writer reads is as important as any parent or early life event. Some biographers don’t delve deep into the reading life of their subjects – often dissuaded by obscure titles and the work involved in considering them – but as Lamb shows, and as it always seems to do, close reading pays off. He mines Moorhouse’s personal library to show that unlike his nearest contemporaries – Bail, Carey, et al. chasing Borges, Cortez, et al. – Frank was besotted with sociologists and media theorists, many now largely forgotten. This was an unusual intellectual training ground for composing fiction. Sitting down to write in the libertine enclaves of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s, Frank was as likely to be influenced – if not more so – by social historians like Raymond Williams or sexologists like Wilhelm Reich as by Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Mansfield, both of whom he read as a boy. Lamb is particularly good at excavating such textual influences, unlocking and opening the doors to a library of lost books. Who today reads the urologist Kenneth Walker?  

Part of the thrill of any biography is the promise of a revival, even for secondary or peripheral subjects. While it’s unlikely anyone will be asking ‘What’s the frequency Kenneth?’ any time soon, I was pleased to see the once popular American philosopher Paul Goodman pop up (and off). Lamb uncovers a short story Moorhouse excised from The Americans, Baby called ‘Carl and Paul Goodman’. One of the few contemporaries Susan Sontag actually liked, Goodman wrote punchy social proclamations that have since lost some of their hold; the cultural memory of his bisexuality, which informed much of his writing, seems to have faded too. Sontag’s brilliant line about Goodman – ‘he mingled his own sad sexual desires with his desire for the polity’ – could just as well be applied to Moorhouse, intoxicated as the latter was by the libertarian Sydney Push. 

Openly bisexual before it was cool in ultra-conservative Australia and, indeed, the globe – he was profiled as ‘frankly bisexual’ in an overview of Australian fiction published in The Washington Post in 1981 – Moorhouse was always going to attract the attention of a reader like me. With Lamb and Lumby, I was looking for biography that was decidedly un-straight in both form and content. Perhaps it is unfair to approach any work searching for a model for living, but social mores always motivated Moorhouse. Besides, I had serious questions for Frank about his queerness that I hadn’t thought to ask when I met him. 

In Moorhouse’s early life bisexuality was a punishing secret to bear, and illegal besides. He longed for some form of ‘outness’. In his first serious relationship, with his high school sweetheart, he developed, and attempted to test without much success, a ‘Theory of Frankness and Sincerity’. Frank wrote to her that he hoped ‘all humans will be open and frank, and that such words as blush, modesty, unspeakable, embarrassment will be unknown’. Later, he had a ‘desperate need for openness about sex’ – a feeling familiar to anyone with intimate knowledge of the inner linings of the closet. But openness can only take you so far – eventually it leads you to the conflicted identity many experience with their bisexuality. Lamb locates a note in Moorhouse’s early personal notebooks: ‘The bi-sexual does not have the best of both worlds, he is out of full participation in either.’ That line, late in Lamb’s book, cut at me. 

When writing a biography of a queer life – and particularly the lives of bisexuals – there is a question of who and what you are ‘outing’. Lamb and Lumby both carefully consider the ethics of ‘disclosure’ when it comes to Moorhouse and the practice of biography. Lumby explicitly states that she made the decision ‘not to name any of the men with whom Moorhouse had multiple casual and long-term sexual relationships throughout his life’ and kept away from referencing otherwise accessible materials in his archives, out of a fear that she would out ‘men who have lived outwardly heterosexual lives’. Several reviewers have praised her for doing so. Julieanne Lamond, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, noted: 

To her credit, she decides to err on the side of ‘caution when it comes to revealing intimate relationships documented in the archive which are not public knowledge’. Such caution means that the reader looking for prurient details about Moorhouse’s sex life, especially his relationships with men, will be disappointed. 

Count me as the disappointed reader. What might be ‘prurient’ matter for some might be life-affirming fact for the bisexual reader. Erring too far on the side of caution is to risk creating unhealthy gaps in the writing of a bisexual man’s life, bordering on erasure. Lumby, pre-empting Lamond’s response to her work, writes that the ‘quotidian details of Moorhouse’s sex life are beside the point’, but there is nothing at all quotidian about the sex lives of bisexual men because biphobia – internalised and external – has obscured them so thoroughly (a presumably unintentional pun in Lumby’s book might give away a naïveté about such details: ‘Moorhouse has never been pegged as a “gay” writer’ [the italics are mine]). We don’t need descriptions of sexual acts or the names of those involved, but we do long to know how relationships came to be, what fall-out they might have caused, when they were right and just, and, most importantly, when they were lived out without shame or stigma. The fact that so many men need their identities obscured, and to live ‘outwardly heterosexual lives’, tells us all we need to know how rare this last point is. 

Lumby could rightly retort that we can simply go straight to Frank’s fiction to find the conflicted queerness we may be looking for. An iconic cycle of stories in The Americans, Baby (1972) features multiple versions of the same bisexual love triangle told from differing perspectives. The first story introduces ‘The American, Paul Johnson’ and his sexual relationship with Carl, who is also romantically seeing Sylvia. Carl and Paul ‘hook up’, in the contemporary parlance, which leaves them both feeling shameful and questioning their sexuality (‘he was just not like that’). The pair appear to struggle with homosexuality without having bisexuality as an accessible frame of reference. A later story from Sylvia’s perspective finds her stumbling on the two men in bed and feeling confused and betrayed. And, finally, there’s a confessional letter, speculating on love, from Paul to Carl. Might this be all we need? Do we need the details of how things really unfolded for Moorhouse and the real-life inspirations for Paul and Sylvia? 

As Frank intuited, we yearn to hear from all three: Paul, Carl and Sylvia. Yet ‘Paul’, ‘Carl’ and ‘Sylvia’ are all his inventions. These short stories deserve their place in Australia’s social – and sexual – history, both the libertarian scene of the 1970s and burgeoning understandings of bisexuality, but we cannot rely on Moorhouse’s telling alone. His stories invite a much broader approach: what Lucien Febvre in the 1930s called ‘history from below’, a perspective that paves the way for ‘people’s history’, giving  voice to those left out from official accounts and obscured by canonised fictions. The biographer is perfectly placed to act as a people’s historian, because she is, after all, writing a history of people.  

Lamb lands on a workaround for those not wanting to directly speak out: he interviews one of Moorhouse’s male partners, on the condition of anonymity. Enter ‘John Burrows’ (a likely partial basis for ‘Paul’). It would be impossible to write a biography of Moorhouse without Burrows; Burrows and Moorhouse had a fifty-year relationship. In early adulthood, Frank went back and forth between his relationship with Burrows and his marriage to his young wife Wendy. A later female partner only discovered the partnership between the men when stumbling upon Frank’s personal correspondence, breaking up with him as a result. It’s these life details that the bisexual reader hungers for – ‘rules for living’ that have not yet been fully set.  

Reading two Moorhouse biographies, back-to-back a set of ‘rules’ were starting to come into view – or, at least, the possibility of them. This speaks to one of the motivations for reading biography: to find commonalities contained within someone’s lifetime with your own. But two biographies, so close together, were too much for me. In reading them, I was identifying so strongly with Moorhouse, that my life was starting to feel like a Moorhouse short story, or perhaps even Moorhouse’s life. This might seem desirable to some. A Guardian piece written by Lumby promoting her book ran with the headline ‘I wanted to be Frank Moorhouse’, focusing on the intoxicating influence he had on her teenage reading. When I wrote ‘For Frank Moorhouse’ on a short story nearly twenty years ago, I was, perhaps, thinking the same thing.  

Who really wants to be Frank Moorhouse though? Who wants to be bisexual at this point of history? In recent peer-reviewed findings from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 80% of bisexual respondents said they had experienced mental disorder compared to 41% of heterosexual people and 63% of lesbian or gay people. By giving us such a thorough telling of Frank’s early life – the realities of being young and Frank – Matthew Lamb shows us precisely how these numbers could come to be. It’s a significant contribution to the field of LGBT+ life writing in Australia, with another volume yet to come. No knock on Lumby, but it was a heady experience to find the queer life more fully realised in the formally straighter biography.  

Works Cited

Casey, Constance, ‘Down Under, Out Back, And Over There’, The Washington Post, 3 October 1981  

Groff, Lauren, ‘Why Read Literary Biography?’, The Atlantic, 14 December 2022 

Lamond, Julieanne, ‘A Man at the Edge of the Cultural Cliff’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 2023 

Sontag, Susan, ‘On Paul Goodman’, The New York Review of Books, 21 September 1972