Review of Craig Munro’s Memoir ‘Under Cover’ (February 2016)

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by Susan Pierotti AE

All authors, famous or not, need editors. We can all name a famous modern Australian writer, but a famous editor?

At last, one emerges from anonymity. Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing is Craig Munro’s riotous ride through the Australian publishing world of the twentieth century.

A love of literature and comics steered Munro towards a cadetship with the Brisbane Courier. He graduated from cub reporter to sub-editor; ‘the thrill of arranging other people’s stories, and impaling the rejected sheet of copy paper on my spike, became intoxicating.’ Soon after, he was offered a job at the University of Queensland Press (UQP), not realising that the literature he had just studied was what he would be soon helping to craft.

In 1974, one of his first major assignments was to interview an unknown advertising director called Peter Carey whose short stories he was editing. After realising that the tape recorder hadn’t recorded a thing, a long drinking session elicited a far more open interview, where Carey admitted his desire to write a novel but to make lots of money as well. Munro commissioned him to collate Carey's short story collection, The Fat Man in History – and the rest is history.

Other luminaries of the Australian literary world wander through the book. In an un-air-conditioned office during a sweltering summer, Hugh Lunn, dressed only in shorts and a singlet, calmly typed his biography of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in just six weeks. Barbara Hanrahan’s literary aspirations were burdened by poignant feelings of inferiority, simultaneously as her writing was lauded for its beauty. Olga Masters, ‘a nineteenth-century matriarch whose authority was always generously dispensed, but whose creative energy had never been extinguished’, died almost before her writing career had begun. Nevertheless, UQP continued to promote her – literary life after death.

Munro also ruefully acknowledges the ones that got away, due to his honest appraisal. One of these, Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow, My Country, he wittily describes as the least-read bestseller in history.

Reflecting ‘on the delicate relationships of mutual trust and respect between editors and their authors’, it is comforting to know that, 25 years after publishing David Malouf’s Johnno, as established a literary editor as Munro still had sleepless nights over editing slips. The 1988 Booker Prize triumph for Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda was a personal best for him, but it took several years before a group of Singapore students alerted UQP to its missing chapter and a repeated paragraph!

One of Munro’s proudest achievements was negotiating with the people group of Australia’s first Indigenous published author to found and name the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous manuscript, with guaranteed UQP publication.

According to Munro, ‘suburban freelancers working on-screen are among the invisible heroes of Australian publishing’, as writers still need editors to improve, indeed transform, a manuscript into a book that connects writers and readers. Under Cover proves that an editor can also be an informative and entertaining author. A great read for the long hot summer holidays.

Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing, Craig Munro, Scribe, 2015, Melbourne.

Susan Pierotti
Communication subcommittee
Creative Text Solutions