In the latest issue of the ASA magazine Australian Author, Miriam Cosic writes about book launches as an endangered species – ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.’ Even among authors themselves, she remarks, there are divided opinions about the value of these events. For the mercilessly honest David Malouf they are merely ‘exercises in vanity’; for some others they still serve a useful marketing function.
I remember with pleasant nostalgia (and more than a smidgin of vanity) a few occasions when books of mine have been ceremonially launched on the waters of what I imagined could be an expectant world of receptive readers. They include the time when Elizabeth Jolley did the honours for my slim volume of poems The Shifting Shore, adopting her usual benignly vague persona to say kind chatty things about it. And then there was a memorable event when Hon. John Dawkins, the controversial former government minister who transformed this country’s university sector, generously launched my Higher Education of Education for Hire? and I basked in his praise of it as:
‘…a refreshingly readable book: the author’s love of language is evident throughout the work. There is a minimum of jargon and a total absence of pomposity… Here we have an extraordinarily balanced approach, and in fact Prof Reid makes a case for balance, for getting the right kinds of tension working within the university – and between the university and the community, between the university and the workplace, between the university and business, between the university and government… What we can see in this remarkably thoughtful book is the essence of what a university education is about.’
And ‘remarkably thoughtful’ is how I’d describe the speech that Prof Brenton Doecke gave about my novel That Untravelled World on the occasion of its release at the 2012 national conference of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s forgivable to feel gratified when you hear someone talk insightfully about a book you’ve written. I particularly appreciated Brenton’s emphasis on ‘the way the mystery of Nellie’s disappearance folds into an account of Australia prior to the First World War and then the between-the-wars period’ so that ‘the poetic evocation of scenes around Perth and moments in Harry’s journey through life’ become ‘woven into this larger narrative.’ You can read his comments in full here.
I’m sometimes asked to speak at the launch of someone else’s publication. When it’s a large multi-author work of literary history and criticism the task can be demanding, as I found when launching The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, a 600-page opus judiciously edited by the admirable Peter Pierce, which assembles chapters by more than a score of scholarly contributors. My speech then appeared (with only minor changes) as a review in the e-journal Transnational Literature. You can read it here.
Old-style celebratory launches still happen, and can create a buzz of excitement around a new book. I enjoyed the party that UWAP put on a few months ago for Amanda Curtin’s fine new novel Elemental, with Janet Holmes à Court as the launcher. There was a lively crowd at this event, as you can see from images on Amanda’s website here:
In the future most writers may have to do their own launching – even if it takes the simple internalised form of a hopeful benison within the book itself! Precedents for this go back at least as far as Edmund Spenser, whose Shepheardes Calender (1579) carried a dedicatory poem beginning ‘Go, little Book; thyself present / As Child whose Parent is unkent…’ But closer, no doubt, to the mood of our own times is the ‘Envoi’ in which Ezra Pound mocked such traditional launching gestures; Pound’s pastiche opens with the sardonic line ‘Go, dumb-born book…’