The September [1993] issue of Quadrant contains an extraordinary 14-page article by Peter Ryan, former publishing director of Melbourne University Press. Ryan, it seems, has lived with a deep secret guilt these last thirty years and has decided now to reveal all. "Of the many things in my life upon which I must look back with shame, the chiefest is that of having been the publisher of Manning Clark's A History of Australia, and of having given him that support and encouragement which an author expects of his publisher. As each succeeding volume got worse than its predecessor -- and it did -- I ought to have followed my instinct, and resigned from the Press." Clark's monumental work, we are told, was a fraud and fairy floss, its author a mountebank and humbug. On the other hand, the History was "a great little earner". I suppose that would be a worry for any publisher.
The Age broke this sad story to Melbourne readers on its front page on 26 August. On the 27th both Age and Australian had front-page comments from Clark's widow, Dymphna, and photos of her and Ryan. The Age also had comments from Clark's son Andrew, editor of the Sydney Sun-Herald, who concluded that Ryan was either "a hypocrite or a bitter, jealous old man". In its editorial the Age said "There is much to be said for the Ryan argument," which was a little unexpected, since "the Ryan argument" seems to be that Clark should have written his book differently, and one might think that a publisher should do something about that at the time. But the Age is nothing if not balanced: on the 26th it quoted Stuart Macintyre -- "Peter Ryan has been very good at having his cake and eating it too. This time he has surpassed himself" -- and on the 27th ran pieces by Michael Cathcart, editor of the abridged History (mentioned in Ryan's article, and to be published by MUP on 30 August), who took the "undignified spectacle" line, and Gerard Henderson, who more or less endorsed Ryan's critique while saying there was nothing new about it.
On Saturday 28 August the Australian ran an abridged version of the Quadrant article, thereby removing some of the irony from Ryan's concluding sentence: "It could almost be claimed for Manning Clark's A History of Australia that it has given longwindedness and self-pity a bad name." On the 28th Stuart Macintyre was back in the Age with a typically well-considered summary of the matter, and the Prime Minister got into the act in a story headed "Manning Clark's critics bitchy: PM". That short piece is one of the most interesting so far.
"[Manning Clark's] great achievement was to imagine Australia -- what it was and what it might become -- and he did it so well he helped us all do it," Mr Keating said. "It is not Manning Clark's politics which some conservative Australians object to. His politics were hardly radical. And it's not the way he wrote history -- the way is always open to anyone who wants to write it better. What they fear is his imagination."
That is unexceptional. But in this story we learn that Paul Keating's remarks were a "contribution to the renewed debate about the quality of Professor Clark's epic six-volume A History of Australia" following "an unexpected burst of vitriol this week from the publisher, Mr Peter Ryan", who "stunned the literary world with his attack on Professor Clark's work". Relatively unstunned, I propose that this is not a renewed debate about Manning Clark at all: it's a beat-up. What this debate should be about is the ethics of publishing.


The Society of Editors Newsletter, September 1993




John Bangsund
Melbourne, Australia



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