Ion (Jack) Llewellyn Idriess 1889-1979

Dedicated to the Life and Works of

Did Jack employ a "ghost writer"?

Rob

Jim Bradly (of “Gouger of the Bulletin” fame) alerted me to this topic. Among other contentious issues Jack has been accused of employing a ghost writer!

In 2005, a Japan-based schoolteacher, Thomas Sigley, produced a book on Australian authors for his students - "Writing across the Continent". He did not include Jack in his list of authors but Jack did get a highly derogatory mention in Sigley’s discussion about Angus and Robertson. His words are set out below.

Idriess was another late starter who had a lot of good stories to tell but not much literary talent to tell them with. His book Madman’s Island came just when Robertson had decided to give up publishing because the printers’ Union was demanding exorbitant rates. He sent back the manuscript without looking at it. However, he solved the printing problem by using the services of a new young printer who was a non-unionist. Eventually, Robertson bought a major share of the printing company, which he called “The Halstead Press ” after the town of his birth and soon he was back in the publishing business.

The firm also changed its publishing section’s name to “Cornstalk Press” but it caused a deal of confusion so the original A& R name was reverted to. Idriess’s first book was published by Cornstalk.

Idriess had many years of experience to draw on for his stories, so he resembled Clune in this respect. He was a mining engineer who had learnt his trade at Broken Hill. After that, he went all over Australia on mining expeditions and got to know the inland, the Kimberleys, North Queensland and the Torres Strait “possibly better than anyone else alive”.

A friend of his introduced him to Robertson in the hope that the latter would publish the story of Idriess’s being marooned on an island with a madman for six months. Robertson was interested and asked him to write up the story.

Apparently Idriess had little gift as a writer and Professor Tucker finished by reporting, “I don’t think the work is of the usual A& R standard.” Nevertheless, with a lot of “tuckering” completed, Robertson accepted it and another popular author began his career, producing forty-seven books.

Nettie Palmer was unable to accept as literary people those who used ghost writers to get their message across, but Robertson knew what ordinary readers wanted. Some of Idriess's books have become best sellers e.g. Lasseter's Last Ride or Flynn of the Inland or The Cattle King ( Kidman) . Ion Idriess lived from 1899 to 1979.

I sent a response to Sigley’s (probably five-years-old) email address – tmori@k2.dion.ne.jp – but it was returned.

Sigley has probably retired and left Japan.

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In my response to Sigley I said firstly that Jack was not a "late starter" by comparison with other authors. He began contributing to magazines when he was about 21 and published his first book Madman's Island when he was 37. And he did not publish just 37 books. Depending on the commentator's definition, he published 53 books on prospecting, mining, biography, war, travelling through remote Australia, Aboriginal Australians and the development of Australia. He was an accomplished diarist and contributed thousands of articles to many newspapers and magazines.

Sigley damned Jack with faint praise when he wrote, "Some of Idriess's (sic) books became best sellers..." and then he nominated just three. The fact is that almost all Jack’s books were reprinted. Assuming you are a fan of Jack’s (if you have found this site) you will know that more than three million of Jack’s books have been sold and when in 1975 the Public Lending Right gave authors with a fee when a book was borrowed, it was revealed that more of Jack’s books were being borrowed than any Australian author.

Even as recently as 2005 the Frankston (Victoria) library surveyed that community’s favourite books. Included in the Top One Hundred was Jack’s "The Red Chief" along with books by Asimov, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Dumas, Le Carre, Courtenay, Cussler and some other authors (like Patrick White) who have never come anywhere near Jack’s sales and readership.

What a pity I could not directly tell Sigley these facts!

Then his inference that Jack used a "ghost writer". This is slanderously untrue. If Sigley knew anything about Jack he could not have seriously alleged the same stylistic atmosphere that pervades Jack’s first and last books was the work of a ghost writer employed over a 42 year period. Or that Jack’s style evident in thousands of magazine articles were the work of someone else? I would have loved to hear just who Sigley thought was that ghost.

Of course the term could have been used by those literary nonentities Vance and Nettie Palmer. In his book Sigley listed the Palmers among Australia's great authors but they were both mainly literary critics. They produced little and anyway, their stuff did not sell. Clearly Sigley gave more credence to critics than authors. The Palmers were jealous of Jack’s success.

In 1934 Nettie wrote: “Why Idriess in a list of significant writers? He has wonderful material, certainly, but he almost always debases and falsifies it. His presence in a list dilutes the whole. People have come to take him seriously because he makes a good living: but he won’t do, will he?”

The Palmers were envious of Idriess' public acceptance and more so of his capacity to make a living from writing. They said he was a populariser who wrote with little other motive than to make money. It is true that Idriess made (indeed had to make) a living from his writing in the middle of the Great Depression and it is self-evident that he always had an eye on sales.

Nevertheless, he wrote many books that he must have known were never going to achieve high-volume sales. He continued writing long after his peak of popularity and he wrote his last three books on Aboriginal culture and Australian development. He knew there was no fortune to be made out of either subject.

Now I can hear Sigley’s refrain, "Popularity does not mean greatness" and "Sales are not a measure of literary worth". Well, I say that anyone who can seriously ignore the contribution of Idriess to Australian literature, publishing and national consciousness is a literary snob. I say Idriess was an extraordinary Australian and his place in literary history has been neglected.

AND CERTAINLY, HE DID NOT HAVE A "GHOST-WRITER".

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Duncan

I have just finished reading your letter to Mr Sigley, and I have to agree
that you made a very good and comprehensible argument defending Jack's contribution to Australian writing very well.

Jack started writing as early as 1910 I believe and his earliest written
work published in book form was The Desert Column book which he wrote between the ages of 25-28 and his last book The Challenge of the North he wrote when he was pushing 80. So he didn't start late in writing. There's no shame in starting writing late - another great Australian writer I really admired wrote the book A Fortunate Life when he was in his 80's. He was A.B.Facey. So it is indeed silly and very petty indeed for Mr Sigley to sling off about "late starters". As Benjamin Franklin quoted either live a life worth reading about or write about a life worth reading about.

Another writer I greatly admire which I think could be a kindred spirit of Idriess was the American writer Ernest Hemmingway who wrote often eye witness accounts of what he saw and did. He was a soldier too and lived a rich life and was anything but a dry academic.

My most loved of Idriess books were the ones where he wrote about his early life being Men of the Jungle – (Loved the Mad Hatter), Lightning Ridge, Silver City, My Mate Dick, Madman's Island (later 1938 non-fiction version) The Desert Column, and the short story in The Yellow Joss about the battle of wits between the Aussie and Turkish sniper in WW1 which I feel is a loosely disguised story based on Jack's a true incident perhaps in his life whilst in the army overseas.

I forgot to add that as far as the claim by this academic snob about Idriess using a ghost writer, I have actually viewed part of the original manuscript for Drums of Mer written in pencil in Jack's handwriting (which Paul Feain of Cornstalk bookshop in Glebe Sydney had for sale about a year or more ago) which refutes this allegation.

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Tom

Tom Thomas, ETT Imprints, conclusively debunks the Sigley allegation that Jack used a “ghost writer”. Tom was Publisher, Literature, for Angus and Robertson from 1989-93.

Today Tom wrote: “Any and all claims re Idriess having a ghost-writer are patently false, and only exist because of the lack of public access to manuscripts. Having seen all the manuscripts, it is clear he merely had an editor at A & R, nothing more."