In the first sentence of his book, “The Burning Library”, Geordie Williamson made a mistake when he wrote, “For a long time (later defined as prior to 1938) there was no such thing as Australian literature”. Thus he denigrated the work of many Australian authors but his greatest disservice was to Ion Llewellyn Idriess.
The 1930s were the peak years in Idriess’ career but between 1927 and 1969 he wrote 53 books some of which ran to twenty editions. He wrote books on mining, war and life in outback Australia. He wrote biographies, including several biographies of notable Aborigines. He published short stories and his newspaper and magazine articles were too numerous to count. He wrote books on the development of Australia. He sold millions of books and on several occasions thousands of his books were sold in the first few hours of their release. More importantly he wrote in Australia and for Australians. Every one of his books was published in Australia. He was awarded an OBE for his services to Australian literature. Williamson should have included Idriess in his list of disregarded authors.
Williamson deplored the present tendency to denigrate writing derived from a rural tradition. Then he ignored Idriess who lived the adventures about which he wrote. Idriess fought at Gallipoli as a soldier in the 7th Light Horse. He was a swagman, bushie, prospector and miner before he became an author when he was thirty-seven. From meticulous diaries Idriess wrote books that were devoured by a reading public with an insatiable appetite for stories of the outback.
In his book Williamson supported authors who “give pleasure to those who engage with reading as the joy, entire of itself, of one mind meeting another” and then ignored the fact that during the 1930s almost every Australian had read an Idriess book. Williamson repeated an opinion that the real division in literature is between, “works that admit interconnections and those that don’t”. This is the essence of Idriess’ work at his peak.
Williamson also quoted Walter Benjamin who thought most books enjoyed a brief conflagration “like the striking of a match”. He compared lasting works to a slow burning fuse. Of course, Williamson (through Benjamin) was referring to so-called classic works but Idriess’ books can be considered in that same context. Although there are Idriess books that were reprinted many times across generations, today he is one of the Australian authors Williamson nominated as being set aside. It will not always be so – the fuse is still burning.
In the future Idriess’ books will be consulted as a record of an Australia long gone. Whatever the criticisms of his work, Idriess recorded his observations of remote Australia and its people. Even at the base level of eye-witness chronicles his books must be regarded as an invaluable part of Australia’s history. No matter the influence of television, the internet and forms of communication still being devised, Idriess’ books will still be there awaiting re-examination.
I have no argument with Williamson’s choice of forgotten authors but Idriess sold millions of books before Williamson even acknowledged there was such a thing as Australian literature. Williamson does not even give Idriess a mention in his “other books you might like to read”. He has perpetuated the disregard of Idriess’ work by academic critics and compilers of recent literary anthologies. Idriess should be included in every list of notable Australian authors.