Today Jack's work is often either ignored or denigrated by people who should know better. It is true that most of his books have fallen from public popularity. Of course, I have no problem with this – popularity wanes for many reasons. My objection is that, in the literary history of Australia, Jack’s place is (more often than not) denied or overlooked. I say his name should be included in every list of Australia’s great authors.
1. Sales volume. Although the number of books an author sells is an indicator of public popularity, sales alone are not a measure of “greatness”. There are plenty of books written for a once-only read. On the other hand there are many critically acclaimed books that have not sold at all well. Jack’s books sold by the million in one of the most difficult periods of Australia’s history – the great depression of the 1930’s.
2. Continuing popularity. Continuing demand for an author’s work, measured by the number of times the author’s work has been reprinted is quite different from initial sales. Continuing popularity (particularly across generations) can be an indication of greatness. Thirty years after his death and many decades after they were first printed there are still some of Jack’s books in print and there is a strong market for his used books.
3. Number of books published. Obviously, to get even one book published is an achievement but to get 53 books published is beyond most authors.
4. Breadth of subject matter. The work of many authors is recognisable by a single theme but Jack wrote on prospecting and mining, his travels through remote areas of Australia, war and military strategy, the development of Australia, and biography.
5. Mastery of language and style. Jack’s work has been criticised, for example, for having too many clichés but he was certainly able to communicate with his readers.
Even so, after the Second World War, Jack’s books had started falling from public popularity. For example, the Victorian Readers Eighth Book included an Idriess article in its first few editions but that article was dropped in later editions. And by the time Jack published In Crocodile Land in 1946 he seemed to be past his peak of popularity.
Although In Crocodile Land, his 34th book, was reprinted four times and was also published in France, it did not sell nearly as well as his earlier books. In the following seven years to 1953 Jack published another eight books. Although all were reprinted at least once, sales must have been falling away.
After 1953 Jack published another 13 books but of these only two were reprinted. Of all Jack’s books, only the last 13 were not so successful in the sense that only two were reprinted. Few authors have been published even to the extent of these last 13.
Despite his huge commercial success as an author, Jack’s work is not well known today. The reasons are many but it is not unusual for any author to fall out of fashion with the reading public as new ideas emerge and cultural imperatives evolve. Jack was at his peak during the Great Depression and before the Second World War. These national experiences changed Australia and no doubt changed the way people considered his work.
A quite different issue is the shabby treatment Jack has received at the hands of literary critics and academic commentators. He does not need defending. For anyone who cares to stop and think, his record speaks for itself. Even so, the sniping from academics and proponents of “high” literature cannot go unchallenged.
This trend toward denigrating and ridiculing Jack’s work began early. It actually began with his contemporaries, specifically Vance and Nettie Palmer. Another critic, Frederick Macartney wrote of Jack’s popularity that it: “... causes his name to be frequently joined with the names of our really important writers which is not fair to the reputation of our literature”.
These people were envious of Jack’s public acceptance and more so of his capacity to make a living from writing. It is also surely true that highly educated and privileged people looked down on the boy who left school in Broken Hill and took to the road for his literary education. His self-taught, unsophisticated style was obviously an affront to the ideals of literary critics. From his first successful book Prospecting for Gold to his last work Challenge of the North, Jack always wrote as though he was talking face-to-face with his reader. In his folksy style he said in Prospecting for Gold,
“Perhaps you are working a broad creek. You are getting a little gold. You are disappointed. You feel that more ought to be there. Well, always try the banks … the original creek may once have flowed where the banks are now … Remember, this world is very old, and gold was born when the world was young. Therefore search for it in old, old places”.
In the same style 38 years later, in Challenge of the North, Jack wrote,
“Cambridge Gulf tapers, but imagine the vast volume of water in movement at 23 feet in depth rolling down that fifty-mile stretch, if only at five miles an hour! Daily and nightly power running to waste!”
No doubt this simple face-to-face style upset the Palmers and others who lauded those authors spending their lives producing but a few “perfect” books (that didn’t sell).
Envy excused the Palmerites but what excuses modern literary historians? They have summarily dismissed Jack’s work because, for instance, he used too many exclamation marks or too many clichés. These critics (often academics who are paid to know better), should be acknowledging Jack’s place in Australian literary history and his role in the development of Australian consciousness. At the least, modern critics should be saluting Jack’s role in the development of Australian publishing.
It is interesting to check the accomplishments of the literary critics and academics who have denigrated Jack. For example, as recently as 2004 a professional academic and literary critic, Peter Pierce, labelled Jack a “journeyman opportunist”. It is enlightening to compare Pierce’s literary achievements against those of Jack Idriess.
Other critics have accorded Jack just a little praise without acknowledging the real value of his work. For example, Geoffrey Dutton included Flynn of the Inland in his selection of Australia’s greatest books but concluded with a back-handed compliment: “Idriess is no great writer – his work has clichés galore – but he was always able to respond to the greatness of his theme (presumably the story of Flynn of the Inland)”.
Later, in a 1993 article for the Sydney Bulletin, Dutton pontificates about “the soul of the outback” without ever acknowledging Jack as the Australian author who did more than anyone else to bring that “soul” of the bush to city-dwellers. Jack was never the “fly-in-for-the-weekend” explorer Dutton deplores in this article.
Many modern critics continue the Palmerite accusation that Jack falsified his facts. Others have accused Jack of writing “exploitative novels” and mixing facts with “misinformation, exaggeration and innuendo.” The Australian shop-keeper turned self-styled adventurer, Dick Smith, did both. In his own “fly-in-fly-out” style (and with 55 years of hindsight) he examined the story of Lasseter’s reef and criticised Jack’s Lasseter’s Last Ride which was written contemporaneously with Lasseter’s expedition.
Certainly, Jack did from time-to-time tell imaginative yarns arising out of his experiences. He was always able to take an idea and embellish it to make a good story. In the second Madman’s Island the discussion with Charlie about ambergris was included in his book of short stories, The Yellow Joss, and in 1937 in The Canberra Times. In the latter stories the desolate, inhospitable Howick Island was transformed into a tropical paradise, home to a contented beachcomber. Nevertheless, when Jack set out to provide a descriptive record, he wrote facts as far as he knew them.
For instance, it is still possible 30 years after his death, to find recently published books (such as Eyewitness, Beersheba and Gallipoli Sniper ) that make reference to Jack’s book The Desert Column. Of course some writers ignore him – John Laird’s The Australian Experience of War29 includes a Vance Palmer poem about war but neglects the writing of a real soldier – Jack Idriess.
Modern anthologies of authors and their work also fail him. Although Elizabeth Webby in 2000 broadly acknowledged Jack’s work as both fiction and non-fiction grounded in historical fact, elsewhere she dismissed his work as mere travel writing. Others have similarly and erroneously classified his work.
With even a glance at a list of his published titles, it is evident that a categorisation of “travel writer” is ridiculous. Jack’s work covers a wide range of issues. While some of his later work is indeed “travel writing”, his books on prospecting and mining are (still today) acknowledged as being practical and authoritative texts. To illustrate the absurdity of the travel writer classification, Jack’s first successful book was Prospecting for Gold. His books on war and military strategy are based on his personal experience and some continue to be published. Some of Jack’s ideas on the development of Australia are still being debated half a century after publication. Then he also wrote five books that were more-or-less biographical. Two of these are biographies of Aboriginal people.
Other Australian anthologies have done Jack a severe injustice. Notable is the 2007 Australian Classics by Jane Gleeson-White who simply ignored Jack’s work. More recently, in 1500 pages covering 500 literary works and 300 authors (self-importantly described as “an authoritative survey”), the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2010) almost ignores Jack’s contribution to Australian literature.
Then also the Sydney University Press proudly claimed the 25 books in its Classic Australian Works collection form part of Australian national cultural heritage. Jack did not get a mention but one John Boyle O'Reilly was acclaimed. O’Reilly was born in Ireland, died in the USA and spent less than a year in Australia. His main claim to literary fame was editing an American Catholic newspaper. Other authors selected like Rosa Cappiello, Peter Mathers, and Brian Penton are nonentities relative to Jack’s part in shaping the Australian “national cultural heritage”. And none, of course, could emulate his success as an author either in terms of books published or in readership.
Similarly, a whole decade devoted to producing “Australians: A Historical Library” almost ignored Jack Idriess. Based on an analysis of newspapers, it was claimed in the volume Australians 1938 that Australian books had comparatively little impact and few gained much press attention. Even though the publication of Madman’s Island did get a mention, this self-important publication completely overlooks eleven Idriess titles published in that year. And every one of them published in Australia. The Australians 1938 volume went on to say the staple reading of most people remained the daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and comics but the list of Jack’s books published in 1938 makes nonsense of the claim. In 1938 Australians might have been reading magazines but they were also buying hundreds of thousands of Idriess books.
Also overlooked by today’s critics is Jack’s place as a pioneer in the development of Australian publishing. For example, Webby discussed the growth of Australian publishing while simply ignoring Jack’s important and elsewhere acknowledged role.
All that being said, there is really no need to persist further with the opinions of critics who have not come close to Jack’s contribution to Australian literature and culture. Depending on the reader’s perception, Jack may or may not be one of Australia’s “great” authors but his success in terms of books reprinted and books sold certainly should require his name to be included in any list of Australian authors.
Australians: A Historical Library
The Journalistic Javelin (Rolfe)
Australian Geographic Jan-Mar
Dutton article (The Bulletin)
The Aust. Experience of War (Laird)
Australian Literature (Webby)
Australian Classics (Gleeson-White)
Macquarie PEN Anthology … (Jose ed)