Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e, being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books, or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored, as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.  

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