Books, News & Commentary

Ah Louise Adler…..She’s Done it Again

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Ah Louise…. She’s done it again.

Seriously, if she didn’t exist, we’d need to invent her. Not a decade had gone by since she took over the loose and gently swaying reins of the perennial plodder Australian Book Review in 1988 (and, with her customary style, both made and almost destroyed it) without another dramatic episode featuring brilliant Louise Adler. 

You know that silly phrase that another, equally extraordinary, drama-magnet, Wayne Bennett, used as the title of his memoir, “Don’t die with the music in you”: no one could accuse Adler of not going for broke, no matter what she takes on.

This latest episode in her colourful and influential career is, as always, complex. The idea that it’s about whether a university press should stick to academic books and avoid what is now being referred to as “airport trash”, is certainly part of the picture. But that picture is almost impossibly muddied by the fact the book which appears to have instigated the trash talk is Cardinal, by Louise Milligan. And the fact, too, (according to a July 2018 report in The Australian newspaper) “it is understood” that Adler’s demise as MUP publisher was set in train following a meeting between Melbourne University Chancellor Allan Myers QC and MUP Chairman Peter McPhee. Myers was Cardinal George Pell’s Counsel at the Royal Commission into Institutional child sex abuse. 

Since the announcement of Adler’s resignation became public (via, but of course, a story in The Australian – sorry, I know this sounds like conspiracy theory, but I’ve worked for that newspaper and they hire people for whom the meaning of life is conspiracy), some journalists have picked up the “airport trash” theme, and delighted in holding up MUP titles with sniffy disdain. The Latham Diaries!! How could they! Sam Dastyari – get me out of here! And now Roman Quaedvlieg’s “explosive memoir”. You can’t be serious…

Once you’re in the Adler camp, it must feel like you belong somewhere warm, supportive and connected to power. Nice.

The glaringly obvious point here is that not even Latham or Dastyari, let alone Cardinal, could be defined as “airport trash”. There’s a huge difference in seriousness and importance of even this small sample from the MUP list, but what Adler never publishes is “trash”. She is, I think, committed to books that put on record more than the increasingly mediated thoughts of influential people, the snatches reported from interviews, words filtered through public relations advisers then further filtered by quasi-journalists and commentators. She nurtures writing that can be relied on as, if not true, then at least truer as a record of both the person who is writing and what they think about their topic, whether that topic is themselves as in Quaedvlieg’s forthcoming Tour de Force, or an event, such as the Rudd-Gillard leadership battle documented in Sarah Ferguson and Patricia Drum’s The Killing Season.

It was MUP that published Gillian Triggs. MUP that got Susan Carland’s Fighting Hislam. MUP that put Chris Hammer’s book about the imminent collapse of the Murray-Darling river system into print –  in 2011. 

Now, this is not all Louise Adler. Melbourne University’s press (which underwent the name change when Adler crashed in 15 years ago) is, as they say, venerable. But she is like the big face at the entrance to Luna Park: eyes wide open, mouth gaping and avid, smiling in a sort of scarily inviting way. She told Australian Financial Review’s Sally Patten back in 2017, when Cardinal had been published and withdrawn from sale in Victoria, that she wanted to find someone to write a book about tennis, and another about sleep. And once she’d found someone to do what she wanted, I reckon the secret to her success is that she would metaphorically draw that person to her bosom, and embrace them wholeheartedly. Once you’re in the Adler camp, it must feel like you belong somewhere warm, supportive and connected to power. Nice.

Tennis and sleep may well be what a conservative Catholic QC thinks are trash topics, and you could, too, ask Adler why she thinks it’s her job to have an idea then go out to find someone to write a book about it, rather than to wait to find books and writers among the university’s own surely abundant sources.  But that is her job as she probably self-defined it 15 years ago, and she’s very good at it. 

Many people have expressed dismay that a university would let this happen: the resignations of most of the board, including publishing legend Laurie Muller and Gillian Triggs too, is being handled with restraint but it speaks for itself. This is a collapse of the University of Melbourne’s credibility. It will pass, probably swiftly, as most things do these days. And on we go, watching helplessly as our institutions rust and decay.

The review of MUP initiated last year apparently found no problems financially, and in that interview Adler did with AFR, she spoke about the risky “commercial” books she publishes, and how some, such as Michelle Payne’s Life As I Know It, pay off. Should a university press be publishing such a book? If it is at the expense of other writers, other books that may not have such a straightforward premise and be more difficult to categorise and to sell in the short term, maybe not. Adler’s ability to talk John Harms into taking on the Payne project that meant he had to work at breakneck speed is part of her charisma – a word that comes up repeatedly when people describe her. 

This is not just about Louise Adler, of course, and frankly the woman can fight her own battles and will continue to do so. She’s got plenty of self-belief as her statement about the impressive list of titles that have been published by MUP confirms:  “These are just some of the MUP titles to have set the agenda, changed community attitudes, altered public policy, held the powerful to account and defended the disempowered.”

What I think is so truly awful about this episode is that it is another shutting down of what we need, and a serious attack on the value of intellectual debate, social inquiry and challenge to power. There are alternatives, other publishing houses doing what MUP and Adler have been doing so well, so it’s not as though the last defender of unfettered publishing has been burned at the stake. But neither is this some little worthy publisher succumbing to big-base pressure: this is the University of Melbourne, in 2019, in liberal-minded Australia, where education is still more or less free and politics not completely owned by corporations. 

And it just decided to define our intellectual and social discourse as trash. 

35 responses to “Ah Louise Adler…..She’s Done it Again

  1. The article is correct in suggesting that we should expect nothing less than this from Louise Adler, but those of us who have been in publishing for decades know very well that she is a bulldozer for whom it is always “all about Louise Adler”. The one thing the article doesn’t mention is that (as CEO) Adler has been (allowed to) use university funds to pay huge advances so that the press could publish books that other publishers would have published anyway. This is not what an academic press is about. In the digital age, publishers are not needed to disseminate content, their role is to safeguard quality, academic and otherwise (a crime fiction publisher wants ti publish good crime fiction as much as an academic press wants to publish reputable research). Any Australian academic now would much prefer to publish with an overseas university press than a local press because no Australian university still has an academic press worth the name. Adler has been responsible for that in a big way.

    1. Tom Price, your comments are interesting and may well be highly relevant, but surely of overwhelming importance here is whether Ms Adler and other credible and respected Board members have, in effect, been forced out by the bullying of the University of Melbourne Chancellor who was senior counsel for George Pell, the subject of “Cardinal”. That to me is the critical issue which must be determined here – if it is true, it flies in the face of academic and intellectual independence. Uni of Melbourne’s reputation is on a speedy decline in all manner of ways, it cannot afford to be exposed to this mudslinging as well.

    2. Tom you are so right. And did MUP ever make a profit let alone break even? It had to come. The implication that the change (back) to academic publishing is related to some sort of censorship is just how LA would like to go out.

    3. While I don’t disagree with everything Tom Price has written here, I have to ask if such personal judgements of Adler’s management style would ever have been made, were she a man. There is way too much policing of women, at every level, and quite often behaviour that is considered perfectly normal for successful male leaders is derided in a woman. Heaven help us if somebloke considers us ‘unfeminine’!

      1. Spare us Liz….we should have never let women get into driving cars let alone publishing books……ooops I have let my inner Wahabi out…maybe a dose of Susan Carland could help me…

      2. Oh, spare me. There isn’t a single thing in my comment which is remotely gender-based. This response is typical 2019 absurdity. Australian academic publishing is full of admirable women who tend to perform infinitely better than the men (witness Sandra McComb’s excellence at CUP compared to the current lamentable incumbent). I guess we just need to let all women off the hook these days, regardless of their behaviour, otherwise the criticism MUST be due to their gender.

        1. Really? Would you write ‘He is a bulldozer’ about a successful, assertive man? No, because we don’t judge men like this for bing ‘patriarchy shy’, we respect it. If you can’t see the inherent sexism in what you wrote, Tom, you need to open your eyes.

  2. I sincerely hope that Louise ends up back on the board doing her own thing sometime in the future. She is exactly what this country and this conservative university administration needs.
    Fancy a university for Gods sake applying censorship pressure to its publishing house.

  3. I can only echo this very important warning … “What I think is so truly awful about this episode is that it is another shutting down of what we need, and a serious attack on the value of intellectual debate, social inquiry and challenge to power”.

    We are going down a mindless sycophantic
    path which will lead us into utter impotence. Hopefully rising stars will revitalise Civilisation.

  4. This is disgraceful,that such an eminent bunch of board members should resign over clearly a case of censorship …..University is meant to be a bastion of free press and open thinking.The corrupt sons of the Borgias still rule where they can!

    1. Gosh that’s a long bow to draw, the Borgia”s sons to MUP in Carlton,I suppose there maybe a few descendents around Lygon Street!

  5. What does the “U” stand for in MUP? Publishing academic work should be its major purpose, especially considering the subsidies the university provides.

  6. This is quite disgusting. And why did MU have to go to England for a chancellor? I thought the colonial cringe was long dead. Not in academia, apparently.

    1. The Chancellor was born in Hamilton Vic the son of a local butcher, He is a successful lawyer and businessman and generous contributor to the Arts and this City as well as being a devout Christian, there is much to admire in this man and nothing disgusting or colonial, perhaps a simple press of the google button on your machine of choice would help you from writing quaint comments!

  7. Good article .Rosemary.
    I would like to see Louise A seize this wonderful opportunity and set up her own publishing house.. Let the uni of Melbourne reap the benefits of its stupid actions.
    It is never possible for an outsider to know what is really going on on both sides of a situation such as this , but it is fairly clear so far that on one side there is a grumpy-bum, a bunch of sour grapes and a hopeless lack of understanding of commercial reality. On the other side is (are) Louise Adler and the other resignees.
    Go for it Louise, set up on your own. I’m sure you would have no trouble getting backing (if you need it ) and you would certainly have no trouble getting lots of work to keep you busy. All the best

    1. Tom Price is bang on it. LA does this again and again and again, and it is always the same template. Find a slightly fusty but established concern. Charge in and divide the joint into goodies and baddies – usually flawed but decent plodders who’ve been committed to the joint for decades. Lots of noise, lots of controversy, then jump ship – preferably in martyrdom – just before a buck of some kind stops.

      Private school board, publisher, magazine, whatever. Always the same pattern.

      It’s hugely amusing – to us outsiders – watching the self-important and narcissistic realm of these kind of Oz prog-intellectuals of cutting edge ideas & public debate played out so expertly again and again.

      What Price says about the MUP academic wasteland LA leaves behind here is acute. Academics – serious intellectuals, true (niche) experts, ie those who should be the ACTUAL leaders of ACTUAL cutting edge ideas and debate – have of course been conscripted into the ‘Nerdy/Stuffy/Establishment Punching Bag’ role, in her latest ‘LA to the controversial cultural rescue’ ego-stravanganza.

      She’s made ‘serious academic work’ a pejorative, actually.

      The Pell angle is of course predictable, the perfect dust-throwing/martyrdom opportunity. More honest is that whatever your views on the Pope/abuse and whatever other things have/do transpire elsewhere (tiptoes)…that book’s style/methodology/execution as an intellectual and publishing decision/project was actually hugely, hugely, hugely problematic. And – like publishing Latham’s Diaries, Howard, Carr, Triggs etc ie all the so-called ‘brave’ decisions – it was what you would call ‘Hollywood controversial’ only (as in ‘Hollywood ugly’); the sort of ‘controversy’ that is actually tightly targeted and controllable, and of course iconoclastic and antagonistic only towards a soft target: a sort of anachronistic, pantomime, kind of power.

      Adler is, above all else, expert in reading the temper and tenor of the prog-int moment, fearlessly provoking ‘controversies’ (of two decades ago) while marshalling powerful safety-net coalitions of like-minded, fellow travellers. She’s about as (real) Australian Establishment as you can possibly get, and she’s pulled it off in that trademark Boomer way: by relentlessly playing herself as exactly the opposite to Est.

      Like I said: all hugely amusing. Also, very revealing. The single key defining characteristic of the Baby Boomer generation of leaders of ‘intellectual ideas and public debate’ is their refusal to acknowledge their own powerful and privileged leadership roles.

      Their pretence that despite lifetimes of being at the core of the cultural world that nurtures them, usually lucratively, always highly in public profile and access …they remain radical, dangerous, yet powerless, outsiders.

      Utter horseshit, but this episode is just more of the same. ‘Help, poor me, I’m a cultural outsider, poor me being oppressed, woe, I must quit in a loud huff.

      LA will pop up again somewhere else . As will the other 2 or 300 (Max) of her generational peers, the arbiters and gatekeepers of ‘progressive intellectual ideas and debate’.

      Their major legacy being, of course, the growing rejection by the rest of us of those very things – when real, yes, absolutely crucial, when real, yes, urgently needed right now. People like Adler, sadly, after a certain time and number of repeated episodes like this, throwing around their ‘ideas and debate’ platitudes like confetti at their own (yet another’) party…inspire little more than politely bored indifference. Because one thing most of us can recognise is recidivist hijacking of important abstract notions by serial chancers.

  8. Academic publications, while valuable, don’t make money. In a strapped publishing industry, the game is to make money so that those who can make sense can publish at all. Louise is careful in her choice of money-makers. She’s a very good money-maker. But money-making in the book industry is gambling on a title tying up with public interest. One thing’s for sure – Australians read a lot of books, but hardly any of them read academic titles. A reputation as a dynamic publisher can only attract people to the logo – can’t wait to see some testing intellectual material for sale in an airport bookshop.

    1. Indeed. My trips to Noosa will be greatly enhanced by a few hours with my nose in a nice dense review of Mid-period Thatching: A Cross-Cultural Study of Gender, Ethnicity and Left-Right Handedness.

  9. Rosemary Sorensen – a vibrant piece; entertaining and inquisitive – but have you overreached just a tad with the theme of a Conservative Catholic conspiracy? I too am saddened by these developments with MUP – but let’s not rush to lynch the ugly unlikeable suspect; more evidence please. Perhaps time will confirm your theory – if so, many would not be surprised.

  10. Yet another example of trying to get rid of a strong woman, however I doubt that Louise Adler will be easy to be gotten rid of. She is too important and insightful… we need her to challenge, educate and ensure that books like The Cardinal are written.
    And yes, why another external appointment… still “British to our bootstraps”

  11. “The glaringly obvious point here is that not even Latham or Dastyari, let alone Cardinal, could be defined as “airport trash”…. She is, I think, committed to books that put on record more than the increasingly mediated thoughts of influential people..”
    What is this? You must be kidding?! It seems people here are focusing too much on the “sexy” topics of men versus women, Catholic and therefore religious versus non-or anti-Catholic and non-religious. It remains to be seen if this is the case but I have to say that LA and Australian publishing has done themselves no favours. Trash is what she and MUP has produced. Books invariably by “leaders” (I love that term), in business and politics. By people who make a living and a name by being absolute arseholes to everyone they meet and by how many bodies they walk over on their way to the top. Latham, Abbot, Dastyari, Gareth Evans, Bob Carr, Kim Carr, john Howard, SH-Y. All self serving tosh by the usual suspects and LA wants us to cry tears of blood for her attempts at fame and money making under the guise of “Australian” “quality” publishing. Goes to show that there is no hope for good aspiring authors with interests in anything other than themselves. The likes of these dubious persons would best be described as doctor’s waiting room trash.

    1. Totally agree. Why should a university publish books by or about politicians and criminals, books that could find outlets elsewhere? It is an educational institution. And did I read that the ALP was going to fund it with taxpayers’ money? It should stick to running the nation when in Government.

  12. This is a disappointing article which addresses personality matters but not the larger issues, reflected in the mass of board resignations.
    MUP has always addressed larger social and political issues, pre-LA.
    It is an important role played by at most one or two other UPs, perhaps only one.
    Did the Grant(?) review propose these changes ?- it appears that it did not.
    Did the Chancellor leave the meeting when this matter was discussed given his conflict of interest?
    If he did not he should consider his position and resign.

  13. Somewhere, circling around this issue is a mighty suppression order that may or may not have some bearing on the substance of what is at play here in this matter. If it was really a question of scholarship versus commerce, I doubt that there would be much interest in the MUP and its editorial policy, even if it did involve somebody as noteworthy as Louise Adler. This is one hell of a story.

  14. Interesting conspiracy theory about the Cardinal Pell connection. I am prepared to bet that Pell will be acquitted of all charges of ‘historical sex abuse’ at his trial (or appeal later).

    Consider this: Pell has occupied the No 3 position in the RC Church worldwide. He has loudly and repeatedly denied any personal charge of sexual abuse. If he were found guilty, he would be branded as a liar of the most egregious kind …sexual abuser in a position of exceptional power over his victims.

    As No 3 in the RC Church, a convicted Pell’s damage to its reputation would be catastrophic.

    That’s why I don’t believe he did it.

      1. Patrick – you are better informed than I am (mua – a lonely victim of kiddy suppression)…..indeed we had better be careful what we say as a ‘second’ trial is in process. Many charges already dropped in Trial 1 and apparently only 1 unsupported witness. I did say Patrick; “or the appeal”. I’m predicting a “Wilson”.

        You should study the case of Dr Death – Mr Jayant Patel in the great State of Queensland. The gentleman is now suing the great State of Queensland for substantial damages.

        The MO is familiar…. Media storm, star witness who did not really stand the test of real trial evidence…kangaroo conviction – overturned on appeal.

        More Media outrage….new trial from the public prosecutor of the fair State of Queensland using a new ‘victim, who unfortunately was still alive after Dr Patel “whipped his bowel out”.

        Defence- Dr Patel produced an expert witness who testified that he would have ‘whipped the bowel out too”..having regard for the fact that the ‘victim had a couple of bouts of bowel cancer and other morbidities….and was still alive!! Second trial fails and Dr Patel walks free after years of Dr Death abuse by the media and some bloated health worker with very obvious health problems.

        You get the idea…Plod (including the pubic prosecutor) in Queensland is not very bright!!

        Get the picture….trial by media, which denounces the accused, uncritically believes every claim of the ‘victim’, and the case then collapses under court rigour; or if a ‘crowd’ conviction happens; is overturned on appeal, when a more senior judge(s) examine the actual evidence and the fairness of the trial.

        I still do not believe Pell did it and a conviction will never be sustained.

    1. On the contrary, the noise is as noisy as it has been because the opposite conclusion is requird but I have urged restraint upon others until the trial/appeal process is complete, so I should also restrain.

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