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.