Australian Essayists

Vivian Leopold James, AO, CBE, FRSL (born 7 October 1939), known as Clive James, is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism.

James has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1962.[1]

Early life[edit]

James was born Vivian Leopold James in Kogarah, a southern suburb of Sydney. He was allowed to change his name as a child because "after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara the name became irrevocably a girl's name no matter how you spelled it".[2] He chose "Clive", the name of Tyrone Power's character in the 1942 film This Above All.[3]

James's father was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. Although he survived the prisoner of war camp, he died when the aeroplane returning him to Australia crashed in Manila Bay; he was buried at Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong. James, who was an only child, was brought up by his mother, a factory worker,[4] in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, after living some years with his English maternal grandfather.[2]

In Unreliable Memoirs, James says an IQ test taken in childhood scored him at 140.[5] He was educated at Sydney Technical High School (despite winning a bursary award to Sydney Boys High School) and the University of Sydney, where he studied English and Psychology from 1957 to 1960, and became associated with the Sydney Push, a libertarian, intellectual subculture. At the university, he edited the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and directed the annual Union Revue. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English in 1961. After graduating, James worked for a year as an assistant editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In early 1962, James moved to England, where he made his home. During his first three years in London, he shared a flat with the Australian film director Bruce Beresford (disguised as "Dave Dalziel" in the first three volumes of James' memoirs), was a neighbour of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, became acquainted with Barry Humphries (disguised as "Bruce Jennings") and had a variety of occasionally disastrous short-term jobs (sheet metal worker, library assistant, photo archivist, market researcher).

James later gained a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read English literature. While there, he contributed to all the undergraduate periodicals, was a member and later President of the Cambridge Footlights, and appeared on University Challenge as captain of the Pembroke team, beating St Hilda's, Oxford but losing to Balliol on the last question in a tied game. During one summer vacation, he worked as a circus roustabout to save enough money to travel to Italy.[6] His contemporaries at Cambridge included Germaine Greer (known as "Romaine Rand" in the first three volumes of his memoirs), Simon Schama and Eric Idle. Having, he claims, scrupulously avoided reading any of the course material (but having read widely otherwise in English and foreign literature), James graduated with a 2:1—better than he had expected—and began a Ph.D. thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Critic and essayist[edit]

James became the television critic for The Observer in 1972,[4] remaining in the job until 1982. Selections from the column were published in three books—Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box—and finally in a compendium, On Television.

He has written literary criticism extensively for newspapers, magazines and periodicals in Britain, Australia and the United States, including, among many others, The Australian Book Review, The Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books, The Liberal and the Times Literary Supplement. John Gross included James's essay 'A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses' in the Oxford Book of Essays (1992, 1999).

The Metropolitan Critic (1974), his first collection of literary criticism, was followed by At the Pillars of Hercules (1979), From the Land of Shadows (1982), Snakecharmers in Texas (1988), The Dreaming Swimmer (1992), Even As We Speak (2004), The Meaning of Recognition (2005) and Cultural Amnesia (2007), a collection of miniature intellectual biographies of over 100 significant figures in modern culture, history and politics. A defence of humanism, liberal democracy and literary clarity, the book was listed among the best of 2007 by The Village Voice.

Another volume of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, was published in June 2009.

He has also published Flying Visits, a collection of travel writing for The Observer.

For many years, until mid-2014, he wrote the weekly television critique page in the Review section of the Saturday edition of The Daily Telegraph.

Poet and lyricist[edit]

James has published several books of poetry, including Poem of the Year (1983), a verse-diary, Other Passports: Poems 1958–1985, a first collection, and The Book of My Enemy (2003), a volume that takes its title from his poem "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered."[7]

He has published four mock-heroic poems: The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media: a moral poem (1975), Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World (1976), Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster (1976) and Charles Charming's Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne (1981).

During the 1970s he also collaborated on six albums of songs with Pete Atkin:

  • Beware of the Beautiful Stranger (1970),
  • Driving Through Mythical America (1971),
  • A King at Nightfall (1973),
  • The Road of Silk (1974),
  • Secret Drinker (1974), and
  • Live Libel (1975).

A revival of interest in the songs in the late 1990s, triggered largely by the creation by Steve Birkill of an Internet mailing list "Midnight Voices" in 1997, led to the reissue of the six albums on CD between 1997 and 2001, as well as live performances by the pair. A double album of previously unrecorded songs written in the seventies and entitled The Lakeside Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2 was released in 2002 and "Winter Spring", an album of new material written by James and Atkin was released in 2003.[citation needed] This was followed by "Midnight Voices", an album of remakes of the best Atkin/James songs from the early albums, and, in 2015, by "The Colours of the Night", which included several newly completed songs.

James acknowledged the importance of the "Midnight Voices" group in bringing to wider attention the lyric-writing aspect of his career. He wrote in November 1997, "That one of the midnight voices of my own fate should be the music of Pete Atkin continues to rank high among the blessings of my life".[8]

In 2013, he issued his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The work, adopting quatrains to translate the original's terza rima, was well received by Australian critics.[9][10] Writing for The New York Times,[11] Joseph Luzzi thought it often fails to capture the more dramatic moments of the Inferno, but that it is more successful where Dante slows down, in the more theological and deliberative cantos of the Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Novelist and memoirist[edit]

In 1980 James published his first book of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, which recounted his early life in Australia and extended to over a hundred reprintings. It was followed by four other volumes of autobiography: Falling Towards England (1985), which covered his London years; May Week Was in June (1990), which dealt with his time at Cambridge; North Face of Soho (2006), and The Blaze of Obscurity (2009), concerning his subsequent career as a television presenter. An omnibus edition of the first three volumes was published under the generic title of Always Unreliable.

James has also written four novels: Brilliant Creatures (1983), The Remake (1987), Brrm! Brrm! (1991), published in the United States as The Man from Japan, and The Silver Castle (1996).

In 1999, John Gross included an excerpt from Unreliable Memoirs in The New Oxford Book of English Prose. John Carey chose Unreliable Memoirs as one of the fifty most enjoyable books of the twentieth century in his book Pure Pleasure (2000).


James developed his television career as a guest commentator on various shows, including as an occasional co-presenter with Tony Wilson on the first series of So It Goes, the Granada Television pop music show. On the show when the Sex Pistols made their TV debut, James commented: "During the recording, the task of keeping the little bastards under control was given to me. With the aid of a radio microphone, I was able to shout them down, but it was a near thing...they attacked everything around them and had difficulty in being polite even to each other".[12]

James subsequently hosted the ITV show Clive James on Television, in which he showcased unusual or (often unintentionally) amusing television programmes from around the world, notably the Japanese TV show Endurance. After his defection to the BBC in 1989, he hosted a similarly-formatted programme called Saturday Night Clive (1988–1990) which initially screened on Saturday evening, returning as Saturday Night Clive on Sunday in its second series when it changed screening day and then Sunday Night Clive in its third and final series. In 1995 he set up Watchmaker Productions to produce The Clive James Show for ITV, and a subsequent series launched the British career of singer and comedian Margarita Pracatan. James hosted one of the early chat shows on Channel 4 and fronted the BBC's Review of the Year programmes in the late 1980s (Clive James on the '80s) and 1990s (Clive James on the '90s), which formed part of the channel's New Year's Eve celebrations.

In the mid-1980s, James featured in a travel programme called Clive James in... (beginning with Clive James in Las Vegas) for LWT (now ITV) and later switched to BBC, where he continued producing travel programmes, this time called Clive James' Postcard from... (beginning with Clive James' Postcard from Miami) – these also eventually transferred to ITV. He was also one of the original team of presenters of the BBC's The Late Show, hosting a round-table discussion on Friday nights.

His major documentary series Fame in the 20th Century (1993) was broadcast in the United Kingdom by the BBC, in Australia by the ABC and in the United States by the PBS network. This series dealt with the concept of "fame" in the 20th century, following over a course of eight episodes (each one chronologically and roughly devoted to one decade of the century, from the 1900s to the 1980s) discussions about world-famous people of the 20th century. Through the use of film footage, James presented a history of "fame" which explored its growth to today's global proportions. In his closing monologue he remarked, "Achievement without fame can be a rewarding life, while fame without achievement is no life at all."

A well known fan of motor racing, James presented the 1982, 1984 and 1986 official Formula One season review videos produced by the Formula One Constructors Association, more commonly known as FOCA. James, who attended most F1 races during the 1980s and is a friend of FOCA boss Bernie Ecclestone, added his own humour to the reviews which became popular with fans of the sport. He also presented The Clive James Formula 1 Show for ITV to coincide with their Formula One coverage in 1997.

Summing up the medium, he has said: "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world".


In 2007, James started presenting the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View, with transcripts appearing in the "Magazine" section of BBC News Online. In this programme James discussed various issues with a slightly humorous slant. Topics covered included media portrayal of torture,[13] young black role models[14] and corporate rebranding.[15] Three of James's broadcasts in 2007 were shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize.[16]

In October 2009 James read a radio version of his book The Blaze of Obscurity, on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week programme.[17] In December 2009 James talked about the P-51 Mustang and other American fighter aircraft of World War II in The Museum of Curiosity on BBC Radio 4.[18]

In May 2011 the BBC published a new podcast, A Point of View: Clive James, which features all sixty A Point of View programmes presented by James between 2007 and 2009.

He has posted vlog conversations from his internet show Talking in the Library, including conversations with Ian McEwan, Cate Blanchett, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller and Terry Gilliam. In addition to the poetry and prose of James himself, the site features the works of other literary figures such as Les Murray and Michael Frayn, as well as the works of painters, sculptors and photographers such as John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart.


In 2008 James performed in two self-titled shows at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival: Clive James in Conversation and Clive James in the Evening. He took the latter show on a limited tour of the UK in 2009.

Famous lines[edit]

He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his bodybuilding days, as looking like 'a brown condom full of walnuts.'[19]. He described the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland as having “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”


In 1992, James was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). This was upgraded to Officer level (AO) in the 2013 Australia Day Honours. James was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to literature and the media.[20] In 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature. He has received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Sydney and East Anglia. In April 2008, James was awarded a Special Award for Writing and Broadcasting by the judges of the Orwell Prize.[21]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010.[22] He is an Honorary Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge (his alma mater). In the 2015 BAFTAs, James received a special award honouring his 50-year career.

In 2014, he was awarded the President's Medal by the British Academy.[23]

Personal life[edit]

In 1968, at Cambridge,[24] James married Prudence A. ("Prue") Shaw,[1] an emeritus reader in Italian studies at University College London and the author of Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. James and Shaw have two daughters. In April 2012, the Australian Channel Nine programme A Current Affair ran an item in which the former model Leanne Edelsten admitted to an eight-year affair with James beginning in 2004.[25] Shaw threw her husband out of the family home following the revelation.[1] Prior to this, for most of his working life, James divided his time between a converted warehouse flat in London and the family home in Cambridge. He maintained a general policy of not talking about his family publicly, although he has made occasional self-deprecating comments in his various memoirs about some of his experiences of living in a house with three women.

After the death of his friend Diana, Princess of Wales, James wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled "I Wish I'd Never Met Her", recording his overwhelming grief.[26] Since then he has mainly declined to comment about their friendship, apart from some remarks in his fifth volume of memoirs Blaze of Obscurity.

James' political views have been prominent in much of his later writing. While critical of communism for its tendency towards totalitarianism, he still identifies with the left. In a 2006 interview in The Sunday Times,[27] James said of himself: "I was brought up on the proletarian left, and I remain there. The fair go for the workers is fundamental, and I don't believe the free market has a mind." In a speech given in 1991, he criticised privatisation: "The idea that Britain's broadcasting system—for all its drawbacks one of the country's greatest institutions—was bound to be improved by being subjected to the conditions of a free market: there was no difficulty in recognising that notion as politically illiterate. But for some reason people did have difficulty in realising that it was economically illiterate too."[28]

Overall, James identifies as a liberal social democrat.[29] He strongly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying in 2007 that "the war only lasted a few days" and that the continuing conflict in Iraq was "the Iraq peace".[30] He has also written that it was "official policy to rape a woman in front of her family" during Saddam Hussein's regime and that women have enjoyed more rights since the invasion.[31] He is also currently a Patron of the Burma Campaign UK an organisation that campaigns for human rights and democracy in Burma.[32]

James has been noted for expressing views sympathetic to climate change scepticism.[33][34]

Describing religions as "advertising agencies for a product that doesn't exist", James is an atheist and sees this as the default and obvious position.[35][36]

James is able to read, with varying fluency, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.[37] A tango enthusiast, he has travelled to Buenos Aires for dance lessons and has a dance floor in his house.[35]


For much of his early life, James was a heavy drinker and smoker. He recorded in May Week Was in June his habit of filling a hubcap ashtray daily.[38][39] At various times he wrote of attempts – intermittently successful – to give up drinking and smoking.[40] He admitted smoking 80 cigarettes a day for a number of years.[41] In April 2011, after media speculation that he had suffered kidney failure,[42] James confirmed that he was suffering from B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia and had been in treatment for 15 months at Addenbrooke's Hospital.[43] In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in June 2012, James admitted that the disease "had beaten him" and that he was "near the end".[44] He said that he was also diagnosed with emphysema and kidney failure in early 2010.[45]

A 3 September 2013 television interview, Clive James: The Kid from Kogarah, was broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with James interviewed by journalist Kerry O'Brien.[46] The interview was filmed in the library of his old college at Cambridge University.[46]

In a BBC interview with Charlie Stayt, broadcast on 31 March 2015, James described himself as "near to death but thankful for life".[47] However, in October 2015 he admitted to feeling "embarrassment" at still being alive thanks to experimental drug treatment.[48]

Until June 2017, he wrote a weekly column for The Guardian entitled 'Reports Of My Death...'.[49]


This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.



  • James, Clive (1980). Unreliable memoirs. 
  • — (1985). Falling towards England. 
  • — (1990). May Week was in June. 
  • — (2006). North Face of Soho. 
  • — (2009). The blaze of obscurity. 


  • James, Clive (1983). Brilliant creatures. 
  • — (1987). The remake. 
  • — (1991). Brrm! Brrm!. [52]
  • — (1996). The Silver Castle. 


  • James, Clive (1975). The fate of Felicity Fark in the land of the media : a moral poem. 
  • — (1976). Peregrine Prykke's pilgrimage through the London literary world. 
  • — (1976). Britannia Bright's bewilderment in the wilderness of Westminster. 
  • — (1977). Fan-mail : seven verse letters. 
  • — (1981). Charles Charming's challenges on the pathway to the throne. 
  • — (1983). Poem of the Year. 
  • — (1986). Other passports : poems 1958–1985. 
  • — (2003). The book of my enemy. [53]
  • — (2009). Opal sunset : selected poems 1958–2009. 
  • — (2012). Nefertiti in the flak tower. 
  • — (2015). Sentenced to life. 
  • — (2017). Injury time. 
  • Dante Alighieri (2013). Dante's divine comedy. Translated by Clive James. [54]
List of poems
TitleYearFirst publishedReprinted/collected
Beachmaster2009James, Clive (April 2009). "Beachmaster". The Monthly. 
Early to bed2013James, Clive (April 2013). "Early to bed". Australian Book Review. 350: 25. 
Leçons de ténèbres2013James, Clive (June 3, 2013). "Leçons de ténèbres". The New Yorker. 89 (16): 64. 
Initial outlay2016James, Clive (Jan–Feb 2016). "Initial outlay". Quadrant. 40 (1-2): 9. 
I was proud of these hands once2016James, Clive (Jan–Feb 2016). "I was proud of these hands once". Quadrant. 40 (1-2): 49. 
Splinters from Shakespeare2016James, Clive (Jan–Feb 2016). "Splinters from Shakespeare". Quadrant. 40 (1-2): 49. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcRobert McCrum "Clive James – a life in writing", The Guardian, 5 July 2013
  2. ^ abJames, C., Unreliable Memoirs, Pan Books, 1981, p. 29.
  3. ^"A Writer Whose Pen Never Rests, Even Facing Death". The New York Times. 31 October 2014. Retrieved 1 November 2014. 
  4. ^ abDecca Aitkenhead "Clive James: 'I would have been an obvious first choice for cocaine death. I could use up a lifetime's supply of anything in two weeks'", The Guardian, 25 May 2009
  5. ^James, C., Unreliable Memoirs, Pan Books, 1981, p. 59.
  6. ^James, C.,'May Week Was In June', Jonathan Cape, 1990, p.49.
  7. ^Garner, Dwight (24 July 2007). "The Book of My Enemy". The New York Times. 
  8. ^"Midnight Voices". 27 November 1997. Retrieved 11 December 2016. 
  9. ^Peter Craven, 'Master craftsman's crowning glory,' at The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2013.
  10. ^Peter Goldsworthy, 'Clive James's Dante is simply divine,' at The Australian, 1 June 2013.
  11. ^Joseph Luzzi,'This Could Be 'Heaven', or This Could Be 'Hell',' at The New York Times, 19 April 2013.
  12. ^"The Observer, November 1976". Retrieved 24 December 2007. 
  13. ^James, Clive (30 March 2007). "The clock's ticking on torture". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 24 December 2007. 
  14. ^"Young, gifted and black". BBC News Magazine. 23 March 2007. Retrieved 24 December 2007. 
  15. ^James, Clive (16 February 2007). "The name-changing fidgets". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 24 December 2007. 
  16. ^"Shortlist 2008"Archived 14 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine., The Orwell Prize
  17. ^"Book of the Week – The Blaze of Obscurity". BBC. 19 October 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2009. 
  18. ^"Museum of Curiosity on Radio 4 web site". BBC. 25 December 2009. Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  19. ^Clive James, 'The North Face of Soho,Pan Macmillan 2009 p.216.
  20. ^"No. 60009". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2011. p. 7. 
  21. ^Stephen Brook (25 April 2008). "Hari and James take Orwell prizes". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 25 April 2008. 
  22. ^"Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 9 August 2010. 
  23. ^"The British Academy President's Medal". British Academy. Retrieved 23 July 2017. 
  24. ^"Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 28 August 2014. 
  25. ^"Star's secret affair". ninemsn: A Current Affair. 23 April 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  26. ^Clive James on Diana
  27. ^Appleyard, Bryan (12 November 2006). "Interview Clive James". The Times. London. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  28. ^"On the Eve of Disaster"
  29. ^Arts Today with Michael Cathcart 12/12/2001
  30. ^"Bill Moyers talks with Cultural Critic, Clive James". Retrieved 7 May 2009. 
  31. ^"Still looking for the western feminists". BBC News. 22 May 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009. 
  32. ^"The Burma Campaign UK: AboutUs". Archived from the original on 10 October 2007. Retrieved 24 December 2007. 
  33. ^"Programme 1: On Climate Change". Retrieved 5 November 2011. 
  34. ^Monbiot, George (2 November 2009). "Clive James isn't a climate change sceptic, he's a sucker – but this may be the reason". London: Retrieved 5 November 2011. 
  35. ^ ab"Enough Rope with Andrew Denton – episode 84: Clive James (04/07/2005)". Retrieved 16 September 2008. 
  36. ^"Discussion between Richard Dawkins and Clive James at the Edinburgh Book Festival". Retrieved 27 August 2010. 
  37. ^Haynes, Deborah (12 May 2007). "Culture vulture". The Times. London. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  38. ^Clive James, May Week Was in June,(1990) Picador 1991 p.230'I also installed my ashtray: a hubcap off a Bedford van, it could hold the stubs of eighty cigarettes, so I only had to empty it once a day.'
  39. ^Clive James, North Face of Soho, Picador 2006 p.141:'I smoked so much that I needed the hubcap of a Bedford van as an ashtray. I had found the hubcap lying in the gutter of Trumpington Street, and thought: 'That will make an ideal ashtray.'
  40. ^Smoking the Memory | In A Point of View he notes that this account of giving up smoking needed updating as he had gone back to it.
  41. ^"Smoking, my lost love". BBC News. 3 August 2007. 
  42. ^"Clive James battles leukaemia"
  43. ^"I'm battling leukaemia, reveals broadcaster Clive James". London: Daily Mail. 30 April 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2011. 
  44. ^"Clive James tells BBC "I am dying, I am near the end"". Belfast Telegraph. 21 June 2012. Retrieved 21 June 2012. 
  45. ^"Clive James: 'I'm getting near the end'". BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 21 June 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2012.

Surveying the Australian Literary Landscape

Creative nonfiction is one of the fastest-growing literary genres in Australia, amongst both readers and writers. Australian memoirs, essay collections, literary investigative journalism, food, travel and true crime books occupy increasing shelf space in our bookshops and appear on our bestseller lists (and, occasionally, on international ones, too). Many Australian magazines—notably Griffith Review and The Monthly—regularly feature excellent creative nonfiction pieces. From a bird’s-eye view, Australian creative nonfiction looks like a colorful crowd, resisting easy classification thematically or stylistically. What follows here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some of our most respected and widely read writers, who have made their marks on the literary scene and whose works have influenced and, at times, spurred public debate. I have divided the list according to what I see as three generations in the development of Australian creative nonfiction. Those I call “pioneers” began publishing their works at the time when “creative nonfiction” was still a foreign term even in the U.S. and Europe, let alone in Australia. Their works arguably inspired the next generation of writers: the “veterans,” whose books first appeared in the ’90s, when “New Journalism” was already a well-known expression, and during the memoir boom. The so-called “newcomers” have begun publishing in the last decade but have already left their footprints on the Australian, and sometimes the international, literary and public consciousness.


Clive James

Clive James, one of Australia’s most internationally successful writers, is a poet, novelist, broadcaster, essayist, critic, and memoirist. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “an eclectic master of the high/low” and by The New York Times as “a comic public intellectual,” James is known for a writing style that is a fine mix of humor, gossip, and wide-ranging intellect, spiced up with aphorisms and surprising detail. James’ first memoir, Unreliable Memoirs (1980), an account of his childhood in post-war Sydney written with a novelistic flair, is an Australian classic. Since its first appearance, Unreliable Memoirs has been reprinted over 100 times in Australia and abroad, and was excerpted in The New Oxford Book of English Prose, 1999. James’ subsequent memoirs, about his adult life, feature stories about such Australian luminaries as Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Brett Whiteley. James has also published many essay collections. One of the most interesting of these is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007), in which James discusses, in his usual sparkling prose, the impact of 20th-century thinkers, artists, and leaders—of his (eclectic and, at times, whimsical) choice—on the world and on him. James has received many awards for his work and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson, whom some consider the “patroness” of Australian travel writing, was one of only two women to win the prestigious Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She is also a great adventuress, a camel trainer, Doris Lessing’s former roommate, Salman Rushdie’s former lover, and a champion of Aboriginal rights and environmental issues. Along with Clive James, Davidson was associated with “the Push,” a libertarian, left-wing group of intellectuals that operated in Sydney between the 1940s and 1970s. Throughout her writing career, Davidson has explored nomadism across various cultures. In her seminal Tracks (1980), which describes her nine-month-long solo desert trek with four camels and a dog, Davidson argues that nomadism is also an emotional phenomenon. (“The self in a desert becomes more like the desert,” she famously wrote.) Tracks, a poetic love story between a woman and a landscape, has become a cult-classic in Australia and abroad, winning several international awards. In the early 1990s, Davidson journeyed along with Rabari, Indian nomads, and described that experience in Desert Places (1996). That sojourn, and Davidson’s time spent with Aboriginal communities in the Indian Himalayas and with nomads in Tibet, were the subject of her influential long essay in Quarterly Essay (2006). There, Davidson argued that nomadic cultures have valuable lessons to offer us, particularly in the face of the current environmental crisis. Davidson has won acclaim not only for her adventures and activism, but also for her writing style. She moves effortlessly between the personal and political, the argumentative and lyrical. Her prose is rich, meditative, a little slangy, and playfully self-deprecating. She has also made her impact on Australian creative nonfiction as the editor of The Picador Book of Journeys (2002) and The Best Australian Essays (2009).

Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally is the author of many fiction and nonfiction books, including the Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler's Ark (1982), which treads the fine line between fiction and nonfiction and is frequently likened to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Keneally is an Australian Living Treasure and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1983. He is also featured as one of six Literary Australian Legends in a series of postage stamps. Keneally began publishing nonfiction books in the mid-’70s, co-authoring one of the earlier ones, Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime (1987), with Robyn Davidson and Patsy Adam-Smith. As is the case with many of his novels, Keneally’s nonfiction is usually bound with history and politics. His subjects range from the Australian Republican Movement (Keneally is its founding chairman) to Aboriginal history to the American Civil War to the history of world famines. One of his most notable historical nonfiction books, The Great Shame (1998), a study of Irish convicts sent to Australia during the 19th century, includes the stories of his and his wife’s ancestors. Keneally has also written several travel books; among them are the gorgeously illustrated Now and in Time to Be (1991), in which Keneally returns to the home of his ancestors, and The Place Where Souls Are Born (1992), which charts Keneally’s journey to the American Southwest in search of the vanished Indian tribes. Keneally is also the author of several memoirs. The most recent,Searching for Schindler (2007), tells the story behind the writing of Keneally’s most famous work and its subsequent adaptation into the film Schindler’s List. The book focuses on Keneally’s travels to Germany, Israel, Austria, America and Poland, where he interviewed the survivors rescued by Schindler, and on his later adventures in Hollywood. Keneally’s style is clear, but playful, and embroidered with vivid details.


Helen Garner

Helen Garner, one of our living classical authors, is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. She is—dare I say—the Australian Joan Didion. Garner specialises in investigative journalism, which she writes with a novelist’s attention to language, character, and setting, and with a memoirist’s candid and urgent authorial presence. In 1993, Garner won the Walkley Award for her investigation of a child’s murder for Time magazine. Her best-selling, multi-awarded books have made a significant impact on the Australian literary community and general public. Garner’s first creative nonfiction book, The First Stone (1995), generated much controversy and public debate about gender relations and sexuality in the era of sexual harassment law. In it, Garner investigated a sexual scandal at a well-known college in Melbourne, siding with the alleged perpetrator, the college Master. Undeterred by the ensuing, sometimes vitriolic, criticism (particularly from some “professional” feminists), in her later book, Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004), Garner plunged once again into the murky territory of gender warfare, following the trial of two young women, law students, accused of murdering the boyfriend of one of them, and questioning the lenient sentences they received. This book, too, provoked much discussion, particularly about contemporary justice processes. In 2006 Garner was the recipient of Australia’s most financially lucrative literary award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature.

Raimond Gaita

Raimond Gaita is an award-winning philosopher, memoirist, and essayist. Gaita made the Australian rural landscape internationally famous in his seminal memoir Romulus, My Father (1998), which, according to Helen Garner, “changed the quality of the literary air in this country.” The book tells the story of Gaita’s experiences growing up during the 1950s as a migrant child of a Romanian father and a German mother, in the harsh but beautiful Victorian countryside and in the shadow of poverty and mental illness. The memoir’s uniqueness lies in Gaita’s use of language as well as in his incorporation of his philosophy into the story. Lyrically, but also analytically, he examines the ethics underpinning his father’s complex behavior, which later influenced his own philosophical work. Romulus, My Father became a bestseller in Australia and abroad, and has been a required text in many schools. The New Statesman (London) nominated the book as one of the best books of 1999, and The Australian Financial Review named it one of the 10 best books of the decade. It was later made into an award-winning film of the same title. The memoir was followed by a collection of personal essays, After Romulus (2011), in which Gaita reflects on the writing of Romulus, My Father and expands on the philosophical lessons from his childhood. Gaita, a prominent public intellectual, is also known for philosophy books and for his essays that explore questions of collective responsibility, reconciliation, multiculturalism, and the role of universities in public life, amongst many other issues. One notable example of Gaita’s essayistic prose is  “Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics” in Quarterly Essay (2004), in which he attempts to reclaim the role of truth-telling in modern politics.

Robert Drewe

In his internationally best-selling and award-winning memoir The Shark Net (2000), Robert Drewe, a fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, did for the Western Australian landscape what Gaita did for Central Victoria. Drewe mythologizes Australia as a country abundant with beauty but also with natural perils—sharks, snakes and poisonous fish, as well as human perils—by telling the story of one of the most deadly Australian serial killers, the second to last person to be executed in this country. The memoir is structured like a mystery, with the story of Drewe’s childhood unfolding parallel to, and in the creepy vicinity of, that of the murderer. The writing is rich in detail about the natural world and has a shamanic, chantlike rhythm. The Shark Net was highly praised by Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement deemed it “an instant classic” (which, indeed, it has become). The book was later adapted into an international television mini-series and a BBC radio drama. A winner of two Walkley Awards for Journalism (in 1976 and 1981), Drewe is also known for his personal columns and literary criticism. He edited The Best Australian Essays in 2010. Montebello, Drewe’s memoir of his adult years and the sequel to The Shark Net, will be published later this year.


Anna Funder

Anna Funder’s debut as a writer was the highly successful Stasiland (2003), an ambitious work of investigative journalism that examines the legacy of the Stasi, the secret police of the former communist regime in East Germany, through the stories of Stasi officers and their victims. The book is written in the tradition of In Cold Blood: scrupulously researched, but with a gripping plot that reads like a novel. Funder’s writing style is noir-ish, wry and self-deprecating, informative and evocative. Australian critic Susan Lever argued that Stasiland, alongside Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolations, “marks a new level of achievement in the genre of ‘literary nonfiction’ in Australia” for its combination of rigorous examination of big issues with skillful storytelling. Stasiland has been translated into 16 languages and published in 20 countries. It was shortlisted for many national and international awards, and won the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize. The book is on school and university lists in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Funder’s essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays and The Guardian, among many other publications. In 2011, she was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of “Sydney’s Top 100 Most Influential People.”

Kate Holden

Kate Holden is a memoirist, essayist, and columnist. Her memoirIn My Skin (2006), which recounts her experiences working as a prostitute and overcoming heroin addiction, is an international bestseller and was shortlisted for various awards and included in the Books Alive Great Read 2006 campaign in Australia. Following the success of her first book, Holden became a popular columnist for The Age, and her book reviews and essays have appeared in many Australian magazines. Holden’s second memoir, The Romantic(2010), is about her sexual adventures in Italy in the aftermath of her recovery. Both books are abundant with graphical sexual scenes, but the writer’s voice differs notably between the two. In My Skin is written in a feisty, fast-paced, first-person style, whereas The Romantic is more lyrical and digressive, with some sections reading like poetic travel writing. Holden’s success brought some acceptance for the female sex memoir, until then a genre not very well developed in Australia; in recent years, several other local writers have followed in her footsteps.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is another writer whose recent commercial and critical success has brought a memoir sub-genre—in this case, the Asian-Australian memoir—into the spotlight. A daughter of Chinese-Cambodian migrants, Pung has written two memoirs, Unpolished Gem (2006) and Her Father's Daughter(2011). Both tell of Pung’s struggle to reconcile her Asian and Australian identities, and of her family’s history before and after their arrival in Australia. Unpolished Gem, which recounts the story of Pung’s childhood and adolescence, was particularly successful. This memoir won the Australian Newcomer of the Year award in the Australian Book Industry Awards for 2007 and was shortlisted for several other awards. It has been published in the U.K. and the U.S., and translated into several languages. Interestingly, like Holden, Pung, too, chose to write her second memoir in the third person. In Her Father’s Daughter, she also incorporates passages written from her father’s point of view. Pung regularly promotes Asian-Australian writing as a popular speaker and as the editor of the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008). Pung’s writing style is evocative, accessible and often, even when she recounts painful events, very funny.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper, who won acclaim for her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, turned to investigative journalism for her second book, Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008). The book is an account of Hooper’s enquiry into the death in custody of an Aboriginal man and the trials that ensued. The Tall Man also examines the turbulent history of the Aboriginal community of Palm Island in North Queensland, where the story unfolds—a place dubbed by the media as the “Island of Sorrow” and described in The Guinness World Records as the most dangerous place on Earth outside a combat zone. Hooper’s writing is sensual and rich in history and myth. Her tone is reminiscent, at times, of magical realism and, at others, of hard-boiled crime fiction, but also contains much thoughtful essayistic prose. Through the power of her intelligence and storytelling, Hooper manages to turn a gritty modern tale into a magical, albeit deeply sad, fairy tale about the misuse of power and the power of violence. “What if … fighting a war against savagery, you become savage yourself?” she asks in the stunning first pages of the book, and as the narrative progresses and this question becomes even more urgent, Hooper never supplies easy answers. A great success in Australia and abroad, The Tall Man attracted many awards and award nominations in Australia and received rave reviews from Phillip Roth and the critics of The New Yorker and The Guardian, among many others. Robert Drewe deemed The Tall Man “the country’s finest work of literature so far this century.” Hooper is also an essayist and won a Walkley Award in 2006 for the essay that was the precursor of The Tall Man. Her essays have appeared in publications such as The Observer and The Monthly.

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