In a press release in May, HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn said that the success of John Howard’s autobiography Lazarus Rising “has scotched the old publishing mantra that books from the political right don’t sell as well as books of the left”.
Published by HarperCollins in October last year, the book has sold more than 75,000 copies as of May 7 according to Nielsen Bookscan, which as Martyn said is “an extraordinary number in the Australian market”.
Echoing Martyn’s comments, Greg Sheridan described Howard’s book as “truly popular” in a recent opinion piece in The Australian. In the piece, Sheridan compared the book to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs, co-authored by Margaret Simons, and published by Melbourne University Press in March 2010. According to figures from Nielsen BookScan, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs has sold in the range of 6000 copies, comparatively less than Howard.
Sheridan was deeply critical of Fraser’s and Simons’ book (“the most error-riddled, factually unreliable, tendentious, consistently nasty and overall disgraceful political memoirs I have ever read”) and its recent win at the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Indeed, Sheridan goes so far as to suggest the NSW Prem’s should be abolished given that they are “not about literature but promotion ideological conformity”. The political left, said Sheridan, “dominates the culture only because of its stranglehold on taxpayers’ funds, such as these awards”. Sheridan was not alone in his criticism. Gerard Henderson and Shelley Gare from the Sydney Institute have both written on the subject. And The Oz took a swipe in its cut and paste section.
Interestingly, Howard’s book was not eligible for this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (it was published after the deadline) but it will be eligible for the 2012 awards, so we will have to wait until next year to see if it makes the cut. We do know that neither Fraser’s nor Howard’s book has been shortlisted for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
So, on the one hand we have a clearly popular, bestselling book by one former prime minister, which has yet to be nominated for any of the country’s big literary awards. On the other hand, we have a relatively less popular book, in terms of sales, which has been recognised with awards for literary excellence.
Fraser’s and Howard’s books received a similar number of reviews in the country’s mainstream media last year. BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER’s Media Extra, which monitors book media mentions in Australia, recorded five reviews for both books, although the content of Howard’s received much more column space in the country’s newspapers.
The reviews present portraits of two books with clearly different styles, methods, and perhaps purposes. And while both sets of reviews pick up on alleged inaccuracies in the texts, it is the comments about the writing which are of particular interest.
In his review of Fraser’s and Simons’ book in The Australian, Mike Steketee said that it is the writing of Simons that “lifts this work above the ranks of the standard political autobiography”. In the Australian Book Review, Neal Blewett refers to the research that must have gone into particular chapters of the book, and comes to the conclusion that Fraser’s “efforts to escape the mythologies in which he is encased are potentially engrossing” but would have been more so if his co-author “had been more successful in forcing him to face up to the more unpalatable aspects of his career”.
In the Canberra Times, reviewer Josh Rosner said that while the book “is not without its flaws” and “demands time, dedication and a great deal of concentration”, “the effort the authors ask of their readers is amply rewarded with this rich addition to the political canon”. In The Monthly, Tim Soutphommasane described the memoirs as an “unavoidably sympathetic” portrait of Fraser by Simons, but, is still impressed by Simons’ “detailed research”. Michael Sexton’s review in The Age perhaps presents the most negative account of the book, describing Simons as “a modern-day version of Pollyanna” who has “look at [Fraser’s] political life through the softest of rose-coloured spectacles”.
The reviews written of Howard’s book are not dissimilar in their mix of praise and criticism. In his review in The Weekend Australian, Sheridan describes the book as “compulsively readable” and one that “ranks high among Australian political memoirs”. Former Howard government minister Peter Reith said he reckons the book is “a good read” in The Age. Each review highlights the accessibility of Howard’s text, and points out that Howard wrote the book himself. “It reads like a Howard speech,” said Reith — “easy to understand”. Former ALP finance minister Lindsay Tanner (whose own book is currently in its second print run) wrote in The Age: “this is a plain book by a plain man”.
“Lazarus Rising is written in the same style that made him so popular with ordinary people who weren’t greatly interested in politics. Unfortunately they’re not the ones who are likely to read it,” said Tanner. But where Tanner found flaws, Imre Salusinszky found value. “There is a soothing suburban hum to the prose that assures us this is Howard unplugged, not Howard as filtered and amplified through ghostwriters and researchers”.
Responding to Sheridan’s criticism, Fraser and Simons wrote last week that “if readers are seriously interested in knowing the facts, we urge them to read our book, and also read the Howard memoir. Readers should compare the manner, style and degree of archival research, and make their own assessment. The judges of the NSW Premier’s Awards clearly made such an assessment”.
These comments and the reviews of Howard’s book perhaps get to the heart of the issue: high levels of sales do not always (or even often) result in literary awards — or vice versa. And this is just as true when politics is left out of it.