At around 6pm last night, as most Australian newspapers were being finalised, news filtered out that Australia’s best-selling author, Colleen McCullough, had died, aged 77.
The Australian gave the news a great deal of prominence, running an in-depth reaction piece quoting Australia’s leading literary figures by literary editor Stephen Romei on the front page.
But on page 9, it ran a prepared obituary, since panned far and wide for referring to the author in its opening paragraphs as “plain of feature” and “certainly overweight”, but charming nonetheless.
Why include such details? Crikey understands the obituary was written some years ago by a male obituary writer who has since passed away himself. A source with knowledge of the matter declined to name and shame the writer.
Insiders acknowledge publishing the sentence was a failure of editing. Some sources at the Oz this morning were reacting with embarrassment at the treatment given to the late author, and others were grumbling that despite their paper giving the news far greater prominence than any other Australian paper, they were getting slammed. Crikey understands that in the scramble to get the paper out, the offending opening was missed.
Former Coalition government minister Sophie Mirabella has slammed the obituary, tweeting that she was “shocked and upset” by the Oz’s “sexist obituary of a significant Australian”. Condemnation was as quickly found in the literary community as well. Bestselling science fiction author Neil Gaiman said “it may be possible for this obituary in The Australian to have a more offensive opening [and] tone [but] I can’t imagine how.” The CEO and artistic director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Lisa Dempster, said on Twitter she was shocked a “supposedly leading newspaper” would publish such an opening. Social media users were this morning writing offensive obituaries for themselves and sharing them with the hashtag, #OzObituary.
The Age and the Canberra Times also put stories of McCullough’s death on their front pages. Both avoided similar controversy.
McCullough’s second novel, The Thorn Birds, was her most successful, selling 30 million copies in paperback and another three million in hardback. As well as being an author, she was a neurophysiologist who worked for a number of years at Sydney’s North Shore hospital.