Serializing Fiction in the Australasian Press
- Graham LawGraham LawSchool of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University
As Australia and New Zealand gradually emerged as independent nation-states around the turn of the 20th century, the serial issue of literature became steadily less prevalent and influential. During the colonial era itself, with the local book industry still in its infancy, periodical publishers assumed a crucial role in the distribution of literary material and the formation of cultural identity. Trends already apparent in the metropolitan print market in the later 19th century were thus found in even more marked form at the Australasian periphery. Though prose fiction was by no means the only literary genre to be issued in installments, novels and short stories dominated to an overwhelming extent. And, while monthly literary magazines also had a significant qualitative role to pay, general weekly newspapers (or, more accurately, “news miscellanies”) were quantitatively the much more important venue in terms of both supply and readership. It is necessary to distinguish three major sources of provision, each constrained by distinct business practices and intellectual property regimes:
(A) metropolitan fiction, initially supplied through informal “borrowing” from British periodicals, but later distributed in broadcast fashion by British syndication bureaus like Tillotson’s of Bolton, supported locally by agents such as Gordon & Gotch in Melbourne;
(B) colonial fiction of local color by local authors, often for little remuneration, and typically flagged by phrases such as “specially written” for the local press; and
(C) other peripheral fiction, including from the British provinces, from other British colonies, and, last but not least, because of the lack of international copyright protection, from America (with New York story papers such as Robert Bonner’s Ledger or Street & Smith’s Weekly common sources).
All three types represented important influences in the process of negotiating community affiliation during the lengthy transition from colony to nation, but, though the first was undoubtedly most pervasive, in literary terms at least the second was by far the most valuable. The historical details concerning the cultural role of the press indeed serve to cast doubt on the more generic theorization concerning center/periphery relations found in the work of scholars advocating a “world literature” approach, who tend to focus exclusively on the market for books. To sum up in the words of Clara Cheeseman (1852–1943), a New Zealand serial novelist of the final decades of the 19th century whose fiction was exceptional in finding an outlet among the London publishers: “It is to the old newspapers that we must go if we want to see the beginning of colonial fiction . . . there are in the dusty files of these [the Australasian and the Sydney Mail] and other journals many stories of colonial life which have never struggled out of the papers into book form” (“Colonials in Fiction,” NZ Illustrated Magazine 7 (1903): 273–282, here 274). As early 21st-century research in this field attests, with the long-term commitment of both governments to making their press heritages digitally accessible via the “Trove” and “Papers Past” websites of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, respectively, this task has now become a good deal less formidable.