Their Brilliant Careers


In her foreword to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers, Anne Zoellner praises O’Neill’s ‘skill and empathy’ in rendering pen-portraits of ‘famous, infamous and forgotten’ Australian writers.

We are used to sporting stars speaking of themselves in the third person, but rarely do they get to invent a critic speaking on their behalf.  

The condensed lives O’Neill recalls in these sixteen ‘biographies’ of invented Australian writers follows various literary traditions, including Nabokov’s playfulness -- Shannon Burn's suggests Pale Fire (1962) in her Sydney Review of Books article. Personally I remembered John Clarke. I’ve read a few of Clarke's pastiche-poems at some point – his website certainly suggests that they once existed:

‘For many years it was assumed that poetry came from England. Research now clearly demonstrates, however, that a great many of the world’s most famous poets were Australian. This project puts on record the wealth of imagery in Australian verse.’

The same self-deprecating humour fires a number of O’Neill’s figures of fun, who write works of fiction mistaken in some parts of the world as plagiarised copies of Australian works of genius. Nabokov, too, makes an appearance as a friend of Peter Darkbloom – a talented writer whose work is re-written by his wife Vivian Darkbloom for her own egotistical purposes.

Various charlatans emerge in the pages of O’Neill’s works – cheats, plagiarists, self-servers and egomaniacs. There are writers made famous by blackmailing editors, and editors who cut books in half because they can. Just how far O’Neill takes all this is seen in his appropriation of the real hoax of the 1940s Ern Malley Affair, which becomes a prank emerging from another (made up!) Australian hoax, the Chapman Affair, ‘fictionalised … in Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (2003)’ (229).

I was heartened by the publication of Their Brilliant Careers by Black Inc, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award (“Australia’s Booker”) and which won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It is a high quality work – frequently hilarious – but still fortunate even with the timing of prime ministers. I can’t help feeling the PMs either-side may have torpedoed the choice, if they had any influence at all – which I don’t suppose they do. They would in O'Neill's world. 
The success of Their Brilliant Careers demonstrates the existence of a reading public that other publishers must surely underestimate – since a wide-knowledge of both modernist literature and Australian writing is needed to “get the joke”. The lives by Ryan O'Neill are fantastic in more ways than one, but so is the engagement of the local readership.

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